Aquinas’ five ways and other classical arguments for the existence of God

If you want arguments for the existence of God that are totally free of the sort of problems I talked about last week in criticizing Bill O’Reilly, Peter van Inwagen, and design arguments in general, your best bet may be to go back in time two centuries or more. To arguments like those of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Aquinas’ discussion of God in his most famous work, the Summa Theologiae, begins with five arguments (Aquinas’ famous five ways) for the existence of a “first mover,” “first efficient cause,” a being having necessity of itself, a being which is the cause of every perfection in all other beings, and an intelligent being who directs all other things towards their end.

Aquinas thinks the beings proved by his five arguments are all one and the same, namely God. In the Summa Theologiae he seems to skip arguing this (though if he does have an argument for that claim, it won’t affect anything I’m about to say here). What Aquinas doesn’t skip is giving arguments for many, many claims about what God is like. These claims include that God is good, perfect, powerful, and so on, as well as many less familiar claims.

This is what sets Aquinas’ arguments apart from virtually all arguments for the existence of God made today. Aquinas doesn’t simply ask a question and assume the answer must be God or get to something that sounds kind of like a God and then stop. He avoids those mistakes, as do many of the older writers on the existence of God. For example, Samuel Clarke’s (1675-1729) Discourse Concerning the Being and Attributes of God argues 12 propositions about God one at a time, starting with his existence and ending with the claims that God is all-powerful, infinitely wise, and infinitely good.

However, in spite of these advantages, hardly any believers defend the arguments of people like Aquinas and Clarke. A large part of the answer, I think, is that they relied on assumptions which hardly anyone today shares. It’s worth giving some historical context here, especially for Aquinas.

During the time of the Roman empire, Roman elites were expected to be fluent in both Latin and Greek. So while they had great respect for Greek philosophy, the educated Romans never saw any need to translate Greek philosophical texts into Latin (a fact mentioned, for example, in Cicero’s De Finibus). But as the Roman empire collapsed, knowledge of Greek was lost in the west. Towards the end, a philosopher named Boethius (circa 475-525) decided to translate all of Plato’s and Aristotle’s work into Latin. Unfortunately, he was executed for treason before he could translate more than a few books.

There are many reasons why the centuries following the fall of the Roman empire deserve the name “Dark Ages,” but the loss of virtually all Greek philosophy to the west should be an especially easy one for fans of philosophy to understand. And it’s not surprising that when the rest of Aristotle’s works were finally started being translated into Latin in the 12th century, they were met with great enthusiasm. It’s Aristotle’s philosophy that forms the basis for all of Aquinas’ arguments in the Summa Theologiae, and Aquinas always refers to Aristotle simple as “The Philosopher.”

But today there are very few Aristotelians. That means there are very few of us are moved by arguments with assumptions like this (from the first of Aquinas’ five ways):

For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it.

Or, here is one of Clarke’s arguments for the proposition “The self-existent being must be intelligent”:

In the order of causes and effects, the cause must always be more excellent than the effect: and consequently the self-existent being, whatever that be supposed to be, must of necessity (being the original of all things) contain in itself the sum and highest degree of all the perfections of all things: not because that which is self-existent must therefore have all possible perfections; (for this, though most certainly true in itself, yet cannot be so easily demonstrated a priori ;) but because it is impossible that any effect should have any perfection, which was not in the cause.

Do we, today, have to take these arguments seriously in spite of their apparently bizarre assumptions? Well no. Here, it’s hard to avoid mentioning (much as I would like to) a Catholic scholar named Ed Feser, who has made a bit of a name for himself complaining about how misunderstood Aquinas is. Among other things, he’s gone after Richard Dawkins for saying, “Would you need to read learned volumes on Leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?”

Now I agree that Leprechaunology is not a great analogy for the work of Aquinas or Leibniz. But it’s easy to suggest better analogies: how about Spinozism or Hegelianism? I’d be surprised if Feser took either of those doctrines terribly seriously.

The dirty little secret of philosophy is that just because a philosopher is held up as “great” to the public and considered required reading in undergraduate courses does not mean professional philosophers think his work is very good, or that they’re obliged to study him carefully before thinking his work is not very good.

Feser bemoans this when his colleagues do it to Aquinas, but he himself does it with plenty of modern and contemporary philosophers. The brand of rhetoric that Feser has made his name on strikes many professional philosophers as utterly bizarre, and with good reason.

Note: this post contains partial self-plagiarism from a post written in February 2011. I also wrote it with an eye towards including it in The Book. Unless a regular commenter makes a convincing case to do otherwise, I very much want it to be all I say about Feser there.

  • Ace of Sevens

    I don’t see how that flew even in Aquinas’s time. While I don’t think anyone knew about exothermic chemical reactions until much later, but flint and steel was a well-established fire-making method by his time, as was rubbing two sticks together. Even for his specific example, it seems pretty obvious that actuality can be created from a potentiality without being pushed along by another actuality.

