Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, is, I suspect, one of those works that makes a “splash” and then dwindles away. It is certainly not the first attempt to discredit belief in God and it will, by no means, be the last.
I used to make it a habit to read books criticizing religious faith. My motive was to make sure I was “up” on the arguments that I might encounter in my dialogues with others. At one time, too, my motive was to make sure I had not missed anything relevant that might lead me to question my own convictions. I’ve always wanted to believe in God and have also been confident that belief in God was fully justified by my experience of this world in which we all find ourselves. I’ve never wanted to be deceived, however, and therefore am willing to hear critical evaluations of my reasons to believe.
After reading a good number of popular as well as more sophisticated assaults on theism, I lost interest. The reason for this loss of interest is that the arguments became uninteresting. The “new” authors tended to do little more than rehash old arguments and did more to reveal their hatred of religion than advance the cause of truth. Consequently, I moved on to more interesting topics.
When I learned of Professor Dawkins’ book, I determined to obtain a copy and see if there was something I had missed. The book had attracted much attention and represented a “new” effort to attack religious faith. Out of a desire to make sure I was well-informed, I went to a large bookstore, found a copy and sat on the floor for an hour or so surveying the book.
Had I followed my initial impulse, I would have placed the book back on the shelf and forgotten about it altogether. The book was clearly an anti-religious tirade that revealed almost no serious attempt to sympathetically understand the arguments he was critiquing. It was an overt effort to preach to the ignorant and uninformed as well as the “choir” of already-convinced atheists. I did not put it back on the shelf, however; I purchased the book. My reasons were basically three in number: (1) the book is a great example of atheist propaganda, (2) the book is “popular” in style, written by a “highly qualified” author and is therefore dangerous to those who come under its influence, and (3) its critiques of arguments for God’s existence are concise and to-the-point and provide a useful example of what an atheist would say in reply to traditional arguments for God, especially those of St. Thomas Aquinas.
I took up the several pages of Dawkins’ criticisms of St. Thomas’ arguments in some of my theology classes and it is those criticisms I’d like to describe here.
Aquinas’ First Three “Ways”
Dawkin’s disposes of Aquinas’ first three “ways” by (a) reducing them to the same argument, (b) asserting that even if these arguments work they don’t reveal any of the traditional God’s essential attributes (e.g., omnipotence, omniscience, goodness), (c) there are contradictions between the traditional attributes of God, and (d) there are natural “terminators” of regresses in the material world and therefore it is an unnecessary leap to assume that God is needed to explain the series of “regresses” found in this world.
For anyone that has spent time studying Aquinas, one can only scratch his head in disbelief at this series of replies. In less than two pages of text, Dawkins has disposed of arguments that have perplexed and intrigued great minds for centuries. When one looks to the citations used to support his arguments, it becomes immediately evident that Dawkins gives no evidence of having acquainted himself with the barest of literature on the subject. He apparently read the relevant texts from Aquinas (not knowing that Aquinas never intended his text to be read without a guide to explain the technical language and reasoning that he assumes) but gave no attention to the lengthy tradition of interpreting these texts that would have answered all of his objections with great ease.
In order to illustrate my point, let us focus on the first “way” that Aquinas proposes to demonstrate the existence of God. The argument grounds itself in the experience of motion or change. When something comes to be, it does so under the influence of some real cause. It is not possible for a “potential” cause to produce a real effect. A cause has to be real in order for it to have a real effect. To argue otherwise is to say that things happen for no reason at all. This is not only unscientific but it is absurd.
Second, Aquinas deduces that either the series of things coming into being (undergoing motion) is endless or it is grounded in some unmoved (perfectly “actualized”) Mover (i.e., God). Aquinas concludes that an endless series of things coming into being is absurd since there would be no ultimate reason for anything. Consider, for instance, a current instance of motion. Let’s say my typing these words. There are necessary conditions that allow it to be the case now that I am typing. We could speak, for instance, of the energy in my body (provided by the food I eat) or we could speak of the educators that taught me to read, write and type. We could also expand our analysis of this current motion to include more remote causes, like the gravitational pull of this planet or the heat of the sun. Whatever the causes, it is clear that there are current causes of my motions without which they could not happen.
