I just completed a three-part series exposing the laughable science illiteracy of Alvin Plantinga’s “Two Dozen or So” arguments for God. I’ve now had several requests to take on Edward Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God (2017). Since there aren’t any good, easily locatable rebuttals online (this one by Jonathan Garner is the closest I could find, and it’s a bit lackluster). Plantinga and Feser have a common thread of ignoring the sciences; but even more, both are acting like the Modern Age never happened. They are still thinking like Medieval monks, who didn’t know how evidence or science worked, didn’t know Aristotle was already obsolete even in the ancient world, and thought their own naive semantical armchair musings could tell them facts about the Universe. In this case, explicitly. Feser confesses he’s resurrecting the logic and arguments of Medieval scholasticism.
Feser’s book contains one chapter for each of the titular five arguments, plus two more chapters, one attempting to extract more attributes for his thus-proven God, and one collecting and responding to some common rebuttals to his Five Arguments. Notably, like all Christian apologetics, that last chapter only “succeeds” by omitting everything that actually undermines his conclusions. Just compare it with my article Bayesian Counter-Apologetics for a start at what’s wrong here: the evidence actually argues against Feser’s God. And we follow evidence. Not armchair fantasies in Feser’s head. But here my only thesis shall be that none of his arguments succeed in producing a sentient superbeing. But that means his penultimate chapter can also be ignored, since all it does is build on the Five Proofs to resolve God into a more complex psychological entity with particular emotions, goals, and superpowers. But if none of those Proofs hold water, that chapter is just full-on moot. I won’t even bother with it. Though there is a lot there of interest if you want to explore Feser’s theology—including a really bizarre, sexist argument for God being a man (around pages 246-57).
Feser’s last chapter will also be useful to you if you want to see how a theist responds to common rebuttals to his Five Arguments. In fact, the whole book is handy if you want to train at this; it contains a lot of examples of badly argued points from atheists, so if you want to avoid those, he’s given you a kind of atlas of them (here and in each preceding chapter, every one of which closes by addressing specific rebuttals). But my refutations here will already be immune to everything he says in his last chapter. So it won’t serve any function to address it here.
That’s because I won’t be providing or fixing up every conceivable rebuttal one could throw at Feser. There are a lot of false, dubious, or fallacious moves in this book. And quite a lot of already-well-known refutations that are better than the ones he represents in his last chapter. Rather, I’ll just cut to the chase of the single most unrecoverable mistake in each of his five arguments, the one error that really just does it in, rendering the rest of the corresponding chapter a waste of time even to bother reading. Which does not amount to proving God doesn’t exist. It just amounts to proving that in this book Feser has failed to provide any genuinely rational reason to believe in one. I figure you’ll find that the most useful for dealing with fanatical Feserists on the internet.
One common thread to understand all of what follows is that Feser is a thousand years behind the times in the scientific study of the cognition of ontology. Every argument Feser deploys is just a manipulation of a model in his head. He imagines a model in the theater of his mind, and deduces some things he thinks he’d need for that model to obtain in reality. At no point does he ever show that this model ever corresponds to reality. This is a common and serious problem with theology (see my article The God Impossible for some important perspective on this). Yes, maybe you can come up with a model for how the universe works, such that only a God could explain why it exists. But whether the universe actually corresponds to that model you just invented is precisely the question we are trying to answer. No amount of tinkering with the model, can answer that question. Science is superior to theology precisely because it found a way to stop just tinkering with models in our heads and start testing which models actually apply. And models that can’t be tested, it rightly declares unknowable.
Such is the fate of Feser’s imagined God.
Argument One: The Aristotelian Proof
A quick and dirty way to phrase this argument is: change is real; change requires some fundamental underlying substrate, an ultimate “causy thing,” that makes change possible; ergo, that has to be God. The handwave at the end there, from the major premise to the conclusion, involves some convoluted step of reasoning about there having to be some actual thing that actualizes change, which itself is not actualized by anything else—something “self-actualizing.” Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.” How you get a mind out of that is where it gets all wobbly and his supposed logical precision dissolves.
Really, the most nothingly nothing you can have without facing a logical contradiction, is the absence of everything except logically contradictory states of affairs. And that means everything. Including gods, laws of physics, rules, objects, minds, or extensions of space or time. And by Feser’s own reasoning, the absence of everything except logically necessary states of affairs entails the presence of every logically necessary thing. And nothing else. Hence the absence of everything including logical contradictions is the same thing as the presence of only the logically necessary. Since if some entity’s existence is logically necessary, by definition its absence would entail a logical contradiction. That’s literally what “logically necessary” means.
