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Taking Feser to Task on Human Intellect

Taking Feser to Task on Human Intellect May 31, 2021

Here is a guest post from author Gunther Laird, who takes aim at Edward Feser and his Thomistic philosophy. Please grab Laird’s excellent book that takes Feser head on. In the meantime:

The fact that so many intellectuals don’t share their peculiar ideas has been a thorn in the side of Thomists ever Catholicism fell out of vogue amongst the intelligentsia—so probably around the time of the Protestant Reformation, at the very least. The reason this poses such a problem for them is due to one of their more peculiar ideas—that man is created in the image of God by virtue of his intelligence, or “rational nature” above all else—his ability to understand and consciously act on Forms and Final Causes (re-read some of the previous entries I’ve written for ATP, particularly “Actuality, Abortion, and the SCOTUS”, to understand what those things are and why they’re significant). Feser himself neatly lays out the nature of this paradox in a recent blog entry of his, “Intellectuals in Hell”:

You might at first think, then, that intellectuals in the modern sense of the term would be the most Godlike of human beings, and the most likely to achieve salvation.  Not so.  Indeed, if anything, scripture (with which, naturally, Aquinas agrees) implies the opposite…“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart” (1 Corinthians 1:19, 27)

Does this indicate that the Bible, and by extension Aquinas, might possibly have been wrong? Not at all, says Feser, and he explains to us benighted masses how people who apparently possess the most Godly attribute (intelligence) so often fall away from God. It’s all in the Will, you see:

…like everything else in nature, the intellect and will have final causes that determine what makes for a good or bad specimen of the kind.  The intellect is naturally directed toward knowledge of truth, and the will is naturally directed toward pursuit of what is good.  But truths and goods are hierarchical, with some more important than others.  A good intellect is one focused on the highest of truths and a good will is one set on the highest of goods.  Naturally, then, an intellect is deficient to the extent that it is in error or its attention is distracted by lesser truths, and a will is deficient to the extent that it fails to pursue what is good or aims at what is in fact evil…to the extent that an intellect or will is directed away from the true or the good, and especially to the extent that they are directed away from God, they are corrupt and directed away from salvation.

But how could that happen in an intellect that is powerful?  How could it fall into such grave error?  The fundamental way it can happen is if the will is misdirected.  For when that occurs, an intellect is less likely to arrive at truth, and likely instead to seek out rationalizations for the evil it has fallen in love with.  This is one reason why intellectuals may actually be more likely to be damned than less intelligent people.  Having more powerful intellects, they are better able to spin clever sophistries by which they can blind themselves to the truth. [Emphasis added]

Demonstrating things like God’s existence or the natural law foundations of traditional morality is not, after all, that hard.

This is all well and good at first glance, though if I dare say so myself, my own book has proven it’s far from easy to demonstrate God’s existence even if you accept Feser’s Platonic premises. But there’s a bit of trouble when you look closely at two of his assertions, which I’ll lay out as I understand them: A, that the intellect is or ought to be focused on the “higher” goods, with the highest being God, and B, the implication that Thomists (and Platonists generally) like Feser are any less inclined to spin self-serving sophistries.

Pages 235-236 of my book, The Unnecessary Science [UK], provide a good critical analysis of Feser’s assertion A. I’ll just repeat what I said there:

…if one accepts that the body parts/behaviors/etc. of organisms have functions, it’s not hard to tell what those are. The fangs of a spider have the purpose, or telos, of piercing prey and injecting venom. The sharp teeth of squirrels, on the other hand, have the telos of cracking open nuts and acorns. This is so the organism survives, I think Feser would agree with this.

So when we look at human beings, we notice something interesting. Humans don’t have many natural weapons of our own. Our teeth are relatively harmless, they can’t inject poison like a spider’s or crack open tough matter like a squirrel’s. We don’t have any other weapons, like fangs or claws or anything else that wolves or lions or whatever possess. The only thing we do have is our minds, or more specifically, our capacity to comprehend Forms (again, assuming Feser’s theory is correct). Understanding the Form of Fire helped us cook food, understanding the Form of Triangularity helped us make better arrowheads to hunt prey, and so on, and so forth. So it seems our rationality is equivalent to a spider’s fangs or a squirrel’s incisors–the weapon we use for our survival.