What Aquinas is arguing is that the number of things that depend on each other right now that allow me to type these words cannot be infinite in number. If they were infinite in number, I would never be able to type a word! If an endless series of preconditions had to be satisfied in order for me to type the next word in this sentence that word would never be typed. Imagine if a parent told her child he could not attend the football game tonight unless he first completed a list of an infinite number of chores. If the number of chores is truly infinite (an absurd notion in itself), the child would never make it to the game (or to any other event).
It must be, then, that the number of things upon which I depend right now that allow me to type these words cannot be endless. There must be a ground of all current motion or else one is left with a series without a real explanation. To say that there is always another finite, dependent cause of every finite dependent effect is to refuse to answer the question that reason forces upon our intellect. If the atheist is satisfied with an infinite series of finite things, it is only because he refuses to see the massive hole that is created in our efforts to understand this world and our own selves.
Dawkins and virtually all atheists fail to understand Aquinas’ arguments for a variety of reasons. The most common reason is that they assume Aquinas’ rejection of an infinite series is concerned with a sequentially first cause of a train of causes reaching back in time. This is most certainly not Aquinas’ argument. Aquinas is concerned with current, hierarchical causes. This is why he admits that philosophy cannot prove that time and space had a beginning, since it is theoretically possible that God created from all eternity, but insists that God is absolutely necessary in order to provide a current ground of all motion. Since most critics of Aquinas assume he is arguing for a temporal “first” in a series that then sustains itself through time (somewhat like in Deism), they fail to see the real force of the argument.
Dawkins displays no awareness of this observation. To the contrary, he reveals his ignorance of it when he considers Aquinas’ rejection of an infinite regress. He thinks that if we can reduce matter to some most basic element (he mentions “atoms”) then there is evidence of a natural regress. Simply thinking about the example makes one wonder if he is serious. Aquinas would simply ask Dawkins, I suppose, if a piece of steak or a piece of gold is fully explained by its atomic structure. Surely one must go beyond the atomic structure to the conditions that allow for that structure to exist. Although, for instance, a piece of steak may be made of atoms, those atoms came to exist on account of the grass and water consumed by the cow that now sits on the plate as a piece of steak. Dawkins misses Aquinas’ point altogether by limiting himself to a particular material thing rather than seeing the inevitable relationship of that particular thing to other things that are causally related to it.
What of Dawkins’ claim that there is “absolutely no” reason to believe, assuming Aquinas’ arguments for God work, that God has any of the attributes classically attributed to Him (e.g., omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness)?
This claim is perhaps even more perplexing than the first one. First, anyone that reads Aquinas’ Summa theologiae cannot fail to notice, based on the table of contents alone, that Aquinas considers all of these attributes. He also reasons, without grounding his arguments in Scripture that these attributes must belong to God.
That God is omnipotent means that there are no external limits to God’s power. In other words, God can do what He wants. This follows from the fact that God cannot have a restricting essence. To illustrate, consider how the world about us imposes a host of limitations on our “power.” God, on the other hand, is not “part of” a material world that imposes limitations on Him.
How do we know this? Well, we might first note that God, in order to explain the changing world of motion we observe, must transcend change altogether. If God is a part of the changing world, He, too, needs explanation. The arguments for God force the mind to affirm that God transcends the categories of change and limit. Limit suggests something that restricts or sets a boundary to something. Since God is absolutely first and the cause of everything other than Himself, there is nothing outside Him that can impose a limit. God’s power, then, shares in the meaning of God’s infinity.
Dawkins thinks that God’s omniscience and omnipotence cannot be reconciled. This, he claims, is yet another problem with the notion of God. The problem here, again, is that Dawkins is sloppy in his understanding of the relevant terms. He assumes that omnipotence means God can do absolutely anything. To the contrary, as Aquinas is careful to point out, omnipotence means God is free of any external constraint. God can do anything He wants to do. God’s will and nature, however, are internal realities that are always integrated with God’s exertion of power.
