A Review of ‘The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis of Natural Law Theory’

I’ve been critical of Edward Feser and his sycophants a lot in the past (for good reasons).

While I’ve been too lazy to write a book on Edward Feser’s philosophy, others were kind enough to do so, like Gunther Laird. Laird brilliantly and humorously demonstrates that, contrary to what Feser and his followers claim, natural law theory and Thomism are not the best things besides sliced-bread. More specifically, Laird shows that natural law ethics is more flimsy than a glass house. My prediction is that Feser-bots will claim that Laird doesn’t under Aquinas or Aristotle. On the contrary, it’s Feser and his followers themselves who don’t understand that tension between Aristotle and Aquinas, as Laird illustrates in his book.

For example, with regard to ethics, Laird puts Feser in (what I see as a) a corner: accept gay marriage as permissible/deny that gay marriage is permissible, and/or admit that one can use natural law ethics to argue that gay marriage is permissible. Laird doesn’t say this in so many words, but he does argue that one can use natural law ethics to argue for gay marriage being morally permissible, even though Feser thinks gay marriage is not permissible and supports the view with natural law ethics. Laird has demonstrated that there is something wrong with natural law ethics because it leads to contradictory conclusions, and there is something wrong with natural law ethics even if we can’t point out exactly what is wrong with it (e.g. see ontological argument).

As a sneak peak on the matter, Laird says:

Since the existence of homosexuals as a distinct
category with its own Form is not an obvious logical contradiction, there
is no reason same-sex marriage would be either. If Feser wishes to insist
that the word “marriage” can only refer to heterosexual procreative
bonds, fine. He can call gay marriages “civil unions” if he likes. But
whatever his choice may be, he is merely using different words for two
different actual existing things, like different words describe four-sided
polygons and three-sided ones. It therefore seems as silly to call samesex unions “metaphysical absurdities” as it would be to put triangles at
the same level of metaphysical absurdity as “round squares.”


Perhaps Feser could try and argue that while same sex marriage isn’t logically impossible, it is somehow metaphysically impossible. The problem with that route is that there’s no clear consensus in Philosophy for determining whether something is metaphysically possible or impossible, nor is there a consensus on whether metaphysically possibility is useful/real; it would be like appealing to dark matter to explain why I’m writing this blog post.

As with many elements of Thomistic philosophy/metaphysics, Laird cites me as critiquing Feser’s account of change as unconvincing because there are many other accounts of change. The point is that Feser’s argument is manifestly unconvincing until he demonstrates what, if anything, is wrong with those other accounts of change. Even if Feser’s account of change is plausible, that wouldn’t show that there is anything implausible with other account, and the burden of proof is on Feser because these assumptions are part of his arguments for the existence of God. It’s hard to see how anyone, besides Catholics, would look at Thomism and say “Yeah, that’s some airtight metaphysics. Sign me up!” Give me a break.

Laird points out an (unintentional?) double standard in Feser. Feser raves constantly about how is arguments for a generic God are deductive arguments, but then Feser goes on to endorse inductive arguments for Christianity. And, as Laird also points out, establishing Christianity as probable (which nobody but Swinburne has attempted to argue) would not show Feser’s Catholicism to be true. With regards to Feser giving deductive arguments for a generic God, he would be better off just giving independent inductive arguments and forming a cumulative case for God. If theism (hypothesis) is true, then what pieces of data should we expect to see in the world? Next, look at the world and see whether theism (hypothesis) is confirmed or disconfirmed—it’s called science.

Next, Laird talks about Fesers’ view of contraception. In case you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the Catholic Church is against contraception. Laird talks about how Feser humorously thinks Feser’s conclusions about sexual morality are “blindingly obvious”. What’s’ funny about that is that I would accuse Feser’s conclusions as a reductio ad absurdum of his reasoning. If one thinks there’s something wrong with contraception, then they’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere in their reasoning.

Laird also discusses Feser’s failed response to the problem of evil. Feser appeals to greater goods for why God allows evil. But Laird points out that God could have created beings in a perfect environment. And as Schellenberg argues, horrific suffering is not necessary for our deepest good as finite creatures, so an empathetic God would not be moved by the existence of unknown greater goods (even if they did exist); that’s because of how awful horrors are (1).

Finally, Laird concludes with a plausible account of ‘atheistic atomism’ that can be utilized as an alternative to Feser’s God. When all is said and done, natural law “theory” is at best superfluous. Overall, the book is quite enjoyable and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the works of Edward Feser or Thomism/Aristotelianism generally (2) (3).


Notes
(1) Michael Tooley also gives a deductive argument from evil (and an inductive argument) for why appealing to mysterious reasons-‘skeptical theism’-won’t work.
(2) Interestingly, there seem to be multiple versions of Thomism. Not all Thomists agree with Feser’s interpretation of Aquinas’ arguments for God or other views held by Feser on Aquinas.
(3) LAIRD, GUNTHER. UNNECESSARY SCIENCE: a Critical Analysis of Natural Law Theory. ONUS BOOKS, 2020.

5 thoughts on “A Review of ‘The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis of Natural Law Theory’

  1. I am baffled by arguments against contraception. It is one form of preventative medicine, like taking Vit C to prevent colds or aspirin to prevent second heart attacks. How could any argument against contraception not apply to all other forms of preventative medicine (including working out to remain fit as a hold off of aging and disease)? If one does, do they not fall immediately into a special pleading category? Why is it moral to take antibiotics to kill off disease bacteria but not abortifacients to kill off fetuses?

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

      But seriously, it’s bad when even evangelicals are like “Catholics have an insane view of contraception”

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