But what happens when you take away everything except that which is demonstrably logically necessary? Not what we “conjecture” or “wish” were logically necessary; no, we don’t get to cheat. No circular arguments. Only what we can actually formally prove is logically necessary. And that means, prove now, not at some hypothetical future time. We don’t get to “conjecture” or “wish” into existence some new logical necessity we have yet to really prove is such. Well. What happens is, we get a nothing-state that logically necessarily becomes a multiverse that will contain a universe that looks just like ours. To a probability infinitesimally near 100%. See Ex Nihilo Onus Merdae Fit.
A quick and dirty way to phrase that argument is: if nothing exists, then by definition no rules exist limiting what will happen to it; if no rules exist limiting what it will happen to it, it is equally likely it will become one of infinitely many arrays of things (including remaining nothing, which is just one of infinitely many other things no rule exists to prevent happening); if we select at random from the infinitely many arrays of things it can become (including the array that is an empty set, i.e. continuing to be nothing), the probability is infinitesimally near 100% the array chosen at random will be a vast multiverse whose probability of including a universe like ours is infinitesimally near 100%. Because there are infinitely more ways to get one of those at random, than to get, for example, the one single outcome of remaining nothing. There is no way to avoid this. Unless you insert some law, power, rule, or force that would stop it, or change the outcome to something not decided at random. But once you do that, you are no longer talking about nothing. You have added something. Which you have no reason to add. Other than your human desire that it be there. Which is not a compelling argument for it being there.
That the evidence looks to support the conclusion that there is a multiverse (far more than it supports there being a god) only verifies the hypothesis that the universe did start with such a nothing-state. But that’s still just a hypothesis. There may well have always been something. There may have never been nothing, in any sense at all. But it’s peculiar that starting with a nothing-state, gets us exactly the weird universe we observe. That seems a pretty strange coincidence. Still, I’m doing the same thing Feser is: building a model in my head, and working out what would have to happen or be the case if that model were true. Does that mean my model corresponds to what actually happened? No.
What this exercise teaches us is that Feser has no basis for arguing that the substrate, the ultimate “actuality” that actualizes all potentials, has to be all the things he claims. He might be able to prove logically that some substrate must exist (that’s still questionable, but I won’t challenge it in this article). But he doesn’t actually present a valid logical argument for it being the substrate he defines. That it would have those properties is only true of a model he invented in his head. Is it true outside his head? He presents no evidence to conclude it is. Because Feser doesn’t “do” science, you see. He’s not, like, into evidence, man.
Feser’s formalization of this argument appears around page 35. It has 49 premises. I shit you not. Most of them are uncontroversial on some interpretation of the words he employs (that doesn’t mean they are credible on his chosen interpretation of those words, but I’ll charitably ignore that here), except one, Premise 41, where his whole argument breaks down and bites the dust: “the forms or patterns manifest in all the things [the substrate] causes…can exist either in the concrete way in which they exist in individual particular things, or in the abstract way in which they exist in the thoughts of an intellect.” This is a false dichotomy, otherwise known as a bifurcation fallacy. It’s simply not true that those are the only two options. And BTW, this Premise, is the same key premise (hereafter always hidden) in all five of his arguments. We can thus refute all of them, by simply refuting this single premise (more on that later).
So let’s do that.
Ironically, a third option that in fact I’m quite certain is actually true, is the very option described by Aristotle himself. Aristotle took Plato to task for the mistake Feser is making, pointing out that it is not necessary that potential patterns actually exist in some concrete or mental form. They only have to potentially exist. Hence Aristotle said of Plato’s “world of forms” what Laplace said to Napoleon of God: “Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis.” Potential things are by definition not actual. So obviously we don’t need them to be actualized to exist. That’s a self-contradictory request. It’s thus self-contradictory of Feser to insist that potential things must be “actualized” somewhere (a mind; concrete things). Obviously there is no logical sense in which they must be actualized in that way.
Aristotle argued that potentials exist inherently in everything, without anything further needing to be the case. A cube contains the potential to be a sphere (by physical transformation); but not as if that potential is some sort of magical fluid contained physically inside the cube. It’s simply a logically necessary property of any material that it can be reshaped; if it can have shape, it can have any shape. Period. It is logically necessarily always the case. And Feser must agree that if something is logically necessary, it requires no other explanation of why it exists. Not minds. Not concrete things. Nothing. The only way to stop that from being true, would be to interject some power or force to stop it, e.g. something that would make the cube’s reshaping into a sphere impossible. But remember, we’re not allowed to do that. We don’t get to just “invent” things and declare their existence logically necessary; and if it’s not logically necessary, the potential it would have blocked remains logically possible. Of course, even if we could just “invent” things like that, that would simply limit what potentials exist. Still nothing more would be needed to explain that. Not minds. Not concrete things. Nothing.
