Kreeft’s Case for God – Part 16: Aquinas’s Way #4

WHERE WE ARE AT WITH THE FIRST FIVE ARGUMENTS

For the first five arguments in his case for God, Peter Kreeft makes use of the Five Ways of Thomas Aquinas.  Kreeft’s versions of four of those Five Ways are complete failures, because he does not bother to provide any support for the most important premises of those arguments.  Thus, we can reasonably toss aside Argument #1, Argument #2, Argument #3, and Argument #5, for this reason alone.

Kreeft does slightly better with Argument #4, the Argument from Degrees of Perfection,  because he provides at least a hint about a line of reasoning that could be used to support the most important premise of Argument #4:

D. IF an absolutely perfect being exists, THEN God exists.

Furthermore, in my view this key premise has significantly greater initial plausibility than the analogous key premises in the other arguments based on the Five Ways of Aquinas.  For this reason, Argument #4 is the ONLY argument in the Five Ways that has any chance of being a strong and solid argument for the existence of God.  So, I am going to take a closer look this argument, and will not toss it aside until I have examined it in more detail and found it to be a weak or defective argument.

 

THE ARGUMENT AS PRESENTED BY AQUINAS

Kreeft is supposed to be CLARIFYING the arguments of Aquinas, and making them understandable for a general audience, but in this case he makes the argument UNCLEAR and more difficult to understand.  The Argument from Degrees of Perfection is fairly clear as presented by Aquinas, and it is fairly UNCLEAR as presented by Kreeft, so I will begin by focusing on the argument as presented by Aquinas, and then move on to try to figure out what the hell Kreeft’s version of this argument means.

Aquinas’s statement of the argument is quoted in full in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd edition (see “Degrees of Perfection, Argument for the Existence of God” in Volume 2):

The fourth way is based on the gradation observed in things.  Some things are found to be more good, more true, more noble, and so on, and other things less.  But comparative terms describe varying degrees of approximation to a superlative; for example,  things are hotter and hotter the nearer they approach what is hottest.  Something therefore is the truest and best and most noble of things, and hence the most fully in being; for Aristotle says that the truest things are the things most fully in being.  Now when many things possess some property in common, the one most fully possessing it causes it in the others: fire, to use Aristotle’s example, the hottest of all things, causes all other things to be hot.  There is something therefore which causes in all other things their being, their goodness, and whatever other perfections they have.  And this we call God.   (Summa Theologica Ia, 2, 3)

 

Here are the main premises of Aquinas’s argument quoted above:

1. Some things are found to be more good, more true, more noble, and so on, and other things less. 

2. Comparative terms describe varying degrees of approximation to a superlative.

3. Something…is the truest and best and most noble of things.

4. When many things possess some property in common, the one most fully possessing it causes it in the others.

5. There is something…which causes in all other things…their goodness, and whatever other perfections they have. 

6. This we call God.

As it stands, this argument is irrelevant to the question “Does God exist?”.  In order to make this argument relevant to the question at issue, we need to revise premise (6), and state the actual conclusion.  Here is the final inference in the clarified argument:

5.  There is something…which causes in all other things…their goodness, and whatever other perfections they have. 

6a. IF there is something…which causes in all other things…their goodness, and whatever other perfections they have, THEN God exists.

THEREFORE:

A. God exists.

Premises (3) and (4) are given in support of premise (5):

3. Something…is the truest and best and most noble of things.

4. When many things possess some property in common, the one most fully possessing it causes it in the others.

THEREFORE:

5. There is something…which causes in all other things…their goodness, and whatever other perfections they have. 

Premises (1) and (2) are given in support of premise (3):

1. Some things are found to be more good, more true, more noble, and so on, and other things less. 

2. Comparative terms describe varying degrees of approximation to a superlative.

THEREFORE:

3. Something…is the truest and best and most noble of things.

 

AMBIGUITY IN PREMISE (3)

Aquinas and his followers are, for some reason, unable to use the word “something” without committing the fallacy of EQUIVOCATION.  (Suggestion: Thomists should not be allowed to use this word in a philosophical argument for the next seven centuries.)  Aquinas uses the word “something” ambiguously in premise (3):

3. Something…is the truest and best and most noble of things.

This premise has at least four different meanings:

3a.  At least one thing is the truest of things AND at least one thing is the best of things AND at least one thing is the most noble of things.

3b.  At least one thing is the truest of things and is also the best of things and is also the most noble of things.

3c.  Exactly one thing is the truest of things AND exactly one thing is the best of things AND exactly one thing is the most noble of things.

3d.  Exactly one thing is the truest of things and is also the best of things and is also the most noble of things.

There are actually more meanings of premise (3) than just these four interpretations, because the terms “truest” and “best” and “most noble” are themselves ambiguous.  It is not clear whether there can be TWO or more “best” of things.  In other words, does Aquinas allow for a tie for first place?  On one interpretation of “best” there can be only ONE thing that is best, and so if two things are better than everything else, but neither one is better than the other, then there is NO best of things, on that interpretation of the word “best”.

