Sunday, 4 February 2018

Five Proofs Amazon Review

Here follows a review of Five Proofs which I recently posted to It was written with a more general audience in mind but still represents a fair summary of my thoughts regarding the book's vices and virtues. Although I shall discuss many of the issues raised within (Thomism is all pervasive) my ongoing critique of the book will conclude with the third installment, an analysis of his presentation of the argument from eternal truths ('the Augustinian Proof').

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.


  1. Do you think the case presented, taken together, is sufficient to justify theism? Or does it fall short, owing to concerns with the cogency of the individual arguments?

  2. Yes, I do (though with the caveat that the arguments give one a far strong epistemic warrant for the existence of a necessary being with certain powers compatible with theism, as opposed to theism proper).

  3. That's a very strong caveat though. It seems open to the atheist to say that establishing the existence of a necessary being is necessary for, but not sufficient to, justify theism (here, I recall Rowe's comments about the cosmological argument generally proceeding in two stages, with the second stage critical to justifying theism. You hint at this in your critique of the rationalist proof.) Alternatively, I suppose if one defined "God" in a very limited way, solely as "necessary being", the argument would straightforwardly lend support to theism, but it would correspondingly be a limited form of theism. Personally, I'm suspicious of any such move since it seems to verge on simply begging the question, and I don't think any theist should be satisfied with such an outcome.

    1. As is often the case in debates on this issue, it seems to boil down to what one is prepared to accept as "God". If necessity is the only requirement, then there are many more theists out there, but their theism is fairly limited, possibly pantheistic even. If one conjoins a more orthodox concept of "God" to necessity, then we get closer to something that is more recognisable as theism proper. That, in my mind, is the challenge for natural theology going forward (I've read a little bit of Rutten's work; from recollection, he recognises that *this* is where "the work" needs to be done).

  4. Strictly speaking I would say 'omnipotent necessary being' equates with 'being with some divine attributes'. If one takes God to mean Maximally Great Being in Plantinga's sense then the arguments are less strong (then again I do think that if one accepts the lemma Feser does not appeal to block modal collapse, that is about libertarian free choice being self-explanatory, then one gets something a lot closer to God, that is an omnipotent necessary agent with a good claim to being omniscient too).

    I was trying though in that review to focus on the arguments as Feser presents them, rather than as steelmen, partly because I know he would dislike some of the points I'd appeal to. I do think the other arguments, with the exception of the Thomistic Proof, are defensible, maybe even sucessful, but lack the strong justification of the PSR argument or end up depending on it.

    Part of the Gap Problem issue though is solely down to Feser assuming very specific Thomistic ontological premises at the beginning and not spending as much time as he perhaps ought trying to derive attributes from the specific arguments themselves.

  5. That seems fair, given that any good review will focus on what the author has presented, as opposed to the million other things that a given reader thinks the author should have presented.

    I think that Feser may dislike the move you appeal to in the critique of the rationalist proof because it seems to lean heavily on ideas central to Gale and Pruss' cosmological argument, which relies on a weak PSR and, as you note, Feser is interested in defending the stronger version. He may also be aware of the objections made against it, some of which are covered in Rutten (2012). Whether the objections hold or not is another matter, of course. Rutten seems to think that at least some stick. I can't make out what Feser thinks in this regard.

  6. Daniel Corrick9 April 2018 at 19:07

    The libertarian free choices as self-explaintory does not depend on the Gale-Pruss formulation of the PSR though (I think it predates it for both parties). In Nature and Existence Gale raises in the context of general PSR forumulations, and Pruss discusses it in his book which I took to be arguing for as strong a PSR as possible.

    Rutten’s most interesting objection is that it might commit one to Molinism but this just seems a general contention about reconciling libertarian free will and God’s creating/actualising a given world where creatures act freely. My suspicion is that Feser’s avoidance comes from the uncertainty of reconciling the Thomist view of Free Will with libertarianism.

    1. What do you think about the possibility (discussed here, for example: about there potentially being a broadly naturalistic parallel to the libertarian free choices move in the form of, say, indeterministic quantum phenomena?