Feser tries to argue that the ultimate substrate must be “one, immutable, eternal, immaterial, incorporeal, perfect, omnipotent, fully good, intelligent, and omniscient.” He only does that with silly word games—few of these words does he use in any sense you’d recognize. But let’s charitably imagine he can construct some model in his head whereby it would be true, and grant him his bizarre definitions of all these terms. The correct way to test models against each other is to build multiple models and compare them against the evidence. So let’s build a model different from Feser’s and see what happens…
I propose that the substrate of all potentiality is the actualization of spacetime. Just that. Nothing more. I’ve made the case for this elsewhere already (Sense and Goodness without God III.5, pp. 119-34). I don’t claim it’s true. I merely claim it could be true; it explains a lot; and does so better than any alternative yet offered. Including gods. The gist of it is this: every “thing” we think exists, is really just a convoluted geometric twisting of spacetime. Photons, electrons, quarks, gluons, all just different vibrations of spacetime. This is called Superstring Theory. And unlike Feser’s silly It’s a Giant Ghost hypothesis, Superstring Theory (or ST) is actually a developed theory of physics that has a number of remarkable predictive successes. Feser’s theory has exactly none. For example, ST can predict exactly all the particles of the Standard Model and all of their peculiar fundamental features and constants. Can Feser deduce all that from his It’s a Giant Ghost hypothesis? No. He just has to Mary Sue it into existence. “Well, that’s just what God would do.” “Why?” “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” Which we call the absence of a hypothesis.
In my proposed model, the only thing that really exists, that causes every object and event and law and force and constant of physics, and has no other cause of its existence, is space-time. It is the ultimate actual thing, that actualizes all potentials; and which in turn is not actualized by anything else.
- It’s “incorporeal” (it is not itself a body, but by itself is the absence of all body).
- It’s “immaterial” (in the only sense Feser requires: it isn’t made of matter, nor does it exist “in” space or time).
- It’s “immutable” (space-time can change in quantity and shape, and thereby manifest different things, but every bit of it is always the same as every other bit of it; its ultimate properties never change; just as God can think and feel and act, while his ultimate properties never change).
- It’s “one” (a continuum, a unity, unbroken, unbreakable).
- It’s “eternal” (you can shrink or squeeze it, but you can’t get rid of it; it could well have always existed; and there is no sense in which space or time is located “in” space or time; it just literally is all space and time together, requiring no further location).
- It’s “perfect” (in the sense Feser requires: every fundamental property of space-time is always and everywhere fully actualized).
- It’s “fully good” (by Feser’s definition, which contrary to his confusing use of the word “good” isn’t a value judgment, but simply the assertion that it has no unactualized features; it isn’t “broken” or “working below its potential”).
- And it’s “omnipotent” (in the only sense Feser requires: it can realize all things that can exist or happen, and therefore has all the power that it is possible for any entity to have; in fact no power can exist, but through it).
So Feser is just arguing space-time is God. Mindless, valueless, merely physical space-time. That’s just atheism.
What this means is that Feser’s entire book is about a single maneuver: trying to dodge that outcome by trying to bootstrap space-time into being an intelligent consciousness. But that’s where his argument becomes 100% bullshit. In no way does the substrate having these other properties entail it’s “intelligent.” Intelligence is only a potential thing space-time can manifest, being an organized complexity; and being an organized complexity, it cannot be a property inherent in space-time itself, which is simple and uniform. Nor would it be “omniscient,” knowledge being another organized complexity, and thus only something that space-time can be organized to manifest, not a thing space-time itself is. All possible knowledge and all possible intellection is inherent in space-time as a potential, but that is not what we mean by knowledge and intelligence. Potentially knowing everything, is not the same as actually knowing everything. A clump of goo is potentially intelligent. Organize it into a functioning brain, and it will be actually intelligent. They are not the same thing. And “we” are indeed a way the universe becomes conscious of itself; but that does not make the universe a god. Not by any definition pertinent to anyone, least of all Feser.
Hence it all falls down at Premise 41: his false assertion that potentials, to exist in an actualizer, must exist in some mind or concrete vessel. What must exist for spacetime to actually be twisted up into a proton, and thence into a collection of particles, and thence into a tree? Just spacetime. Nothing else. What must exist for spacetime to potentially be twisted up into a proton, and thence into a collection of particles, and thence into a tree? Just spacetime. Nothing else. Since nothing exists to stop spacetime possibly being rearranged into a tree, that spacetime can possibly be arranged into a tree is simply a fact of spacetime. No mind need exist “in addition” to spacetime, for spacetime to have that potential, always and everywhere. Nor is any concrete thing required. Spacetime can be completely empty. And still have the potential to form up into matter, and thence a tree. In fact, it’s statistically inevitable that every bit of spacetime there is, will. Someday. It’s a Boltzmann necessity.
So up to the point where Feser violates basic canons of logic, all his Aristotelian argument gets us to is “mindless spacetime is the fundamental substrate of all existence.” He should now get a physics degree and dedicate his life to developing Superstring Theory.