    • mnb0

      Like everybody else Thomas A wasn’t interested in empiry. Only Roger Bacon was a century later, but he wasn’t taken seriously nor was he systematic.
      And here we find the basic reason to reject the cosmological argument. There is too much in modern science that contradicts it.

    • Steven Garmon

      Do you mind providing an example?

  • mnb0

    Frankly I think you wrote already too much about Feser, CH. Like I wrote in my comment on your first article anyone who defends some cosmological argument without addressing Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and mutations wastes his/her and our time. The few people who tried either didn’t understand it or referred to pretty obscure physicists like Bohm and Zeh, whose theories have their flaws.
    I could argue that the Big Bang contradicts an infinite linear chain of cause and consequence if I’d like, but why? I am just not interested. If the chain is circular it’s infinite and limited at the same time. Physics suggests that this is possible; physics (notably Victor Stenger) also suggests that the Big Bang is a phenomenon of probability (quantum fluctuation) and thus doesn’t need a cause.

    • eric

      Krauss got taken to task for saying basically that. The philosophical argument against his claim being that a ‘nothing governed by QM rules’ is not what philosophers mean by nothing, they mean no-thing-not-even-QM-rules.

      That counter has never struck me as being very good, though, since “something can’t come from nothing” is also a rule. So the philosophers complaining about Krauss are doing exactly what he’s doing – starting with a ‘nothing’ that is governed by one or more rules. If you philosophically start with a non-rules-governed nothing, there would be no reason something can’t come out of it, and the problem disappears. :)

  • jamessweet

    Immediately following this sentence:

    (for this, though most certainly true in itself, yet cannot be so easily demonstrated a priori

    …it appears that Samuel Clarke made a winky face ;)

  • Laurence

    I’m slightly interested in seeing you refute Feser’s arguments, but that’s only really because I like your writing style and haven’t read anyone else really refute them. I totally understand why it doesn’t really appeal to you and don’t expect you to do it.

    • One Brow

      I’m not a great writer, but I did a 13-part review of my impressions of The Last Superstition on my blog. I don’t know how much of a refutation you would find them.

  • jamessweet

    The dirty little secret of philosophy is that just because a philosopher is held up as “great” to the public and considered required reading in undergraduate courses does not mean professional philosophers think his work is very good, or that they’re obliged to study him carefully before thinking his work is not very good.

    Yep. People confuse “important in their time” with “anywhere close to correct today”.

    • eric

      Philosophy is not unique in this; I’d say the same is true for other fields too. Literature, music, science – in all of them, its pretty standard for someone to take and old idea/concept and improve on it.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Aquinas’ famous five ways

    If the arguments were any good, one would suffice.

  • smrnda

    I actually ended up having quite an argument with a guy who tried to make a non-religious case against homosexuality based on Aquinas on another site. His writing was a mess of words like ‘wholeness’ ‘potentiality’ and ‘actuality’ and ‘directedness’ and his argument against it was that since homosexual sex was not procreative, people are ‘morally culpable’ for engaging in an activity where a ‘potentiality’ cannot be ‘actualized.’ (Apparently heterosexual sex between an infertile couple is still okay since it has the ‘form’ of procreative sex.) Nice to have seen the quote which was probably the source of all that bullshit.

    I kept asking for a translation into plain English and never got it, and when I did the translation that ‘gay sex can’t make babies and since some sex can make babies it’s wrong since it totally can’t but it seems to imply that procreation is a necessary goal or that right and wrong are about making sure you capitalize on every possibility, which we can’t possibly do and need to make tradeoffs.

    • Robert M.

      I remember reading an argument like that where one of the premises was “it is moral to pursue maximal excellence/wholeness” or something like that, and elsewhere admitted his post couldn’t cover the whole topic. By his own definition his comment was immoral.

      • smrnda

        It must have been the same discussion, that sounds way too familiar.

        He could have probably argued that his post was still moral since he was trying as hard as he could to pursue ‘wholeness’, but that would be a subjective assessment.

        If you take that idea to other situations, I mean, is it morally bad that I hit the gym but I’m not trying too hard just because I want to stay in shape but I’m not really obsessed with running a marathon or anything?

  • Kyle Lainson

    Deron Williams isn’t elite. Hes a very very good offensive PG with no D. Obviously Howard will help that but hes a substantial step down from Paul/Rose and doesn’t have the upside of Irving/Rubio. In 2 years hes likely the 5th-7th best PG in the league.

    • Chris Hallquist

      This looks like spam, but as there’s no link to anything, I don’t see what it’s accomplishing. Insights?

      • eric

        Looks to me like someone had two blog windows open, and posted to the wrong one.

        • Chris Hallquist

          That would make sense.

