Edward Feser presents a crisp and highly readable summary of several arguments for God’s existence. The author’s goal is to present in-depth but accessible summaries of several arguments for God’s existence, followed by an account of the divine attributes and a general defence of natural theology. At the former task he excels and at the latter he fails badly. Those who are familiar with basic philosophy of religion material or have read Feser’s other works should skip the closing section.
The five arguments are presented in step by step form accompanied by a discussion and an overview of various objections. Only a basic philosophical vocabulary is required, as Feser explains most of the technical concepts he appeals to in the course of the discussion (the capacity to introduce arguments whilst at the same time familiarising readers with the wider philosophical apparatus behind them is one of Feser’s great strengths and has been evident since his first published book). Both casual and technical readers will benefit greatly from the detailed schematic presentations of each argument.
A full discussion of the arguments themselves would require more space than this review will allow. (Check out our website for detailed essays on some of them). Arguments One, Four and Five are broadly classifiable as cosmological arguments (arguably the first two depend on, though are not necessarily reducible to, the third). The Rationalist proof, the cosmological argument from the principle of sufficient reason, is probably the most powerful argument for the existence of God and raises a whole host of questions about rationality, explanation and freedom. Feser brings home the devastating cost of rejecting the argument’s core premise, the principle of sufficient reason itself, and deftly disarms a number of criticisms aimed at it, but spends little to no time on the concomitant issues of determinism and free will. The others, the Aristotelian and Thomistic proofs, are variants on Thomas Aquinas' First and Second Ways respectively. The discussion here makes a nice but not necessary supplement to Feser’s presentation of them in his Oneworld introduction to Aquinas and in his lectures e.g. An Aristotelian Proof of God’s Existence (available from his website).
The other two arguments are the book’s main selling point, so much so that it will become the main point of reference for those interested in such topics. The Augustinian proof, the claim that eternal truths and Platonic ideas require an eternal divine mind to contemplate them, is an argument often gestured to but very rarely worked out in any great depth. Feser’s discussion of it is clear and rewarding, though spends perhaps slightly too much time looking at arguments for universals in general instead of the specific accounts the argument requires. The objections he discusses are specific variants of more general problems raised by Brian Leftow and Patrick Grimm. The Neo-Platonic proof is an ingenious attempt to reason from facts about mereological and ontological composition to the existence of a completely simple being. Although such arguments were prominent in late pagan and classic Islamic theology, they are virtually unknown in modern debates.
Unfortunately, the overall discussion of the arguments is vitiated by Feser’s methodological approach to ontology. The way the book is structured means that each proof leans heavily on highly specific metaphysical premises set out in the section on the Aristotelian proof and thus are not really separate proofs in themselves. This is most noticeable in discussion of how each argument leads to a being having all the attributes we normally associate with God. This is a shame as Feser freely claims that the other four arguments have been formulated and championed by philosophers who do not share his Thomistic background. He also has an unfortunate and probably unintentional tendency for bait and switch manoeuvres such as presenting a common-sense argument for a certain conclusion (for instance the existence of irreducible dispositional properties) then conflating it with a very specific account (going with our earlier example the Thomistic Aristotelian account of pure actuality and prime matter). All in all it would be better if he did not rely so heavily on this account or at least devoted more time to deriving attributes from the reasoning central to the argument in question itself.
Finally the last two sections are of uneven quality compared with the rest of the book. The first, an account of the Divine Attributes, is a mixed bag. There are some gems here, for instance his coverage of the privation account of evil and of the problem of the best possible world, the latter of which one of the best scholastic discussions of the subject (Feser should devote his talents to writing a full length work on such subjects). On the other hand long term readers of Feser will be familiar with much of the material either from previous published works or copious blog entries. Finally the section on the analogical theory of divine predication and its importance makes priority claims which, if true, has truly devastating consequences for natural theology. I make no judgements on that theory itself (modern Analytical philosophy has after all come round to the idea that one can truly predicate something of two different entities without allocating them a common property) but if the very prospect of theistic metaphysics or religious language depends on a vague and highly controversial theory of language then theism’s epistemic credibility takes a severe blow. Ironically Thomas threatens to plunge us back into bad old days of Logical Positivism and Plain Language.
The closing section ‘Common Objections to Natural Theology’ is totally redundant. The positions refuted therein are either outdated or so bad as to be living strawmen. No minimally informed intellectually honest atheist, let alone an atheist philosopher of religion, would bother with them (at least in those forms). One wonders why Feser bothered discussing them in the first place. Had he taken on serious objections put forward by atheist philosophers he admires e.g. Graham Oppy or Richard Gale, then the section would have been of real value. As it stands response to serious atheist criticism is found only in discussion of potential objections to each purported proof and noticeably not here.
To conclude: although it presents accessible and well-worked out accounts of neglected arguments for theism, one is left with the impression that Five Proofs could have been a much better book had Feser taken more time to produce detailed original material.