In the end, my model is as coherent as Feser’s. Indeed, arguably more so—it’s far simpler, far clearer, has a more scientific foundation, and requires no baseless suppositions (like his Premise 41). But let’s just pretend they are equally coherent. Which one is true? Can we tell from the armchair? No. Does Feser give any argument for his model being more likely than mine? No. But there are things my theory predicts that his does not—and those things we observe to be the case. Everything, in fact, is unexpected on his theory; yet completely expected on mine. The universe does appear to be born of and wholly governed by a mindless substrate. That argues for my model being far more likely than his. And if my model is more likely to be true than his and my model is false, then his model is even less likely to be true. Because my model can only be false if some other model is more probably true. But if My Theory is more probable than His Theory, and Some Other Theory is more probable than My Theory, then necessarily Some Other Theory is more probable than His Theory.
There is no way Feser can rescue his model here. He’s done. Cooked. Time to move on.
Argument Two: The Neo-Platonic Proof
Something has to hold everything together. Otherwise, it would all fall apart, right? So that has to be God! That’s the gist of this argument. And it’s just as ridiculous as it sounds. This one has 37 premises! (Around page 79) There are a lot of dubious premises in this one. But let’s just assume they all hold up, all the way to the premise that we will grant just for giggles, that everything has an “absolutely simple or noncomposite cause” holding it together (and preventing it from falling apart). Shit hits the fan right after that, at Premise 22: “Everything is either a mind, or a mental content, or a material entity, or an abstract entity.” That’s another false lemma. Remember Aristotle? There is at least one other thing that isn’t any of those things: space-time. It’s not a mind, it’s not a mental content, it’s not a material entity, and it’s not an abstract entity.
One might try to play Devil’s Advocate and say, well, space-time isn’t a material entity in the sense that it’s not “made of matter,” and obviously isn’t itself located “in” space or time, sure. But what does Feser mean by “material entity”? Well, he defines that as “having parts which need to be combined in order for them to exist,” which makes them able to come into being and pass away. This doesn’t really include space-time; and even if one thought it could, we can simply define our model’s substrate as a space-time that can’t be broken up or made or dissolved. As a hypothesis, that’s as good as Feser’s; and in fact more congruent with his insistence that the substrate be “absolutely simple,” because it’s hard to get simpler than a mindless space-time with no other fundamental properties. Certainly that’s far simpler than a vastly complex mind with unlimited superpowers. It also doesn’t get you anywhere to ask what holds space-time together and keeps it from dissolving. Because we can just as easily ask, “What holds God together and keeps him from dissolving?” Whatever answer you give to that, we can give for space-time. That’s how models work. Isn’t that great?
So here we are building on everything we pointed out in respect to Argument One. What holds a tree together is the electromagnetic force. What holds the electromagnetic force together is photons. What holds photons together is space-time. And there is no next level. That’s it. The buck stops there. In what I’ll now call the Neoaristotelian Superstring Model (or NST), a photon simply is a bend in space-time. The rest is geometry. What keeps the photon bent? Space-time. What keeps the space-time bent? Nothing. It just is bent. And where it’s bent a certain way, we call it a photon. Because that shape interacts with all other shapes geometrically in ways that we describe as the properties of a photon. We can explain how a ripple over here, moves across space-time like a wave on a sheet, to cause another ripple over there. And thus we can explain the forming and dissolving of a photon. But the substrate, the space-time, never forms or dissolves. It just changes shape. When the photon is gone or falls apart, the space-time that was manifesting it remains, unchanged in basic properties, unharmed, unaltered. Ready to be vibrated into another photon someday. Or anything else.
Space-time also has “parts” in the sense that there is some of it over here, and some of it over there, and different “parts” are shaped in different ways, manifesting different particles and forces, but this is a different sense of “having parts” than Feser is concerned about. Because space-time can never be broken up. It’s parts are always a uniform and continuous whole (even if quantized, the quanta of spacetime can’t be broken apart). No matter how the different “parts” of it get bent or vibrated. There is no argument in Feser against that kind of composition being the fundamental underlying cause of all other composites. And there is no possible argument of the kind to be had. Obviously this can be the fundamental substrate holding all composites together. Obviously nothing more is needed. No world of gremlins and faeries need exist to hold the space-time and shape it. If you shake a carpet causing a ripple to move across it, no “gremlin” is needed to keep pushing the ripple. It pushes itself. It’s a geometrically necessary outcome.
Space-time also could conceivably have “come into existence,” but again not in any sense Feser is concerned with. There can’t have been any time before space-time, nor any place apart from it either. So if space-time came into existence (and contrary to what Christian apologists falsely tell you, we don’t know it did), it did so from a nothing-state. Which I already discussed above: an actual nothing-state will inevitably produce a vast, messy space-time, by logical necessity, owing to the absence of any laws, thereby entailing a completely random outcome. In the “nothing-state” the only potential that existed was the potential for space-time. Once space-time existed, every potential existed within it that it could manifest. And that’s why we see the universe we see today: one completely reducible to the bumps and geometry of a mindless space-time.