But that implies the telos of our rationality is to help us survive, not to seek truth for its own sake. A spider’s fangs are made for envenomating, but venomation isn’t a goal in and of itself, the process of poisoning prey is to help the spider eat and survive. A squrrel’s incisors are made for cracking open nuts, but it doesn’t crack open nuts and acorns for the sake of it, that’s not a good in and of itself. It’s that cracking open nuts helps the squirrel eat and thus survive. So, by the same token, the human rational faculties have the telos of gaining truth, but only to help us survive. There’s nothing beyond that, there’s nothing inherently “better” about “understanding deeper truths,” just as there’s nothing inherently “better” about a spider producing stronger poison or a squirrel biting through harder material–all that matters is whether or not it helps those organisms survive.

Good for us—but you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned God once. It seems, taking an evolutionary view of our “Nature” as “rational animals,” that rationality itself is, first and foremost, a tool we used to survive. Perhaps it’s a good thing that we can comprehend God exists, but if so, that would be merely an “accidental characteristic”—the actual end, or “final cause” of our rationality is to help us survive, reproduce, and keep our children fed. And we arrive at this distinctly un-Feserian conclusion by relying entirely on his own metaphysical methodology. Again, a spider’s fangs have the function of killing prey—that is its immediate final cause. But its true final cause, the sake for which it exists at all, is to kill prey so it can be digested and help the spider survive and reproduce. A squirrel buries nuts—that is the immediate final cause of its instincts. But the true final cause of its behavior is to store food so it can survive winter. And human beings are the same way. Our minds are capable of grasping truth because we lack fangs or claws and needed something else to help us survive, and an intellect that could grasp, say, triangularity or predictable animal behavior would allow us to create pointy arrows and spears and hunt dangerous animals better. From this perspective, then, the final cause of our intellect is not necessarily to know God, but to know just enough to ensure our survival and propagation.

In other words, even if we accept the mind is “directed towards” truth (because otherwise there’s no way we could assume anything we perceive or believe is actually true), nothing about that entails it’s “directed towards” specifically “the highest of truths.” Even if we assume God exists, that wouldn’t entail He wants us to know about Him or that we’re under any obligation to know about Him—Feser admits as much in Five Proof, where he states “Aristotle famously thought that the divine Unmoved Mover of the world contemplated himself eternally, but took no cognizance of us.” (300). And under this light, the tendency of the moderns to disregard “higher truths” in favor of empiricism actually fulfills their “telos” even if they themselves might deny teleology. In The Last Superstition, page 175, Feser laments that “the moderns…sought to reorient intellectual endeavor to improving man’s lot in this life, and to defusing post-Reformation religious tensions.” If, as I argued above, the telos of our intellect is to find truth that helps us survive and reproduce rather than find truth for the sake of truth, then modern intellectuals fulfill that telos better than teleological Thomists or Platonists, who waste more time contemplating “higher” rather than practical truths. Now, Feser might argue that modern intellectuals don’t help much when it comes to reproduction, unlike Catholics with tons and tons of children (page 174 of TLS), but remember that survival counts for something as well. A “degenerate” modern intellectual with 1 or 2 kids, both of whom survive to adulthood, is not much worse off than a “traditional” peasant with 6 kids, 4 or 5 of whom have died of smallpox and/or getting caught up in something like, say, the Thirty Years War.

(As an aside, a critical reader, Verbose Stoic, has responded to this point with the claim that an organism’s individual faculties can be “co-opted” by evolution, and that those faculties still have their own ends regardless of survival, meaning the purpose of our minds is to seek truth and it just happens that helps for survival. My response is that even in this loose sense, Verbose Stoic is still equivocating between ‘truth’ in general and ‘higher truths’ in particular. He and Feser would have to prove that the human mind is specifically directed towards the latter rather than a different subset of the former like ‘useful truths’ or ‘practical knowledge,’ and so far as I know neither have done that)

So much for Feser’s assertion A. What about B, that intellectuals don’t reject God because atheism itself is a mark of intelligence, but rather than intelligent people are better able to construct elaborate, convincing, but ultimately hollow rationalizations for their corrupted will?