Aquinas commits the fallacy of EQUIVOCATION in this reasoning, based on the ambiguity of premise (3).  The sub-argument is clearly insufficient to prove the strong claim made in (3d).  At best, the sub-argument supports the weak claim made in (3a).  But Aquinas needs the stronger claim made in (3d) for the rest of his argument to work.  Premise (3a) is too weak to provide support for premise (5).  The sub-argument for (3) is either INVALID and fails to prove the strong claim (3d), or else it is VALID but proves only the weak claim (3a), which is not adequate to support premise (5).  Therefore, either the sub-argument for (3) is INVALID, or else the sub-argument for (5) is INVALID.

 

CLARIFICATION OF PREMISE (5)

If we look at the wording of premise (5) taken by itself, ignoring the context, then it too uses the word “something” ambiguously, and it can be given at least two different interpretations:

5a. There is at least one thing…which causes in all other things…their goodness, and whatever other perfections they have. 

5b. There is exactly one thing…which causes in all other things…their goodness, and whatever other perfections they have. 

It does seem a bit odd, however, that there could be TWO (or more) things which cause “in all other things…their goodness…”, because then these ultimate causes of goodness would also be causing each other’s goodness, and there might be some logical contradiction involved in that scenario.  But there is another better reason to eliminate interpretation (5a).  In context, it is clear that Aquinas is referring to just ONE thing:

There is something therefore which causes in all other things their being, their goodness, and whatever other perfections they have.  And this we call God (emphasis added)

The pronoun “this” clearly implies that the word “something” in the previous sentence means EXACTLY ONE thing.  Furthermore, calling something “God” also implies that he is referring to EXACTLY ONE thing, because “God” is a proper noun, the name of an individual being.   So, in context, premise (5) clearly is making the stronger claim (5b).  In order to avoid a similar ambiguity with premise (6), that premise should be revised to use the same clear quantification language as in (5b):

5b. There is exactly one thing…which causes in all other things…their goodness, and whatever other perfections they have. 

6b. IF there is exactly one thing…which causes in all other things…their goodness, and whatever other perfections they have, THEN God exists.

THEREFORE:

A. God exists.

 

THE SUB-ARGUMENT FOR PREMISE (5b)

We can now clearly state the sub-argument for premise (5b):

3a.  At least one thing is the truest of things AND at least one thing is the best of things AND at least one thing is the most noble of things.

4. When many things possess some property in common, the one most fully possessing it causes it in the others.

THEREFORE:

5b. There is exactly one thing…which causes in all other things…their goodness, and whatever other perfections they have. 

Now that we have clarified the meanings of premises (3) and (5), it becomes obvious that this sub-argument is INVALID.  All that can legitimately be inferred from (3a) and (4) is that the truest of things causes truth in other things that are less true, and that the best of things causes goodness in other things that are less good, and that the most noble of things causes nobility in other things that are less noble.  We cannot infer that there is EXACTLY ONE thing which causes ALL perfections in everything else.

Premise (4) is pretty obviously FALSE, as well.  Aquinas gives the example of fire causing heat in other things that are less hot than fire.  But this is clearly a HASTY GENERALIZATION.   First of all, the example doesn’t work at all, because fire is NOT a thing.  Fire is a KIND of thing.  There are many fires, many instances of fire.  Second, specific instances of fire are NOT the hottest thing there is.  Some instances of fire are hotter than other instances of fire.  Also, some physical objects can become hotter than some instances of fire.  Finally, fire is NOT the only cause of heat in things.  Heat can also be caused by friction, and by the flow of electricity.  Fire is basically a rapid form of oxidation, which is different from friction and from the flow of electricity.  The evidence that Aquinas gives in support of (4) FAILS to support (4), and we cannot reasonably draw a universal conclusion from a single alleged example.

Coaches are not necessarily the very best players of the sport they coach.  So, a football coach can be a worse football player than the players that he coaches.  But that means that a cause of the excellence of some of the best football players might well be a worse football player than they are.   

Charcoal can be used to filter water, to make water more pure.  But after using a charcoal filter to purify water for a while, the filter becomes less pure than the water.  Even so, the charcoal filter can continue to be used to purify the water, at least for some additional period of time.  In that period of time, the filter is less pure than the water that it is being used to purify.   

The cause of an oak tree is a tiny acorn.  The largeness of the oak tree is thus caused by something that is much smaller than the oak tree, not by something that is larger than the oak tree, and certainly not by the largest thing that has ever existed. The size of the blast from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was much larger than the bomb that caused the blast.  Therefore, the largeness of the blast was caused by something much smaller than the blast, and not by something that was much larger than the blast.

There are many counterexamples to the universal generalization made in premise (4), so we can reasonably conclude that (4) is false.

Therefore, the sub-argument for (5b) is definitely UNSOUND, because it contains an INVALID inference, and because it is based on a FALSE premise.

 

EVALUATION OF PREMISE (3a)

Here is the sub-argument for (3a):

1. Some things are found to be more good, more true, more noble, and so on, and other things less. 

2. Comparative terms describe varying degrees of approximation to a superlative.

THEREFORE:

3a. At least one thing is the truest of things AND at least one thing is the best of things AND at least one thing is the most noble of things.