One could then say that therefore that nothing-state (which again we are just speculating once existed) contained all potentials, and therefore it is the ultimate substrate, the ultimate cause, the absolutely simple noncomposite thing that began everything else. But that still isn’t a God. Being a nothing-state, it is far simpler than a mind or anything else substantive or particular at all. It only has those things potentially. Not actually. It is therefore the absence of a God. Not the presence of one. And that is in the past now. So it can’t be holding things together now. Therefore it isn’t the thing that answers Feser’s “Neoplatonic” concern. Though it works well enough for his “Aristotelian” concern. If you want to go there. But until we have evidence that that model is real, we don’t really have any business asserting it is. But we can assert it’s a hell of a lot more likely than his Giant Super-Ghost.
We could even merge the nothing theory with the space-time theory, with the same logical semantics Feser enjoys using to build-out his marvelous God: for if space-time began and is the logically necessary being, then we can just as readily conclude the nothing-state it sprang from logically necessarily contained a single dimensionless point of space-time and thus was space-time. For the nothing-state can’t ever have existed…if it never existed (if at no time it existed) or if it existed nowhere (if it never existed at any location); for those are identical to saying it didn’t exist at all. Therefore, it is logically impossible for a nothing-state to have ever existed, that didn’t contain any point of space-time. So. Gosh. It ends up being space-time all the way down!
Either way, my space-time model works as well as Feser’s. It is absolutely simple (you can’t split away its properties; it’s everywhere the same), it is noncomposite (you can’t break it apart; it’s always there no matter what else its continual reshaping manifests as coming or passing away), it requires nothing else “beneath” it to give it existence and shape, and it explains every composition (the geometry of spacetime is what causes what we observe as the interactions of particles and thus the forces that explain all material objects and events); at least as well as his Giant Ghost does. And better, when you consider what a mindless substrate predicts we should observe, that a sentient substrate does not predict (without a massive Rube Goldergesque parade of ad hoc contrivances for which there is exactly zero evidence or logical demonstration).
So once again there is no way Feser can rescue his model here. He’s done. Cooked. Time to move on.
Argument Three: The Augustinian Proof
This is just a standard Argument from Abstract Objects. This time with only a lean 28 premises. I already exposed the flaws in that kind of reasoning when I dealt with it in Plantinga (his Argument from Sets, Argument from Numbers & Properties, and Argument from Counterfactuals). The only thing new here is that Feser fabricates the premise that “Aristotelian realism” holds that “abstract objects exist only in human or other contingently existing intellects.” That’s not true. Maybe some Medieval interpretation of Aristotle concluded that. But that is certainly not Aristotle’s actual account of abstractions—or more properly, universals. Feser seems to have confused what Aristotle said about how we discover and employ universals in human thought, with what he said about what universals are. Once we correct the mistake, Feser’s entire third argument collapses.
This puts the destruction of Feser’s argument at Premise 8 (around page 108). One could quibble about other premises in his argument, but like I said, I’m not going to trouble myself. It’s enough to identify the most fatal error. And this is it. To quote the peer reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Aristotle…argued that forms are intrinsic to the objects and cannot exist apart from them.” He did not argue they exist “in human minds.” They can exist there, as in, the perception and comprehension of them can exist in a mind; but these are apperceptions of things that exist outside the mind. No mind need exist in Aristotle’s system, for all universals to nevertheless still exist. And they really exist, because the things that manifest them really exist. And this is true even of things that don’t exist: because the potential always exists in all the things that can become something else. Thus, a new and unrealized species of animal or government “exists,” in the sense that the universe contains the potential to generate it.
But I don’t want to argue over what Aristotle thought (there are indeed many disagreements on that). Because he’s obsolete. And what Feser needs is the most robust, modern version of “Aristotelian realism,” not Aristotle’s outdated version of it (much less some Medieval quack’s distortion of it). I outline what a modern, robust version looks like in Sense and Goodness without God (III.5.4, pp. 124-30). As you’ll see in my articles All Godless Universes Are Mathematical and How Can Morals Be Both Invented and True?, universals are simply the shared properties of particulars. As soon as there are two triangles, there is a common property they share (like, having three sides). No mind need exist (nor Platonic Forms for that matter) for it to be true that both triangles have three sides. Their existence alone is enough to make it true. The “having of three sides” is therefore simply a property multiple objects possess. Period.
What if no object ever forms a triangle? That’s where Aristotle’s distinction between potentiality and actuality enters. A region of space can be shaped into a triangle. Multiple regions of space can be shaped into triangles. No mind need exist (nor Platonic Forms for that matter) for it to be true that many regions of space can be shaped into triangles, even at the same time. Thus the universal property of triangularity always exists, potentially, wherever space-time exists. Even if no actual triangles are ever formed in that space-time. Because there is nothing to logically prevent that space-time from having that shape. And if ever it does have that shape, it will automatically be the same property manifested, every time it does. No mind need exist (nor Platonic Forms for that matter) for that to be true.
