Part of Feser’s argument is that we gave up a lot of our philosophic vocabulary during the period where empiricism got really interesting really fast, and eclipsed some of the other questions we were interested in. It’s a big lift to get someone to study a new language, when you need the vocabulary they’re about to learn to explain why it’s so cool.
When studying at Baylor, I was taught to think like a premodern. I participated in a program * devoted to Christian scholarship and particularly set up to help us think life premoderns. It's hard to explain this sort of program for those who weren't there, but as a matter of illustration, it's worth pointing out that a few of these professors studied under Ralph McInerny, others were on the forefront of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, another loved to explain the truth of geocentrism from a philosophical (admittedly not scientific) perspective, and another introduced me to the Latin mass, which I still regard with respect for its aesthetics.
This program included learning about developments in the history of philosophy and critically examining modernity, by way of postmodernity, which gave us recourse to come back to premodernity. With this understanding, I learned that philosophical thought derailed somewhere with Scotus (nominalism), Spinoza, or Francis Bacon, depending on the direction of our conversation that evening. A few of these mentors also warned me against studying Sociology, which was so tainted with modernist pressupositions, it was sure to corrupt my mind.
With this background in mind, I offer a critique of the premodern worldview, starting with realism, from which Catholic philosophy eventually derives natural law theory. By realism, I mean the belief that things are what they are because of their ontological relationship to an eternal, unchanging reality called an essence. In Platonic thought these are forms which derive from Being, and in Catholic thought, these are ideas in the mind of God.
Catholic philosophers, especially Thomas Aquinas, have used this idea to create natural law theory to explain morality. Something is moral or immoral in as much as it conforms to a proper relationship with this divine morality.
The problem, as I see it, is twofold. First, we use language to define reality, but because languages vary from culture to culture, the realities described will also vary. Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University has performed experiments on people from around the world to show the many different and complex ways that language shapes our reality. For example:
"When we show people video of the same event," says Boroditsky, "English speakers remember who was to blame even in an accident, but Spanish and Japanese speakers remember it less well than they do intentional actions. It raises questions about whether language affects even something as basic as how we construct our ideas of causality."
At the bare minimum, this research shows that mental concepts are at least partially derived from language and culture, as opposed to a Divine Being putting these notions in the brains of individuals. The same argument can be made regarding morality. Even something as basic as murder, is culturally dependent. In some cases it is okay to kill the murderer, in others it is fine to kill anyone outside the tribe (who aren't presumably human), still others believe that killing is only justified in cases of self-defense, and other groups say that killing is never justified. Natural law will say that murder is universally wrong, but once the anthropological evidence is taken into account, the meaning of this absolutist statement because so watered-down, that it's almost meaningless. Modern anthropological research, at minimum gives us reason to refine the realist notion that language and morality are merely social constructs depicting otherwise eternal concepts.
My next critique focuses on the intelligibility of premodern, Catholic, Natural Law ways of thinking, which turns reality into an unnecessary abstraction. I've discussed how this breaks down on a practical level, particularly in regard to NFP. But for a broader critique, I will quote Hans Urs von Balthasar:
Being as a whole is intrinsically always more than what we have grasped of it. Being has this property because it possesses the even more mysterious property of always being more than itself. Although being is not irrational, it is nonetheless always more than what a mind can comprehend just by looking at it. As created being, it is not infinite; yet even as finite being it can never be so exhaustively captured that there is nothing further to grasp. The infinite Creator has equipped it with the grace of participation in the inexhaustibility of its origin. (Theo-Logic vol. I: Truth of the World, p.107).
Being does not exist "in" objects, "beyond" objects, "behind" objects, "above" objects, or "across" objects; it exists only as a symbol. This follows quite readily from the fact that things simply do not have readily identifiable objective "essences" apart from language - and, indeed, that language determines the nature, division, and types of "essences" that one perceives. Because of this, theology, especially theology that relies heavily on Platonic metaphysics can define these words at will, and change definitions of typical words to suit a different purpose. Abstractions are made to fit into a pre-determined framework, that of Catholic orthodoxy, and theology becomes something of a word game. It is quite understandable for the atheist to prefer conversing with a fundamentalist or modern Christian, who at least avoids these strange abstractions.
I leave off with a quote taken from the Hubs** regarding this Balthasar passage:
In short, the whole bipolar "riddle" von Balthasar describes is the result of a mind being (quite unfortunately) alienated from its own mental symbols in such a way that it perceives those symbols as something beyond itself. It results in a mind "chasing its own tail," going round about itself in circles and circumlocutions as it attempts to convince itself that the entire reciprocal business is depth rather than redundance - like a man who walks in circles in the mistaken belief he is going in a straight line. It is an unfortunate sickness from the point of view of making responsible, independent thinkers, but it is quite useful to produce loyal followers: so long as they perceive essences as given, and not just existence, they are alienated and unaware of their own role in the process of constructing essence. They see essence as that received from on-high (the thoughts of God, unalterable - indeed, God Himself) and this is very useful for social stability. Men walking in circles can be quite easily kept corralled and useful._______________________________________________
*It's interesting notes on those who were in this program with me, and who I still contact from time-to-time:
-- 2 converted to Catholicism, and after 5 years are now atheists (myself included)
-- 1 retreated into Baptist fundamentalism
-- 2 (males) are Catholic converts and studying theology at CUA
-- 3 others (female) are happy Catholic converts
**To give credit where it is due, I borrowed these arguments, with permission from my husband, who is better versed in Medieval philosophy than I am. Tomorrow or Friday, I will offer further reflections on why Medieval catholicity breaks down, discussing what geocentricism taught me about reality and/or McIntyre's solution in After Virtue (depending on my mood and writing time).