How a misapprehension of the New Atheists has been exploded.
I’ve just read a book only because it was reviewed enthusiastically by Sir Anthony Kenny, the philosopher and former Master of Balliol. What might have stopped me otherwise was the facetious abuse that often seeps out of it.
Edward Feser, in The Last Superstition (St Augustine’s Press, £17.95), intends a “refutation of the New Atheism”, chiefly by means of embracing the philosophy of Aristotle. The New Atheists group includes Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and, given their philosophical shortcomings, they can no doubt annoy a philosopher.
A piece of shortsightedness on their part is to pay attention to only one argument for the existence of God, the one which might be labelled Paley’s Watch. It is named after William Paley (1743-1805), who argued that if we find a watch on the ground we assume someone made it, so when we consider the complex entities in the world, we conclude the same.
The New Atheists excitedly point out that this is the so-called “God of the gaps” – that just because we can’t explain something we attribute it to God. They think that, instead, something like evolution explains things. But the New Atheists blunder in supposing that the Paley’s Watch argument was used by Thomas Aquinas, the great philosopher of the 13th century, in his five arguments for the existence of God.
The Fifth Way sketched by Thomas, mistakenly supposed to be the same as the Paley’s Watch argument, concerns final causality. The argument goes like this: “We see that there are things that have no knowledge, such as physical bodies, but which act for the sake of an end. But things which have no knowledge do not have a tendency to an end unless they are directed by something that does have knowledge and understanding. An example is an arrow directed by an archer. Therefore there is some being with understanding which directs all things to their end, and this, we say, is God.” Of course the scientific consensus is to ignore any such thing as final causality. To Aristotle it was obvious that a stone seeks the earth, not consciously, that’s clear, but as an end to which it tends. Modern scientists, on the whole, presume that everything is explained by efficient causality – one billiard ball bumping into another. But as Feser points out, we take for granted that things are directed to an end result: strike a match and it produces flame, never ice or the smell of lilacs.