Monday, January 14, 2013

Aquinas vs Bandoli

From the October 2009 E-Block.


Many years back I did a parody (now on the tektoonics site) of a website by a Scandanavian atheist styled "Bandoli". Frequent guest writer Nick Peters offers this consideration of Bandoli's poor treatment of Thomas Aquinas.
And so, another page attempts to prove that God didn't exist.[1] I was quite amused when they got to the five ways of Thomas Aquinas seeing as I attend a seminary whose philosophy is Thomism, so I know the five ways well and I can look at this and realize the people writing these arguments do not understand these arguments.

The first they give is the second argument, but it would be better to address the first argument first, which they put second. Let's look at what they say:
Nothing moves without being set in motion by something/somebody. Since the universe is in motion, there must be a first unmovable mover, and we call him God.[2]
The argument however is not the argument from motion as in physical motion but rather any process of change. A leaf changing color would be considered motion in that sense. We can see what Aquinas really said however:
The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. 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. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.[3]
What Thomas is getting at is the idea of potentiality and actuality. Potentiality would refer to anything that can change. If the water goes from room temperature to boiling, that would count as motion. Whatever state the water is in is its actuality. Thus, in actuality, I am an adult writing this email right now, whereas several years ago when I was a small child, I was an actual child and a potential adult. For me, the status of being an adult has been actualized.

Thomas is wanting us to realize that nothing actualizes itself. Instead, in some way, all is actualized by another. Even your own decisions are actualized by another in that you seek the good and that which you seek is outside of yourself in what Aristotle would call a final cause, the reason why you do something.

There must be somewhere however a being who does not have potential or else we have an infinite regress. This being who is pure actuality is what we call God.
With that, we move on to the second argument, first as presented by Bandoli:
Nothing can come from nothing, every effect has a prior cause. But in the end there has to be a first cause. This we can call God.[4]
Thomas's second argument is far more complex:
The second way is from the nature of the efficient cause. In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.[5]
From a metaphysical perspective, Aquinas is here really arguing about the cause of a thing's existence. He is also likely depending on ideas from the first argument. This is not about the cause of motion but the cause of existing itself.

Briefly, there must be some being in existence whose being is his essence and does not receive being from anything else. God does not participate in being but rather is pure being. The author of this site does not know this since it is unlikely he has ever read anything on Aquinas or the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas.

Bandoli's listing of the third is as follows:
At some time there did not exist any physical things. Now, since physical things exist there must have been some non-physical entity to create it. We call this entity God.[6]
Again, Aquinas's actual argument is far more complex:
The third way is taken from possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence - which is absurd. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.[7]
Here, Aquinas is again continuing his metaphysics with the argument that if all we had were possible beings, then there would be no beings in existence as all that begins to exist is caused by a prior existence. Aquinas is taking the idea of efficient causes and applying it to necessary causes. The author at the Bandoli web site says in response:
If we, just for the hell of it, should accept these arguments as valid, there is nothing to imply that this creator God is intelligent, omnipotent or all knowing. Neither that this God would be interested in listening to prayers, hate humans working on Sundays or despise long hair on men, or find delight in punishing non-believers with eternal torture.[8]
Which anyone who actually read the Prima Pars of the Summa Theologica would know that first off, this is not the point of these arguments. Thomas is not trying to show that the Christian God specifically is the one who exists at this point. He spends the next several questions in the book giving the details about the God who exists. This shows again that the writer is unfamiliar with the topic. Note also the argument from outrage on punishing non-believers with eternal torture.
As for the fourth argument, our author says:
Thomas fourth "proof" of God's existence (the Argument from degree) is that all things in the world differ; they vary to degrees of a maximum and a minimum. We judge these degrees by comparing with a maximum, ex. of goodness or perfection. And since humans can be both good and evil, the maximum goodness can not rest with us. It must be some other place, and the maximum good, we can call God.[9]
Thomas himself says:
The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But "more" and "less" are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.[10]
Before explaining this, let us see what Dawkins says about this, as noted by Bandoli:
"You might as well say, people vary in smelliness but we can make the comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness. Therefore there must exist a pre-eminently peerless stinker, and we call him God"[11]
Dawkins is a brilliant biologist, but he is no philosopher. To quote him on a philosophical matter then is highly invalid. What is forgotten is that Thomas would have been speaking about the transcendentals. That would be such categories as goodness, truth, and beauty. There must be a being of maximum goodness, truth, and beauty. Even if using the analogy of heat, Thomas would have spoken of "superheat" which is different by degree than regular heat. While we do disagree that there is such a thing today, his concept with the transcendentals still stands.

Finally we get to the fifth way:
The Church Fathers last "proof" is the Theological Argument or the Argument from Design. This "proof" is still quite often used among amateurs and goes as follows: The world and all living things seem so functional and well adapted to their environment that they seem to be a plan or design behind it all. Nothing that we know looks designed unless it is designed, therefore there has to exist a designer, and we call him God.[12]
What Thomas says however is:
The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.[13]
Thomas is not giving the design argument on a level of the make-up of the being, which is really the amateur mistake that is being made. He is saying nothing about the make-up of arrows or plants. While we do not hold to evolution, evolution would pose no threat to Thomas's argument as there are some theistic evolutionists who are Thomists. What Thomas is referring to is rather what is called the final cause, the reason for a thing's existence. This computer exists, among other things, so that I can type emails and email them to people like you. (Naturally it has numerous other functions.) Thomas is arguing that anything that acts according to a function is acting for an end beyond itself and that end he says is God. This doesn't go against the principle of Intelligent Design, but it is not the same argument as Intelligent Design is more about the make-up of a living organism without caring necessarily about its purpose.

Of course, our author goes with the Dawkins question of "Who made God?" The irony is that the very next question Thomas deals with in the Summa Theologica is on the topic of the Simplicity of God and how to demonstrate that God is a being that is not made up of parts. Evolution again would be no problem to Thomas's position, important to mention since the author points to that as if that removes any need for God. Thomas could even argue that evolution is a movement towards an ideal and that would imply a need for a final cause.
The same analysis could be taken to many of the articles on this site with the lack of relevant scholarship and sources mentioned. What we have by and large is argument from outrage without really grappling with the issues at hand.

  1. Proof of God -- (accessed October 13th, 2009).
  2. Proof of God -- (accessed October 13th, 2009).
  3. Summa Theologica: The Existence of God (Prima Pars, Q. 2)) (Accessed October 13th, 2009).
  4. Proof of God -- (accessed October 13th, 2009).
  5. Summa Theologica: The Existence of God (Prima Pars, Q. 2)) (Accessed October 13th, 2009).
  6. Proof of God -- (accessed October 13th, 2009).
  7. Summa Theologica: The Existence of God (Prima Pars, Q. 2)) (Accessed October 13th, 2009).
  8. Proof of God -- (accessed October 13th, 2009).
  9. Proof of God -- (accessed October 13th, 2009).
  10. Summa Theologica: The Existence of God (Prima Pars, Q. 2)) (Accessed October 13th, 2009).
  11. Proof of God -- (accessed October 13th, 2009).
  12. Ibid.,
  13. Summa Theologica: The Existence of God (Prima Pars, Q. 2)) (Accessed October 13th, 2009).

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