  • Annatar

    Isn’t refuting Feser basically the same as refuting Aquinas? I guess Feser can always complain that you aren’t interpreting Aquinas correctly, but so much of that is shifting goalposts.

  • CJO

    During the time of the Roman empire, Roman elites were expected to be fluent in both Latin and Greek. So while they had great respect for Greek philosophy, the educated Romans never saw any need to translate Greek philosophical texts into Latin (a fact mentioned, for example, in Cicero’s De Finibus). But as the Roman empire collapsed, knowledge of Greek was lost in the west.

    But knowledge of the Greek philosophy of Classical times was largely lost in the (Greek-speaking) Eastern Empire too, which lasted another millennium. The issue wasn’t (just) that these texts didn’t become part of the culural inheritance of the West in Latin, it was that the rise of monasticism and Christian practices generally led to a stilted intellectual environment where a few very narrow issues in theology and church doctrine dominated the scene to the exclusion of the humanist focus of Classical Greek thought. It was as much a deliberate suppression as it was a careless loss.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Interesting. Sources? I’ve heard part of the issue is not so much “deliberate suppression,” but just that they thought it was more important to copy religious texts than philosophical or scientific ones. At least that was Richard Carrier’s take on the Archimedes palimpsest. (You might imagine saying, Eliezer Yudkowsky-like, to a great scientific text: “the monk does not hate you, but neither does he love you, and you are written on parchment he can use for something else.)

      • Jon Hanson

        Haha, that’s one of the funniest things I’ve read in a while.

      • CJO

        Well, it’s uncontroversial that Greek philosophy did not continue to be transmitted in the Greek East either, so it can’t be just a matter of the failure in the West to initiate a line of transmission in Latin; I’m suggesting a common reason for the overall loss to the descendent societies of the empire. Nor is it in question that the Byzantine intellectual class was overwhelmingly concerned with matters of doctrine to the exclusion of universal philosophical inquiry. All that remains, then, is to show active antipathy rather than indifference. Maybe that can’t be demonstrated, but I would submit that, in an environment where indifference will inexorably lead to neglect, and where neglect is tantamount to loss, complete indifference would be at least one way to demonstrate antipathy.

        Regarding sources, as a general but quite extensive and well-researched treatment of the fall of the West and the Dark Ages, I quite enjoyed The Inheritance of Rome, by Chris Wickham. I don’t cite it as authoritative support for my assertions above, but just as a good read on this and related subjects if you’re interested. Good stuff on the consequences of the rise of monasticism in the East as well as probably more than you wanted to know about Iconoclasm and Orthodox doctrinal matters generally.

  • Jon Hanson

    Thanks for this post Chris, I actually think I read your original post on your old blog, but this was worth reading again.

    With this in mind I can see why engaging with Aquinas more seriously would be far down your list, especially when it’s likely to draw the ire of a character like Feser. I admit I hadn’t read that much Feser when I suggested you engage with his arguments yesterday, upon further research I can feel like I mistook philosophical chest puffing for serious argumentation.

    It’s worth noting that from my experience, almost a decade in apologetic circles and a few years in counter-apologetics I can say that Aquinas is almost never mentioned except to provide historical context or, as Feser seems to do, simply as a sort of Saint of Philosophy who by his greatness grants Christianity intellectual legitimacy.

    I admit that Feser’s self sure style made me wonder if atheists weren’t missing something, but this post in combination with the fact that the vast majority of theist’s themselves actually ignore Aquinas sort of settles the issue for now as far as I’m concerned.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Thanks for your comment. It really confirms to me that I nailed this post.

  • josh

    “For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it.” – Aquinas

    Just in case anyone is interested, I’m going to take a stab a explaining the various problems with this statement, which problems you’ll see popping up again and again in the arguments of someone like Feser. Sorry in advance for the long post.

    The idea that fire is actually hot, and conveys this to wood, which is potentially hot, making it actually hot seems like a reasonable enough description, but it is very incomplete. Okay, first off lets clean a couple things up: fire is, well, plasma, and emitted photons from excited electrons changing levels, and combustion which is a chemical change and lots of stuff Aquinas had no way of knowing. It’s more of a process in some ways than a thing like wood is (for now), so let’s go with hot air instead. And for ‘motion’ read ‘change’.

    So we have wood, which is potentially hot and hot air which is actually hot, BUT the wood is actually, currently, room temperature and the hot air is potentially cooler. So EVERYTHING is already actually something, and it is exactly that thing, it is the maximum actuality of whatever it is in that instant. Now, clever monkeys that we are, we can imagine that at some future time, everything will be a somewhat different actual thing. So both the wood and the air could be hotter or colder in the future of our imagination, and we speak of their current states having the potential to become the states we imagine. But as time unfolds to our perception, we see only one actual state emerge, e.g. the wood warms and the air cools. So, especially as we discover through science the laws that apparently govern this process, all the potential states except what actually will happen seem to be a function of our brains limited prediction abilities. They aren’t sitting in the wood and the air, mixed with other potentials and the actual.

