Five Proofs of the existence of God by Feser: Book Review

I must say that I quite enjoyed “Five Proofs of the existence of God”. The book is not too long, but it’s not too short either. Feser himself can be quite clear in his writing, especially considering he is dealing with complex language and metaphysics.

Even though I still have serious doubts about these arguments, Feser does a great job responding to a multitude of misunderstandings and bad objections to the arguments. With the arguments themselves, Feser is pretty clear about what is (and is not) being said. In addition, I liked how he also had a section with each argument where he would lay out the argument in a formal way.

Given that these arguments have been so misunderstood, I am hoping that this book reinvigorates discussion about said arguments between professional philosophers and laypeople alike, especially since I think Feser didn’t address some of the strongest objections to his arguments. Or, maybe these arguments are just re-interpretations of what Feser thinks certain thinkers have claimed. Perhaps, these arguments are in fact, at least, somewhat new arguments for God’s existence (though not totally original arguments).

If I had one criticism that specifically stands out, it would be Feser’s response to Schellenberg’s hiddenness argument, which was in the chapter dealing with objections to natural theology. Feser appeals to the “greater goods” defense but ignores Schellenberg’s replies to it. Moreover, since Feser doesn’t buy any of the deductive arguments against God’s existence, then what makes Feser so sure his arguments for God’s existence work in a deductive form? Interesting enough, Feser responds to the argument from in both the deductive and inductive forms, but he only addresses the hiddenness argument in the logical form.  Even after reading this book, I’m still not sure deductive arguments are the way to go when discussing God’s existence/non-existence. I think probabilistic arguments are more promising (and it’s not like all of the premises in Feser’s argument(s) are known with certainty, so we are still dealing with probabilities).

I’m glad that Feser took time to respond to some arguments against God’s existence. However, he didn’t respond to some of them that are really important. For example, he didn’t respond to certain conceptual proofs. He also didn’t respond to some arguments of the “evidential” variety like atheistic teleological arguments, atheistic moral arguments, atheistic cosmological arguments, etc. Also, one can construe these in a deductive or inductive form.

Now, let’s get into Feser’s arguments for God’s existence.

1. I have issues with Feser’s first argument: the argument from change. There are different accounts of change, and Ed seems to only deal with one account; I never get the sense that he actually argues this his account of change is the correct one. Why think change is the actualization of a potential? Why can’t we subscribe to another account, besides Aristotle’s account? Are those other accounts somehow (strictly) logically impossible? Of course not! Feser is confident in his view, but a portion of the best objections to his view(s) come from Ancient and Medieval philosophers.

Secondly, if naturalism is true, there is nothing to cause a hierarchical series to pass out of existence. If theism is true, God can easily stop sustaining any such series at any moment (and why can’t God create a series that is self-sustaining? By Feser’s logic, this is somehow logically impossible. How?!). At the same time, I’m sure Feser will respond by saying that his argument is deductive, but is he thereby conceding that naturalism predicts what we see and theism doesn’t? If a certain deductive argument for God really is sound, then why can’t Feser then say God predicts the data? Why couldn’t Feser turn his deductive argument into an inductive argument? (Just because an argument is deductive, that doesn’t mean one’s confidence level in the conclusion is 100% if they accept the argument as sound)
One might object that it’s not clear whether naturalism predicts that there are such things as a hierarchical series. If naturalism predicts that there are is such a series, then the proponent of the argument from change needs to give us some reason to think that such a type of series really does exist, and what is it about theism that predicts change?

Even if there really is such a series (and we buy into the metaphysical paradigm), why can’t the existence of it just be a brute fact? If we think about such a series (or vertical causation), why can’t the deepest levels of reality “just be that way”? Feser acknowledges this and endorses the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). The problem with this move is that the argument from change starts to now look like the argument from contingency.  Swinburne says that it seems perfectly coherent (strictly logically possible) to suppose a universe with the features involved in theistic arguments (e.g. motion, efficient causality, contingency etc.), but God doesn’t exist. The immediate objection will be an appeal to the PSR; however, Swinburne says that such a universe existing as a brute fact is strictly logically possible. Are we somehow uttering a contradiction if we reject the PSR?

Feser also makes the bold claim that his argument even works for a B-theory of time. However, according to The Thinker, ” A static, eternal universe, is in some sense, the ultimate brute fact. And if you try to appeal to some kind of top-down, timeless ‘vertical cause’ you make the universe as necessary as its ’cause’ because it could not have been any other way. It makes the idea that god could have chosen not to create our universe impossible because god and our universe would eternally coexist like a pair of conjoined twins. And that begs the question of why this god and this universe (and not any other universe, or no universe) co-exist for eternity”.

Also, Feser wanting to apply the argument to a block universe changes the argument from an argument having to do with experience to an argument that is more speculative and a priori in nature.

Lastly, one can take the argument from change (and contingency) and flip it on its head. The idea would be that all essentially ordered series (hierarchical series) that exist plausibly have a material sustaining cause. But the argument from change and classical theism assert that God is upholding each essentially ordered series ex nihilo; however, creation or sustaining something out of nothing is not possible (or, it’s not clear that this is metaphysically possible). If a Thomist somehow wants to say that there is a material sustaining cause in each series, then there’s no need to include or conclude with God.

2. Similiar points can be raised against Feser’s fifth argument: the argument from contingency. If naturalism is true, then, of course, we have something that is contingent. If theism is true, there didn’t need to be anything contingent. In addition, the fact that the cosmos is physical is not the least bit surprising on naturalism. However, on theism, God could have made everything to be supernatural. It’s also not clear whether Feser is endorsing a stronger version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) or weaker version. If he is endorsing a strong version of the PSR, then that is subject to serious objections. If instead, he is endorsing a weaker version, we will ask what reasons we have to think such a principle is true.

