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C.S. Morrissey – Global Theatre

It's reasonable to admit the true limits of reason

Voices Sep 1, 2017

Edward Feser’s new book, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, allows readers to revisit the places Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, and Leibniz have searched for the real key to the universe, writes C.S. Morrissey. (Courtesy Ignatius Press)

Imagine a drunk looking beneath a streetlamp for his keys. No matter how hard he looks for them there, under the light, they cannot be found.

A passerby suggests he look somewhere else. Maybe they are somewhere other than inside that small patch of light.

The response from the drunk is indignant. No, of course not! It is a waste of time to look elsewhere, he angrily insists. Obviously, this is where the light is, since everywhere else is dark! Only an idiot would choose to look beyond the street lamp.

This is a parable about science. Edward Feser includes it again in his excellent new book, Five Proofs of the Existence of God. The point of the story is to illustrate how some scientists, irrationally, do not look anywhere beyond those areas where the modern scientific method is able to shine its light.

In three of his earlier books, Aquinas, Scholastic Metaphysics, and The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, Feser also demonstrated the power of philosophy to illuminate areas beyond the reach of modern science’s method.

It is eminently reasonable to admit the limits of reason. Although human reason is a tremendous superpower, it is not omnipotent and omniscient. Reason is able to distinguish between light and dark, and to thereby know its own limits.

Yet it is also reasonable to affirm the full range of the power of reason’s light. What I love most about all of Feser’s books is how he takes his readers beyond that small patch illuminated by modern science.

Philosophical reason has capabilities that are neglected by most of today’s scientists and philosophers.

Philosophical reason has capabilities that are neglected by most of today’s scientists and philosophers. Drawing upon the philosophical tradition exemplified in Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas, it is Feser who (like that pesky passerby) reminds his drunken contemporaries that the key to understanding God is found in this grand tradition currently suffering stubborn neglect.

In his new book, Feser supplements his expert treatment of the most exciting arguments in Aristotle and Aquinas with additional lines of argumentation inspired by Plotinus, Saint Augustine, and Leibniz.

The result is a significant, original philosophical contribution to the scholarly discipline of natural theology, as I explain elsewhere in a more comprehensive academic book review. But readers of The B.C. Catholic should know that Feser wrote his book to be enjoyed by more than specialists.

The thrilling opportunity offered by Feser to the general reader is to find the key to thinking about God in five different but related arguments inspired by Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, and Leibniz. Feser shines the light of reason into dark spaces, inviting the general reader to boldly go where they may not have gone before.

Feser shines the light of reason into dark spaces, inviting the general reader to boldly go where they may not have gone before.

The powerful mathematical equations of modern science are considered by many to be the pinnacle achievements of human reason. But, in tandem with his presentation of the actual power of human reason to know with blazing certainty about God’s existence and divine attributes, Feser also discusses the limits of science’s mathematical methods.

Just because the keys cannot be found under the street lamp, this doesn’t mean they are not elsewhere. So too it is with mathematical equations. Just because the equations leave something out, that doesn’t mean it is not there.

“The absence of something in a representation of nature is not the same thing as a representation of its absence from nature,” as Feser memorably puts it.

This was my favourite book among my summer reading, not least because of its intelligent philosophical discussion of the puzzles of modern physics. Modern scientists are working on a reconciliation of Einstein’s general relativity with the equations of quantum field theory. While they have been unable to join together the two sets of equations, Feser makes an intriguing suggestion about the big picture that could prove to be most helpful for future researchers.

In relativity theory’s “four-dimensional block universe, what is left out is any potential needing to be actualized; in the case of quantum theory, what is left out is anything to actualize the potential,” observes Feser.

Science thus needs a more unified treatment of actual causality in the universe. In both relativity and quantum theory, “what is missing is missing, not because it is absent from reality, but because it is bound to be absent from a consistently mathematicized description of reality,” explains Feser.

In other words, Aristotle and Aquinas stand next to the street lamp, ready to help us beyond. Thanks to Feser, we too can boldly go where they have gone before, in search of the real key to the universe.