Dawkins thinks the fact that God knows the future limits His exercise of power. Since God knows what He will do tomorrow, for example, God can’t change what He will do tomorrow. God’s power, consequently, is “limited.” The challenge is flawed for many reasons. One is that there is no “tomorrow” for God. God’s actions flow from His present, infinite perfection. There are countless paradoxes and conundrums that accompany the human inability to comprehend the immutable, eternal God but admitting such frailty is much wiser than speaking of God’s attributes inaccurately and then drawing invalid conclusions from inaccuracies.
This argument is little difference from the sophistical question, “Can God make a rock so big He can’t lift it?” The conundrum is that either answer given will imply a limit to divine power. The correct answer, Aquinas would agree, is that God can by no means make such a rock! God would never will to make such a rock since God’s will and nature are truly one. God would have to will that He cease to be God in order to make something that is outside His power. There are numerous things God “can’t” do (e.g., become the devil, make square circles, cease to exist). None of these affect omnipotence if we understand that to mean God’s ability to do anything He wants to do. The only limits to God’s power, in other words, are the limits of His own inner life. In order to meet Dawkins’ objection, it is not necessary to explain to everyone’s satisfaction how all God’s attributes relate to each other and every aspect of creation. It is sufficient to show that the arguments for God support the conclusion that God is not restricted in power or knowledge. How God’s knowledge and power are related within Himself is a question that can be pondered forever and there can be differences of opinion on how to resolve it. All we need to show is that there are reasonable ways to reconcile God’s attributes. If God’s knowledge and His power are harmonious in God, we can acknowledge internal reasons for the way in which God’s power is exercised while still acknowledging that there are no external constraints. That is enough to satisfy the challenge.
What of God’s goodness? Here, too, Aquinas offers arguments from reason that God must be good. He begins with Aristotle’s definition of “good.” We consider something good inasmuch as it is desirable. A good plate of food is one that is appealing to the hungry animal. Sometimes, of course, something may appear good but actually be bad; as, for instance, when the food on the plate is mixed with poison. Something that is truly good, then, is something that contributes to the positive movement of a creature towards its happiness or fulfillment. We can say that a thing that is happy or fulfilled is good and we can say that the things that help it to achieve that state are goods.
What Aquinas observes is that goodness, understood as the fulfillment of a thing, is actually its greater perfection in being. In other words, when a thing moves towards becoming fully what it can be, it is called good. If it moves away from that goal (e.g., by eating poison or contracting disease), such a state of affairs is called bad.
In what sense is God good? God, as the source of all reality is perfectly good since He is infinite in being. There is nothing God can be that He is not already. There is no part of reality that exceeds God in its level of completeness or perfection. As a result, God is most good since all other instances of good finitely mirror the supreme completion or goodness found in God.
In these brief summaries of some (certainly not all) of Aquinas’ reasons to believe that God is omniscient and good we find ourselves a far distance from Dawkins’ evaluation: “there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator (i.e. God) with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness…” (101, emphasis added). Why doesn’t Dawkins interact with Aquinas on the reasons he offers? I doubt that it is a malicious act of deception. My guess is that Dawkins did little more than look at Aquinas’ arguments for God and chose not to look at anything more and summarily dismissed the arguments based on a superficial reading. I hope, at least, this is the explanation since the alternative would be that he is purposefully deceptive in his claims.
The Argument from Degree
The fourth “way” that Aquinas argues for God’s existence receives little attention in contrast to the other four. In fact, there are different interpretations of the argument. Let’s give it a try.
Aquinas notes that we make distinctions in things in this world based on, what appears to be, some standard of distinction. For instance, I might say that one kind of action is better than another. Giving up some of my time to help someone in need is “better,” for instance, than me grudgingly giving a quarter that I found on the ground in a church offering. It is also true that not doing a homework assignment is not as “bad” as murdering people for fun. Everyone seems to have the ability to distinguish between things that are better/worse, good/bad, beautiful/ugly, etc. If these judgments are objectively true, they must represent some kind of real, objective standard over against which things are judged to be good or bad. That standard is not found in this world. We find true or good things but not truth or goodness itself. We never find “beauty” itself but we do find beautiful things. Aquinas uses the example of fire. To him, things are hot on account of fire or the heat of the sun. Since the sun causes the warmth and heat on this planet, we can say that everything in this world that is warm or hot in some way is derived from the sun.