This sub-argument is clearly INVALID.  That is, as stated it is formally INVALID.  It might well be possible to re-state this sub-argument in a way that is formally VALID.  I think premise (2) can be reasonably viewed as support for an unstated premise that would make the argument VALID:

1. Some things are found to be more good, more true, more noble, and so on, and other things less. 

B. If one thing has more of quality X than another thing, then there is at least one thing that has the most of quality X.

THEREFORE:

3a. At least one thing is the truest of things AND at least one thing is the best of things AND at least one thing is the most noble of things.

Premise (2) is a reason given in support of the unstated assumption (B), which makes the argument VALID.  (Actually, the argument still is not quite formally valid, but it is easier to see that this revised argument is deductively valid and that it could be revised to make it formally valid.)

Let’s suppose that Aquinas allows for there to be a tie for first place, that there could be two “best” things, for example.  It seems as if (B) is an analytic truth, and thus it would not matter whether premise (2) actually implies or provides a good reason for (B).

If there are various things that have quality X, and at least one of those things has more of that quality than one of the other things, then it seems like there MUST be one or more things in that set of things that has “the most” of quality X.  Some people are taller than other people, so there MUST be at least one person who is the tallest person (perhaps there are many people tied for being the tallest person).  Some cars are faster than other cars, so there MUST be at least one car that is the fastest car (perhaps there are several cars that would tie for being the fastest car).

Although (B) appears to be an analytic truth, it is actually an analytic FALSEHOOD.  It is an analytic falsehood, because it is a universal generalization that has a counterexample that is a necessary truth:

Some integers are greater than other integers, but there is no greatest integer.

So, (B) is a false universal generalization in all possible worlds.

Besides being a necessary falsehood, (B) also is clearly too weak to be of use in the rest of Aquinas’s argument, a weakness that is passed on to premise (3a), making (3a) inadequate to support premise (5b).

Suppose that only two persons exist, and that one person is Satan and the other is Adolf Hitler.  In this world, it would presumably be the case that Hitler was a better person than Satan, because Hitler is presumably not as wicked and evil as Satan.  Since Hitler is better than Satan, if these were the only two persons in existence, then Hitler would be the best person.  Big Freaking Deal!  In this world, there is a best person but that person is a horrible and very evil person, NOT a perfectly good person, and NOT God.

So, premise (B) and premise (3a) can only be used to show that there is at least one thing that has “the most” of some good quality, but that is logically compatible with this thing having only a tiny smidgen of that good quality,  and thus falling miles and miles short of divine perfection.

 

EVALUATION OF PREMISE (6b)

The single most important premise in the Argument from Degrees of Perfection as presented by Aquinas is the premise that links the idea of a single cause of all perfections to the idea of God:

6b. IF there is exactly one thing…which causes in all other things…their goodness, and whatever other perfections they have, THEN God exists.

Aquinas provides no support for this premise in the Five Ways passage.  He does continue his case for God for over a hundred more pages after the Five Ways passage, so one could probably construct a line of reasoning from those later passages in support of (6b).  I won’t make that attempt here.  I’m just going to evaluate (6b) as it stands.

Premise (6b) is very dubious because, as we saw in our examination of premise (4), the cause of a property in thing X does NOT need to have that property to a greater degree than thing X.  A coach can cause a football player to become a better player than the coach is or ever was.  A charcoal filter can be less pure than the water it causes to become purified.  A tiny acorn can cause an oak tree that is much larger than the acorn.   A small atomic bomb can cause a blast that is much larger than the bomb.  Because (4) is clearly FALSE, (6b) is very questionable.  The cause of goodness in all things need NOT be better than any of the things it causes to be good.  The cause of knowledge in other beings need NOT have more knowledge than those beings it causes to have knowledge.  The cause of the power of other things need NOT be more powerful than those things to which it gives power.

Because (4) is FALSE, it appears to me that (6b) is also FALSE.  Premise (6b) implies a logically necessary connection between causing goodness in other things and possessing maximal or unlimited goodness, but there is no such logically necessary connection, at least none that I can discern.

 

CONCLUSION

Click on the image below for a clearer view of the argument diagram of the logical structure of Aquinas’s Way #4 argument:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although Aquinas’s version of the Argument from Degrees of Perfection is clearer than Kreeft’s version, it still contains some serious ambiguities, and it turns out to be a very crappy argument, full of serious problems.

The sub-argument for (5b) is clearly UNSOUND; the inference is INVALID, and premise (4) is FALSE.

The most important premise of the argument is premise (6b), and because premise (4) is FALSE, this gives us good reason to believe that (6b) is also FALSE.

The final inference in the argument is VALID but this part of the argument is probably UNSOUND because (5b) is dubious (supported by an INVALID sub-argument with a FALSE premise), and (6b) appears to be FALSE:

5b. There is exactly one thing…which causes in all other things…their goodness, and whatever other perfections they have. 

6b. IF there is exactly one thing…which causes in all other things…their goodness, and whatever other perfections they have, THEN God exists.

THEREFORE:

A. God exists.

 

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