One wonders if a similar accusation could be leveled against philosophers of Feser’s bent, which he labels “ur-Platonists.” He says in his blog post,

Powerful intellects are much less likely to become corrupted to the extent that their view of things falls within what is sometimes called the Ur-Platonist family of philosophical positions.  And they are very likely to become corrupted to the extent that they depart from this family – say, by being drawn to materialism, or mechanism, or nominalism, or relativism, or skepticism” and in the *other* linked post explains why “Ur-Platonism” is supposedly so great. Now, I’m not an expert on Plato, so I can’t say whether or not Feser is misrepresenting the man here. But his defense of what he claims to be the Platonic Tradition against (what he also claims to be) its modern opponents is this:

“What is difficult is cutting through the enormous tangle of sophistries by which modern thinkers have obscured our view of what was clear enough to intellects like those of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and the like.  You have to deny vast swaths of common sense (concerning matters like causality and teleology, for example) in order to get skepticism about these things off the ground.  Less intelligent and well-educated people find it harder to do that, which is why they are less likely to reject traditional morality and religion.  It takes a high degree of intelligence to develop narratives and theories that not only defy common sense, but make it seem reasonable to do so.

Ah, the old chestnut of common sense—isn’t it curious that it always seems to be rarest among the opponents of whoever’s claiming to be its champion. But even if modern thinkers are sophists cooking up rationalizations for their supposed sins, does that mean Platonists—going all the way back not only from Feser to Aquinas but to Aristotle and Plato himself—are necessarily honest purveyors of wisdom? Not at all. In fact, I very much wonder if their supposed accession to “common sense” just made it easier for them to fool common people.

Feser might be right when he says a strong intellect makes it easier to break with tradition. But a strong intellect also makes it easier to fool “traditional” people as well. Imagine a small, peaceful village that has lived the same way for thousands of years. One day a loony philosopher arrives spouting crazy theories that go against everything they’ve always believed, and insisting they all have to serve him because he’s so smart. Naturally, the villagers, not smart enough to understand his arguments, just toss him out and that’s that.

The next day, a different philosopher arrives, this time reassuring the somewhat slow-witted populace that everything they already believe is absolutely true. Things really do have Final Causes and Forms, and the benevolent Gods are watching over them. This philosopher speaks well, the people are pleased to hear their beliefs validated by a “wise man,” and they are very open to hearing more of his views. Now, this fellow claims that being such an intelligent and perceptive scholar of Common Sense, he has the right to rule the entire village as, say, a sort of chief or king—why, one might even call him a Philosopher King! The people agree, and soon enough the second philosopher becomes the absolute dictator of the little village, living in its best house and eating all of its finest food (he deserves it, as he “raised common sense to a new level”), and executing anyone who complains or even finds such a state of affairs suspicious—such people must have corrupted wills, after all.

A skeptical outsider, looking at these developments, might—just might—suspect that the second philosopher is every bit as venal and malicious as the first—it’s just that by appealing to “common sense” and established tradition rather than flouting them, it was easier for him to fleece the unfortunate commoners. And a perceptive reader might—just might—suspect that the second philosopher in this scenario sounds a lot like an “Ur-Platonist,” at least in Feser’s telling. And thus can we see the problem with Feser’s assertion B—the fact that Platonism seems at first blush to be more “common-sensical” than modern philosophy doesn’t mean it’s true, it just means it’s more appealing, and that flaws in Platonist reasoning are often harder to spot because of it.

As we have seen, the two important assertions Feser makes in his blog post are, under closer examination, controversial (in the case of the first) and can just as easily apply to his own side (in the case of the second). This might lead one to suspect that perhaps modern intellectuals just might have better reasons to reject Feser’s “traditional morality” and/or religion than he lets on. If you find yourself harboring that suspicion, then my book, The Unnecessary Science, just might be enough to prove those suspicions well-founded. I’ve already gone over length in this entry, but I describe the significant number of significant problems in Feser’s arguments for God and “traditional morality” in that monograph, and if you enjoyed this entry, you’ll love the book! Check it out here.


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