And that’s just all there is to it. It’s not like if you took God away from the universe, that suddenly triangles couldn’t exist, or wouldn’t have three sides, or we couldn’t notice this. Since all those things would remain without a God, their existence can never argue for the existence of a God.
So once again there is no way Feser can rescue his model here. He’s done. Cooked. Time to move on.
Argument Four: The Thomistic Proof
We need God to explain essences. Which is kind of like saying we need God to explain phlogiston. Essences, in the sense Feser means, don’t exist. They’ve been ruled out by science for centuries, as quaint and antiquated notions. What he really means is something else, just as “phlogiston” didn’t really exist, but was a failed attempt to explain something else, namely fire (and related phenomena). Fire really exists. But phlogiston doesn’t. And fire isn’t, it turns out, an element, nor is it caused by air absorbing a chemical called phlogiston. Similarly, “essences” don’t exist. And we’ve long known they don’t exist. That’s why they are no longer used in any scientific theory. But other phenomena that “essences” were a failed attempt to explain, do exist. This is why the Wikipedia article on “Essences” never once mentions any scientific use or application of the term. And why the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a whole section titled Death of Essentialism. Now set theory has replaced the entire concept.
So right out of the gate this argument is pseudoscientific garbage.
Even from a formal standpoint, this one is just a terrible mess. His syllogism has a ton of boner mistakes in it; for example, Feser’s Premise 2 (around page 128), asserts that “If [the distinction between an entity’s essence and its existence] were not a real distinction…then we could know whether or not a thing exists simply by knowing its essence.” Um. Yeah. That’s how we know dragons and unicorns don’t exist, and lions and tigers do. Because it would be impossible to know the complete essence of, say, a unicorn, and not notice that among its properties is the feature of “being fictional.” One could circularly define that one thing as not part of one’s essence, but then you’re just arguing in a circle. Even if you try to go all Frege and Russell on me, and insist existence is not a property, that can only be true if existence is already inherent in the other asserted properties of an object; hence we’re back to indeed knowing whether something exists merely by wholly knowing its essence…that is in fact Frege and Russell’s whole point!
There is just no recovering from this gaffe. The argument is hosed.
How did Feser fuck this up? Because he confuses someone being told an incomplete description of a thing, with actually being informed of its essence (as he defines it; remember, essences don’t really exist, so I’m moving around in the model in his head, not the one that exists in reality). A fully informed account of an entity’s essence would include when it exists or didn’t. It is essential to Hitler, for example, that he did not live in the 21st century. It is essential to Yoda, for example, that no one could ever have spoken to him—other than in fiction or pretense. You could not fully understand what “Hitler” or “Yoda” were if you weren’t informed of these facts. And just excluding that one piece of information, literally the most important one, from what you will arbitrarily classify as “an essence,” is just a semantic game. And semantic games can’t get you to any grand realizations in metaphysics.
Feser actually burns a few pages arguing he is not engaging in this confusion. But alas, his protests make no logical sense. He insists if you mistakenly think lions are fictional monsters, “you have not misconceived what it is to be a lion.” Um. Yes. You have. You’ve totally misconceived what it is to be a lion. Only if you arbitrarily demarcate how you’d test whether a lion existed, with the outcome of that test—as if somehow the latter was not an attribute of the lion—can you get to Feser’s ridiculous premise. But that’s completely arbitrary. Why are we demarcating away that single property of lions as no longer essential to being a lion? Just because I know how to detect a dragon if one existed, does not mean I am necessarily fully informed as to what it is to be a dragon. If, unbeknownst to me, dragons exist, then I am simply misinformed about dragons.
Exactly this kind of nonsense Feser is tripping all over is one of the reasons essences have been abandoned by all the sciences as a useless concept. Feser’s premises just get more ridiculous and convoluted from there. And this argument racks up at 35 premises. But where it really fails is once again where it trips over competing models of reality, which is at Premise 33, where he leaps without any logical basis, once again, from “a purely actualized entity” (he means, this time, an ultimate substrate whose existence is identical with its essence), to a being that has a mind (“immutable, eternal…[etc.],” and “intelligent and omniscient”). But we already saw that does not logically follow. And he gives no logical argument for it here. He just skips to asserting it; premises missing.
Once again, space-time is an ultimate substrate whose existence is identical with its essence. And according to this AST model, space-time indeed causes what Feser means by essence and existence (because existing means simply that space-time is actually and not just potentially so shaped; and the shape it’s in, fixes every other property, and therefore anything’s “essence”). And, once again, space-time has all the properties Feser insists upon (“immutable, eternal…” etc.), except intelligence and omniscience….because, yet again, Feser confuses a potential for intellection and knowledge, with actual intellection and knowledge. Space-time does indeed contain all potentials, at all times and places. But that does not mean all potentials would necessarily be actualized, much less at every time and place.
