Author note: We are grateful to Seth Hart for sharing this informal response here that he first posted in an online forum out of disappointment with Dr. Edward Feser’s recent review of David Bentley Hart’s 2022 You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature. Seth (no relation to David Hart) is a PhD student at Durham University in the theology department. His focus is on biological teleology and a theological interpretation of it. He currently lives with his wife and corgi in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
As someone whose doctoral dissertation focuses on teleology, I’ve been looking forward to David Bentley Hart’s new book You Are Gods for some time. While I’ve not yet turned over the last page, I do feel confident enough at this point to tackle the newest review from Ed Feser. So, here’s my (relatively) brief critique of Feser’s post.
I must admit, when I first read it, I partially entertained the thought it was an April Fool’s joke, for whatever you make of Feser’s thought, his critiques normally rise above the level of the trivial and are occasionally quite brilliant (such as when he deals with the philosophy of science and atheism). That is why I was a bit perplexed to find this review to be a string of strawman arguments, historical inaccuracies, and rather simplistic rebuttals. This is by no means an exhaustive account, but here are some rather extreme examples.
Feser begins by lambasting Hart for his invective tone. After the onslaught Hart brought with That All Shall Be Saved, I would have imagined Feser would find this book a relief! Most of the criticisms he cites emerge near the beginning of the text and are presented in a rather tame manner (by Hart’s standards). I actually found them to be quite playful and utilized to portray a narrative Hart himself doesn’t quite belong to. So, at the very least, it did feel a bit petty to pick apart this language, which clearly is meant more for rhetorical flush than pejorative assault.
Feser offers a defense of the obediential potency with the illustration of a laptop that has been retrofitted with new features. I find this an extremely odd example. The usage of a technological analogy obscures an important difference (one that Feser himself acknowledges): organisms are defined by intrinsic teleology while artifacts are defined by extrinsic teleology. For this reason, it is simply unclear how many changes I would need to make to an artifact before it loses its identity. If it weren’t, Theseus’ ship would not be suffering such an identity crisis. Even bypassing this objection, Feser’s example seems to only prove Hart’s point. The very fact that laptops have USB ports and the capacity to download new software means that their creators intended their further upgrading. In a sense, they are teleologically directed toward the further actualization of their various features. In an odd way, it is in their nature to become “supernatural” (referring here to beyond their nature). If a new feature were completely alien to the nature of the laptop (say, the addition of a USB mouse to a laptop that lacks an appropriate port), it would need to be upgraded to allow for the addition. It would, in this sense, have to become a new kind of laptop. Say goodbye to your warranty. Similarly, if humanity was not already oriented toward the divine, it would need a similar transformation and cease, in that sense, to be human at all. So far from demolishing Hart’s argument, the laptop example, to my mind, only proved it.
What’s worse, Feser offers Nagel’s bat as a counterexample to the claim that rational agents have a natural end in knowing the essence of the first cause. We might be curious how a bat “sees” via echolocation, but it does not follow from this that it is in our essence to have echolocation. This was a rather shocking claim. Feser has written extensively on Aristotle yet seems to have missed the very obvious Aristotelian epistemology of Hart’s claim. For Aristotle, theoria, the contemplation of the forms, is the highest form of knowledge. To quote scholar Matthew Walker: “As the telos of our rational actions and of our other life-functions, contemplation is, for Aristotle, the main organizing principle in our kind-speciﬁc good as human beings.” The forms of things constitute both their fullest actualization and their good. Thus, for Christian authors who adopted this approach, to know God’s essence was the highest form of theoria since God was the Good Itself and actus purus. All of this is far too brief, but hopefully it is clear that knowing a bat’s subjective experience does not constitute knowing its form. And if this is somehow entailed, Feser has in no way made this clear. Moreover, I suppose one could say that knowing the subjective experience of a bat is, in fact, the natural end of humanity. God knows the world via its participation in His own being. If our destiny is knowledge of the divine essence, one could maintain that this entails we, too, will know the world as it participates in God, perhaps including the subjective experience of creatures such as bats. I’m not saying this is necessary; I offer it only to show that Feser’s argument does not arrive at the conclusion he hopes. Additionally, Feser seems to create a problem for himself—namely, that ignorance is not a deprivation to a rational being. How he gets around it, I’m not sure, but his example is, again, more of an issue for his position than Hart’s.
Feser finally accuses Hart of collapsing God and world into an undifferentiated unity, committing him to pantheistic heresy. Indeed, there are points in isolation that seem to suggest this, such as the line, “God is all that is.” However, Hart is nearly always quick to qualify this response. In this case, he follows it with, “Whatever is not God exists as becoming divine, and as such is God in the mode of what is other than God. But God is not ‘the other’ of anything.” There is, then, a nonidentical relationship between God and creation, though such a distinction is much more fluid than anything Feser will allow. He thus compares Hart to Spinoza, apparently unaware or unconvinced by Carlyle’s reevaluation of Spinoza as a panentheist. Yet I find it difficult for a Thomist to find fault with such language. The point that Przywara’s Analogia Entis was translated into English by Hart should probably have clued Feser into the fact that descriptions such as these fit well within the analogical tradition—a tradition in which Thomas is perhaps the key member! Feser is simply wrong to say that Hart “collapses” the distinction entirely. Moreover, the very quotations Feser utilizes prove this fact:
Parts of You Are Gods read like a compilation of ‘greatest hits’ from the history of pantheism. Echoing the Stoics, Hart tells us that nature stands in relation to the supernatural as “matter to form,” so that “nature in itself has no real existence and can have none” apart from the divine that informs it.
I must say, I find this statement jaw dropping from someone who has spent his career arguing for the distinction of form/matter and existence/essence. By his own standard, Feser himself is a pantheist! As further proof, Feser cites Hart’s positive treatment of Advaita and Vishishtadvaita Vedantic thought, apparently unaware that “Vishishtadvaita” means qualified nondualism. These very qualifications prevent any flat identity of God and world. I honestly have no comment on Hart’s assessments here, since I’m, at best, a beginner in Hindu thought, though even I could spot the problematic nature of Feser’s assertions.
In all, this is, by far, the weakest piece of writing I’ve seen come from Feser. I should also note that I am NOT committing myself to all of Hart’s assertions in his work. However, the evaluation made by Feser was egregious enough to warrant this (much longer than expected) post.