    So, there is a sense in which the actual is required to make the potential become actual, but it is only in the sense that what is determines exactly what will be. It is a statement of determinism. So potential is ‘reduced’ to actual as time goes by in the sense that of the many possibilities we might imagine, only one (if any) happens. Of course, in the new state, we can equally imagine the potential of the future from that state. So, again, potential seems to be just a description of our incomplete predictive abilities. Things do not move from potential to actual, rather the universe as a whole moves from actual to actual. And with it, our brains move from one actual guess at what will happen to another actual guess.

    Okay, that’s the deterministic case, you say, what about quantum mechanics? Well, first off, the most natural and complete description of quantum mechanics is a many worlds theory, which is deterministic in the sense we are talking about. (IMO) But, let’s imagine that something like the Copenhagen interpretation is somehow objectively true: Given complete knowledge of the current state of the universe, the laws of physics determine a set range of possibilities, only one of which we will observe in the future. For a large number of repeated experiments, that range of possibilities has a predictable probability distribution, but no amount of information can exactly predict the outcome of a single event.

    That picture sort of looks like a revival of potentialities. But, the claim that the actual is required to actualize the potential makes no sense now. By definition, there is no actual that realizes one potential over another. The potentials realize themselves, consistent with the actual laws of physics. The universe is still moving from actual to actual; whatever happens, happens. Now we are including the potential at any given time as a sort of ontological entity that is part of an objects complete description, rather than as an epistemological artifact of our minds. But that is to say that the potential itself is an actual thing, it’s no less actual than any other part of an object’s description, like saying the air is hot. Again, things aren’t a mixture of actual and potential, they are all actual and potential in this scenario is an intrinsic part of that. There is now an intrinsic limit to our epistemological ability to predict the future, but Aquinas’s framework and arguments still don’t work.

    Moving beyond all that, Aquinas is untenably priviledging time. Relativity shows us that you can’t seperate time from space, and time invariance of physics equations suggests that our preferred direction of time isn’t really intrinsic to the universe at a fundamental level. So there is no reason we can’t consider a ‘thing’ to be extensive but constant in time while changing in space. So, e.g., one fiber of wood changes into another, which changes gradually into air as space passes, while a single fixed point in space, viewed over the directionless continuum of time is the ‘actual’ object with ‘potential’ to change into the point next to it. But then, obviously, we can take the “God’s Eye” view that the universe is a continuous whole in space and time, a singular unchanging object, all actual, no potential. This would be true regardless of whether or not humans can predict one slice of the whole based on knowing another.

    Thus, Aquinas/Aristotle’s ideas of actual and potential just don’t have the rigor or power to really describe the universe. There is a reason modern science spends its efforts to discover and quantify the rules of how reality fits together, to say if we can predict one set of observations based on another, and not to decide if a material thing has lived up to its teleologically directed potentiality as set by ultimate actuality in expression of its essence, plus no gays.

    • smrnda

      Excellent deflating of the pretentious drivel of Thomas Aquinas. Behind the big words there’s really just a total ignorance of how the physical world operate.

    • mnb0

      You can’t blame Thomas A for this. You can blame Feser though.

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  • Lord Griggss[ Ignostic Morgan, Inquiring Lynn, Skeptic Griggsy, Carneades of Ga., Fr.or Rabbi Griggs]

    Leucippus has it ever right that necessity rules! Necessity, including randomness explains the great why of why things happen as they do naturally. Randomness happens without being directed for outcomes.The demise of the dinosaurs, the cooling-off period, the flowering plants and good mutations happened deterministically without regard for our evolving as Aquinas-Feser prattle!
    Necessity-determinism- has no concern for us, but that does not lead to our being forlorn and without purpose as we,per Sartre,have the responsibility for our own meanings and purposes. Indeed ti’s a grave insult to humanity to prattle with Paul that we are pottery and God is our potter: per lamberth’s argument from autonomy, we owe God nothing and He has no rights over us, and per [ Google: ] Fr.Meslier’s the problem of Heaven,He’d face that one-way street of having to have put us into a better place in the first place!
    This goes to the heart of theism-its theme that we owe duties to putative God! We gnus should ever stress Lamberth’s argument from autonomy!
    We must also stress the essential word games theist play- the sophistry.
    We must stress [ Google:]the Flew-Lamberth the presumption of naturalism that natural causes themselves are the primary cause, the necessary being and the sufficient reason.
    Gnu atheists -yes! Lamberth’s arguments deny that we need to traverse the Cosmos and have omniscience ourselves to proclaim this truth: God cannot exist! By analysis, not by dogma and a priori, this works.

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