The formalism of Feser’s argument here is just garbage, so it’s hard to find the hidden premise he is relying on to get from “ultimate substrate whose existence is identical with its essence” to “has all these amazing properties,” without his just punting to the other arguments, which I’ve already refuted. And if that’s what’s going on here, this isn’t a fourth argument. It’s just a chaotic word wall, which suddenly at Premise 33 just repeats the concluding chunk of arguments one, two, or three. And in that event, Premise 33 is simply false. The substrate he requires, doesn’t need, nor would plausibly have, intelligence or even knowledge (much less omniscience). And he has presented no syllogism showing otherwise. The only time he ever attempts one anywhere in the book, it’s that nonsense Premise 41 in Argument One. The same false dichotomy he uses in every one of his five arguments to conjure mental properties for what turns out to just be…space-time.
At most one can infer that Feser means to get to the conclusion that something exists that is “purely actual” by some new means here (something incoherent about essences and existence), but from there, the argument isn’t new. And since the borrowed part is already fallacious, all the effort he goes into to get to “purely actual” in another way here, is just a waste of everyone’s time. “Purely actual,” just doesn’t get you to God. As I’ve already shown for the previous three arguments. But to address what would be different about this argument, is to focus on this nonsense about essences and existence being different. Which isn’t true in any real world sense. It can only be true in an arbitrary, ad hoc, semantic construction in his head—which doesn’t correspond to reality. Not only because there is no such thing as an essence. But also because even what he means by an essence can’t be separated from existence in any way other than by his own arbitrary decisions; and reality cannot be discovered by just “deciding” that it be a certain way.
“I just don’t think knowing whether Hitler was a real person or a fictional character is important to knowing who Hitler essentially was,” just isn’t a rational thing to say. Nor can such a weird decision on your part, somehow unlock the mysteries of the universe outside your head.
So once again there is no way Feser can rescue his model here. He’s done. Cooked. Time to move on.
Argument Five: The Rationalist Proof
Here Feser calms down to using just 26 premises. But all he does now is deploy the standard Argument from Sufficient Reason. He goes on with a bunch of rigmarole about the “Principle of Sufficient Reason,” and builds out a lot of dubious premises on that, but I won’t trouble myself with that here. Though he’s wrong (the PSR, if false, would not entail “things and events without evident explanation or intelligibility would be extremely common,” as his Premise 2 alleges, around page 161), I don’t really care. I’m content to grant the PSR for giggles. And some of his premises I take no issue with at all, like Premise 11, which argues that even if we are looking at an infinite past chain of contingent events, why “that infinite series as a whole exists at all would remain to be explained” (a point I myself made, and explore, in Sense and Goodness without God III.3.5, pp. 83-88).
But then we get to the heart of the matter. This one does the same thing as Argument Four. It concocts a syllogism that starts out pretty clean, but ceases to make sense near the end of it, again just sneaking in the exact same argument from “pure actuality” borrowed from every other argument in the book (here, it’s snuck in as false Premise 24). The only thing different, is that now he’s trying to get there in some fifth, novel way, by some unclear, convoluted means—by arguing God is the only thing that can be the “ultimate” Sufficient Reason for everything else, requiring no further reason for his own existence or properties.
The argument is a mess. But ultimately, all Feser ends up doing here again is just proving mindless space-time necessarily exists. For in my competing model, by definition it is space-time, without any mental powers or properties, that “is the explanation of why any contingent things exist at all and which is the cause of every particular contingent thing’s existing at any moment” (Feser’s Premise 22). For it has all the properties Feser’s substrate needs to answer his Principle of Sufficient Reason, yet doesn’t need “intelligence” and “omniscience,” because it necessarily contains only the potential for intellection and knowledge (in that it can manifest minds that know things, but space-time itself is not a mind that knows things). Therefore my model is simpler. And everything is thereby explained.
It won’t do to say that space-time is itself a contingent being. Because that’s begging the question. For exactly the same reasons Feser gives for saying the same of God. I have imagined a space-time that necessarily exists. That’s my competing model. Every argument Feser gives for his “God” necessarily existing, all five, I have already shown argue that spacetime necessarily exists. The only thing he adds, each time, is to try and sneak in some mental powers (“intelligence and omniscience”). But as I showed right at Argument One, he has no logically valid route to that conclusion. And when you take them away, what you have left is simply: a necessarily existent spacetime. Which has no intelligence and isn’t conscious. And that isn’t God. It is, quite simply, the absence of God.
Once again there is no way Feser can rescue his model here. He’s done. Cooked. Time to move on.