If someone is going to say that the sum of contingent things as a whole requires a sustaining cause, this is not obvious. It also seems to go against experience where there are some things that don’t appear to require a sustaining cause.

Saying that God is metaphysically necessary is problematic. There is an ongoing debate  in philosophy about whether the whole notion of metaphysical necessity collapses into logical necessity. If that is the case, Feser’s contingency argument will not go through. Feser admits that God does not exist out of logical necessity. Hence, Feser needs to weigh the plausibility of those arguments against his argument from contingency.

Specifically, Feser needs to consider the principle of material causality. PMC: All concrete things that have a sustaining/originating cause have a material cause of their existence. 

3. I think Feser’s third argument is the most problematic, which Feser seems to grant. The third argument has to do with Augustine and universals/abstract objects. The main reason why the argument is so problematic is that it gets into a huge debate about Platonism, Aristotelian realism, Scholastic realism, Nominalism, etc. I couldn’t help but notice that Feser didn’t address some of the strongest arguments for Platonism, nor did he address some of the strongest arguments against Scholastic realism.

4. Feser’s fourth argument also relies on a controversial notion of a distinction between existence and essence. It’s not just that there are strong arguments against such a distinction, but it’s also the case that the argument for a distinction are inconclusive at best. Skeptics will wonder whether essentialism is really a debate worth getting into when discussing God’s existence. It’s not entirely clear what need we have for essentialism.

5. Finally, Feser’s argument from things being composite is influenced by Plotinus. Feser wants to conclude that the Being in question is the God of classical theism. However, Plotinus disagreed; Plotinus thought that “The One” was not a creator God. In fact, he thought The One couldn’t possibly be a creator God. In addition, the sort of hylomorphism involved in the argument is far from being obviously true. It’s not clear that we need the theory to explain anything; there are also philosophical arguments against the theory. Moreover, there are other metaphysical accounts that conflict with hylomorphism that aren’t obviously false (and are argued for).

Overall, Feser seems to just overwhelmingly overstate his case. He claims to have demonstrated that classical theism is true with certainty, and he claims that all the arguments against God’s existence are utter failures. When Feser argues that the God of classical theism is the conclusion of all the arguments, he doesn’t bring up objections to those sub-arguments. In other words, Feser thinks it somehow obvious that we can get to God from his arguments. However, philosophers have been quite suspicious of this move. In fact, this problem is known as “The Gap Problem”; concluding to classical theism based on very controversial metaphysical assumptions is not a step forward. Not to mention, deductive arguments for an Omni-max God tend to commit ridiculous fallacies of equivocation.

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11 thoughts on “Five Proofs of the existence of God by Feser: Book Review

  1. A thoughtful review, thanks for posting it! I’m writing something on Feser’s books at the moment myself, I hope you wouldn’t mind if I were to cite this review once I published it? You’ve certainly given me some food for thought, particularly in regards to the essence/existence distinction. Thanks again!

  2. I really wonder why such books exist. Is there a guaranteed sales rate from Christian looking for confirmations of their biases? Who is the audience for this book. I can imagine it is for the philosophy community. Is the author trying to establish his credentials as an apologist?

    I have yet to see a logical/philosophical argument for the existence of a god or gods that I could reframe to prove the exact opposite. They are, after all just arguments and usually they have a premise or two snuck in which provides a lock for their proof. Adjust the premise to be more realistic and Presto Chango! and the argument is the reverse.

    A philosophical argument/proof is just not reasonable.

  3. This, from your reply to Steve Ruis above, “. . .If the hypothesis of theism is true, we should see X.” YES! Since I espouse the scientific principle, I need to see the “X.” I’m sorry. I have no patience and that I am unable to wade through all the philosophical discussion waiting endlessly for the X. You and Steve seem to be devoted to the philosophical discussion about the existence of God. However, in all your studies of this topic, has anyone ever been able to present a valid “X-proof?” Thanks for signing up for my blog, but I fear you may not find the level of philosophical discussion you are presenting here. I wish you both well. I’m simply a Secular Humanist with a bent sense of humor. Cheers.

      1. There is plenty of evidence out there in the universe but the scientist would imply that an ad infinitum created by the existence of God (Who created God?) breaks all logic therefore it cannot be true, the Fine Tuning is a great argument which I personally drive with philosophical bases, not a single belief, I do not believe in the bible, paper written by men and followed by men, does not fit, Not good evidence for any skeptic. In this theory though, evidence of intelligent design can be seen but it does not prove if God is still out there, nonetheless it shows that God was there. To think that God is still out there watching us closely, living a life of probation or so, is when faith begins.

  4. It’s difficult to prove philosophically that God exists. The existence of God lies in personal faith. Yes, you have done a lot of justice in this article, Anand Bose from Kerala

  5. Jon Paul Siskey Jr.

    I’ve yet to read the book, but I do know that Feser does offer arguments in support of the real distinction between being and essence, the account of change as actualization of a potential, the PSR, and existential inertia (the issue of whether or not the universe needs to be conserved in being by God at every moment); it’s just that he’s defended those theses in different essays and blog posts; why it is he wouldn’t include them in the book is puzzling.

    That, and as I’ve said to you in a Facebook messenger exchange, I’m not sure the problem of divine hiddenness has much purchase on classical theism proper, only to particular sorts of Gods (such as Gods of revealed religion).

    All the best, buddy; your blog is awesome!

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      I’ve always found the notion of existential inertia to be implausible, and I’m not exactly sure why. Even as a teenager I was like, “What?”

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