The basic principle is that degrees within a species or kind of thing argue for a supreme principle that provides the basis for the species itself.
Dawkins quickly disposes of this argument by a reductio ad absurdum: “You might as well say, people vary in smelliness but we can make a comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness” (102). God, then, would be the “pre-eminently peerless stinker.”
This conclusion, of course, misses the point altogether. Aquinas would simply point out that “smelliness” is a part of a larger genus. Smelliness is a way in which material, changing beings exist in this world. It also happens to be an offensive way in which beings exist. If smelliness is a negative feature of some beings in this world, we can conclude that smelly beings are not as “good” as beings that have a pleasing odor, at least in regard to sensory appeal. This process of distinguishing between degrees of perfection in things is another instance of recognizing greater and lesser beings, all of which is possible because there is a supreme being, God. Dawkins’ mistake is to think too low on the scale of beings. Yet again, then, Dawkins simply misunderstands Aquinas’ argument.
The Argument from Design
Dawkins’ final assault on Aquinas’ arguments is directed towards the Fifth Way. According to Dawkins’ summary of the argument, Aquinas claimed that things that look designed have to be designed. Living things, especially, seem to be designed. Consequently, there must be a Designer, and “we call him God” (103). His response to this argument is to say that Darwin demolished it by his theory of natural selection. “There has probably never been a more devastating rout of popular belief by clever reasoning than Charles Darwin’s destruction of the argument from design.” He “improves” on Aquinas’ analogy of an arrow reaching its target by suggesting a “heat-seeking anti-aircraft missile”. The point seems to be that a heat-seeking missile is a finely devised, goal-seeking invention and its complexity and sophistication are best explained by an intelligent designer.
A few points are in order. Let’s first consider the arrow analogy. If, while walking through a field, I notice in the distance an arrow moving towards a target, narrowly missing a bull’s eye, I begin to look for the archer. If I continue to see arrows streak towards the target, I continue to look towards the direction the arrows originate. In other words, my mind will search for the cause of a moving arrow towards a target. If, on the other hand, I see a pile of rocks simply flying about randomly, I would not immediately assume there is an intelligent cause of the motion. The movement of the arrow towards a “goal” or target implies a cause of that intentional motion. The arrow itself in its state of motion is not sufficient to explain its tendency to move toward the target.
A similar kind of intentionality can be observed in nature. We are not satisfied, Aquinas reasons, with explanations of purposeful activity in nature any more than we are with instances of purposefulness in human experience when we remain on the level of instrumental causes. If, for instance, I write a word on a writing board with a pen, we do not rest content with the pen as the ultimate cause of the writing. We do not attribute intelligence to the pen on account of the fact that it wrote the words. We search for an intelligent cause that moves the pen. Similarly, when we observe nature typically exhibiting an orderly and predictable set of effects, often with apparent intentionality, we are justified in seeking an intelligent cause of this behavior.
Although Darwin’s theory did undermine the confidence of many in the validity of William Paley’s version of the Teleological Argument for God’s existence, others met Darwin’s challenge in other ways. First, philosophers of faith, especially F. R. Tennant (d. 1957), simply expanded the net of intentionality to include the whole cosmic scheme. In other words, although it might be possible to explain a single instance of apparent teleology through random causes, it is not reasonable to explain the whole trajectory of the cosmos as an orderly and predictable set of causes and effects without a supreme “lawgiver” and governor. This is very similar to Aquinas’ observation that “natural bodies always, or nearly always, act for an end (aim, goal, purpose)” (Summa theologiae I, 2, 3). Aquinas’ argument is not founded primarily in living systems, as Dawkins’ claims but, rather, in the regularity of all natural bodies, whether living or not.
Although I am largely ignorant why, Richard Dawkins has earned the right to be heard on a variety of topics related to science. With respect to the great philosophical questions, however, he has not. His critique of St. Thomas is a pitiful substitute for serious scholarship and cannot be taken seriously. If what we have seen is the best he can do in reply to Aquinas, I cannot but conclude that Dawkins is deluded.
Mark A. McNeil – October, 2008
Mr. McNeil currently teaches theology at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory (Houston)