God’s more than a watchmaker

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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.

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Categories: Europe, UK

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