Feser’s whole schtick is to try and argue there must be some ultimate, fundamental ground of all being, which explains why everything is the way it is, and why universal properties exist, that causes all forms of change, and holds everything together and keeps it from falling apart. And he tries to argue that this ground of all being must have the properties of being “one, immutable, eternal, immaterial, incorporeal, perfect, omnipotent, fully good, intelligent, and omniscient.” But none of his arguments ever logically get to “intelligent and omniscient.” Those just get thrown on the jumble, every time without any syllogism supporting them, all based on a single false dichotomy right in Argument One (at Premise 41). Somewhere in there he conjures those attributes from a fallacy of conflating potentiality with actuality. And hopes no one notices.
Instead, Feser’s five arguments only, at best, get to that fundamental whatsit being “one, immutable, eternal, immaterial, incorporeal, perfect, omnipotent, and fully good,” under the strange definitions he contrived for those terms. Which simply describes space-time. So we have as much reason to conclude space-time is the ground of all being. And given that that makes far more sense of countless observations, we should sooner conclude so. Atheists can still argue it’s something else; but whatever candidate they propose, they’d still be arguing against God being it. I will at least concur that there must be some ground of all being, in many or all of the ways Feser insists. But it does not follow that we can already now declare that we know what it is. Nor does it follow that we can declare the best candidate for the job is God. It’s not. A better candidate by far is already just space-time. Feser’s God? We have no need of that hypothesis.
As I already noted, Feser has completely failed to respond to the actual arguments of this article. Not just once. But twice. So I’ve written this epilogue to complete the point that he has failed to get.
Many attempts have been made to try and nix spacetime as the candidate for the fundamental ground of all being. All have failed. To the contrary, all of Feser’s own arguments prove that it is—by proving a unified, immutable, eternal, immaterial, incorporeal, perfect, omnipotent, and fully good thing exists. Because by his own peculiar definitions of those terms, they describe spacetime to a T. He simply fails to produce any logically valid step to “add” the attributes of omniscience and intelligence (much less any qualities of mind). So what his own arguments leave us with, is spacetime.
Although spacetime does contain all potentialities, so it is “omniscient” in that sense, but that’s not conscious awareness. Conscious awareness, likewise intelligence, is always a composite, an emergent outcome of a complex causal network. It is therefore a direct logical contradiction to claim a conscious intelligence is simple. A conscious intelligence is by definition a complex. That is what separates a smart from a dumb entity: increased complexity, in what it is, contains, and can do. And science has proven consciousness is a property of exceedingly complex intelligence. You can’t have a consciousnessness devoid of any intelligence. And the simplest intelligences lack consciousness. Intelligence is always a contingent. And consciousness is contingent on intelligence. It can thus emerge from a fundamental ground of all being. But it can never be the fundamental ground of all being.
I already showed how spacetime is on Feser’s own stated terms a unified, immutable, eternal, immaterial, incorporeal, perfect, omnipotent, and fully good thing. It therefore is his own fundamental ground of all being. It is a continuum (hence one). It is fundamentally the same, everywhere and always (hence immutable). It by definition always exists, as being time itself, there is no time it never is, and therefore it always “is” (hence it’s eternal). It is not made of matter or objects or material of any kind, or indeed of anything else but itself (hence incorporeal). It is not a composite, either, since there is no amount of chopping it up at which you would end up with something that wasn’t spacetime. The fundamental properties of spacetime are always and everywhere fully actualized, nothing held back (hence it’s also perfect). None of its fundamental features are unactualized, nothing about it is broken or working below its potential (hence it’s fully good). And it can realize all things that can exist or happen, and therefore it has all the power that it is possible for any entity to have; in fact no power can exist, but through it (hence it’s omnipotent). Spacetime is too simple, however, to fundamentally possess complex composite properties like intelligence and consciousness. But Feser presents no logically sound arguments that the substrate has these properties. So that’s where he goes wrong. He gets to spacetime. But not to God.
And this should have been obvious from the start. To exist, an entity requires there to be a place and time to exist. Otherwise it by definition never exists and exists nowhere. Thus all entities that exist are dependent on and thus subordinate to spacetime. Everything that exists, to exist, requires spacetime. But spacetime itself, to exist, requires nothing but itself. It does not require some extra place and time to exist. It is place and time. Spacetime is therefore the only conceivable thing that requires no further substrate for it to be. Nothing “extra” need exist for spacetime to exist. But something extra must always exist for anything else to exist. That something extra is spacetime: a place and time to be.
So it should have been obvious that spacetime is the fundamental ground of all being. We need nothing else to explain existence. Because it needs nothing else to exist. All the “being” and “isness” that is and ever was and ever can be, boils down to nothing more than place and time: existing somewhere, at some time. Even what everything is ultimately made of, may well indeed be nothing other than spacetime, suitably twisted and knotted up into the geometries we mistake as atoms and photons. There is no evidence it’s not.