Catholic Apologetics

In this second article, we will examine what, exactly, the New Atheists have to offer with respect to the philosophical arguments for God’s existence – what learned men, going back all the way to the brilliant philosophers of ancient Greece, have regarded as powerful intellectual evidence that what we call God can be known from reason.

 

We will look at the work of one man in particular.  Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins has, in the decade & change since the “New Atheists” became a substantial cultural force, emerged as both their leader and their de-facto philosopher.[1]  He has been called the “Face of Atheism”, personifying the movement for legions of admirers and others.  What would seem to be his raison d'êtreThe God Delusion, remains a popular and oft-referenced work long after the original publication.  It is fair to say that Dawkins epitomizes modern atheism.  Furthermore, Dawkins is of most interest to us here as it is he alone who has devoted any effort whatsoever to addressing the real philosophical arguments – those of Thomas Aquinas, that philosopher whose work (building upon that of “The Philosopher”, Aristotle) is virtually synonymous with traditional Catholic philosophy and widely considered the bulwark and finest example of Christian intellectualism.

 

Only Dawkins among the New Atheist brat pack has made any attempt at all to engage real Catholic philosophy – but that attempt is, literally, three pages out of well over 400.  One might conclude that purporting to silence Aquinas with three pages suggests subterfuge, but the fact is that it is more a matter of shocking incompetence.  That this statement is far from mere hyperbole is evidenced by the fact that this situation has been noted by even his peers and atheistic colleagues.[2]

 

Though the non-sequiturs, poor logic, emotional argumentation, and factual errors of Dawkins’ book are legion, his responses to Aquinas, probably more than any other portion of his material concerning philosophy and religion, are relevant, because they illustrate how empty is the entire new atheistic bag of tricks.  If Dawkins, Dennett, and the rest of them were both honest and capable of meaningfully addressing their philosophical opponents, we must presume they would have done so.  As it is, when they have attempted any dialogue whatsoever with Aquinas, they have shown themselves incapable of even understanding the arguments.  So we will see.

 

The Five Ways

 

Chapter Three of The God Delusion, entitled “Arguments For God’s Existence”, is 33 pages long[3].  Of this, Dawkins devotes a hair over three pages to the subject of Thomas Aquinas and his five arguments for God’s existence.  (A skeptic might be tempted to believe that Dr. Dawkins prefers the lower-hanging fruit, given that he devotes almost twice as much space to refuting arguments of the “personal experience” variety.)

 

The following will constitute a very brief introduction to the first of Aquinas’ proofs, with only the barest minimum of groundwork laid.[4]  We will look at the First Way because it is representative of the three in essential elements, it is probably the easiest to grasp (apparently why Aquinas places it first), and because Aristotle derived it as well.  This will provide the background against which we can gauge Dawkins’ response to Aquinas.  (The reader should be aware that a more thorough grounding in first principles gives the proof more weight.)

 

For our purposes here, we need to understand the Aristotelian principles of potency and act, which underlie all of his metaphysics, and which Aquinas adopts as well.  We can define potency as the possibility for some kind of change and act as the realization of some potency - the two qualities form a dichotomy. In Aristotelian metaphysics, all change is a transition from potency to act.

 

The reader should also be aware that in classical philosophy “movement” (as used in the Unmoved Mover argument) means something much broader than the movement of physical objects – it means any kind of actual change (though Unmoved Mover as formulated by Aquinas is not concerned with spiritual change).

 

With that barest minimum of preparation, we can proceed with Unmoved Mover:

 

-        Things in the natural world undergo change, which means the transition from potency to act of whatever quality changes

-        Any change from potency to act requires an external agent, because potency cannot actualize itself; a thing cannot give to itself a quality or perfection that it does not have, since “non-being cannot give being”

-        This regression cannot proceed infinitely, because, if it did, no change would actually occur

-        Thus, the regression ends in what we will call the Unmoved Mover

 

It is appreciated that this is quite abstract.  Let us look at a concrete example and, in the process, gain insight into the critical aspects that Dawkins misses completely, making his analysis irrelevant.

 

Consider a causal chain existing entirely in the here & now - hic et nunc - such as a hammer-strike on a nail.  The nail is moved by the hammer hitting it, which is held by the man’s arm & hand muscles contracting, which is caused by by neural pulses originating in the brain, which are caused by – we will stop here[5].  This is a causal chain existing simultaneously, and what is clear and irrefutable is that because each link in this causal chain depends on the one behind it for its existence, this regress cannot go on infinitely.  It must have a beginning, which is that which we call the Unmoved Mover.  (Intermediate movers are moved movers. Whether they be single or many, all act together as but a single moved mover. Since a moved mover is moved by another, there must be something outside of the series: an Unmoved Mover.)

 

What we have described above is an essentially-ordered casual chain.  Again, such a chain must have a first element because if it did not the chain itself would not exist

 

The next important aspect we must note is that this first member in the chain itself cannot change in this causal chain.  If it did, it as well would need an external agent to actualize it, which would mean it is actually not the first member.

 

And the really important part:  The regress stops at a being that does not need to be actualized by anything else, that therefore has no potency, and is therefore “pure act” (as in “nothing but act”).  This being not only is unchanged in its actualization of other potencies, it cannot undergo change; it is Unmoved and Unmovable.  Why?  Because, if it had even the potential for change (any sort of potency), it too would need a mover, meaning we had not, in fact, reached the Unmoved Mover, which we know must exist.

 

Contrast this essentially-ordered causal chain with an accidental causal chain – the classic example is that of man begetting man begetting man: the continued existence of the first in the series is not necessary once his direct offspring exists.  Such is “accidental” causality in Thomistic terms, and this is an entirely different type of causality than that which is called essential, which is what this proof is concerned with.

 

Back to Dr. Dawkins.  His summaries of the first three Ways are accurate enough, and he does correctly identify the fact that all three involve some type of regression that Aquinas shows must have a termination.  He thus lumps them together, which, again, is fair enough for the sake of debate (the three do bear many similarities, but begin from different places).  And this is where the accuracy of his treatise ends.

 

Dawkins (and his cohorts) simply do not understand the above distinctions in causality – he does not understand essential causal chains at all, and presumes that Aquinas and Aristotle deal with accidental causality since that is what he is familiar with contemplating.  It is quite impossible to deal with Unmoved Mover in any real sense if one does not grasp essential causality.

 

He begins by complaining that the proofs “make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress”.[6]  Rather, the proofs demonstrate that an end to the regress is logically necessary, and far from making any “assumptions” about God, they do nothing but call this first Being (it must be a Being) “God” out of convention.  (It turns out that this Unmoved Mover, this First Cause, has attributes directly deducible from the proofs identical to the Judeo-Christian God, such as unity, omniscience, omnipotence[7], immateriality, personality, and immortality – more on this below.)

 

Dawkins then opines, “To return to the infinite regress and the futility of invoking God to terminate it, it is more parsimonious to conjure up, say, a ‘big bang singularity’, or some other physical concept as yet unknown, (emphasis mine),”[8] and in this statement reveals how complete is his failure to grasp what is being communicated in the proofs.  If he understood the concept of an essential causal chain he would see that his statement is very silly.  He presumes that the sort of causality/movement Aristotle and Aquinas are dealing with is that of temporally-related, distinct events.

 

So, we see that Dawkins’ counter that this Unmoved Mover could have been the big bang that originated space & time is not just unconvincing, but that he isn’t addressing the argument at all.  And, as usual, he needs to work-in some outright factual errors as well, such as his insistence that Aquinas asserted that the universe must have had a beginning, when, in fact, St. Thomas took the position that this was unknowable from unaided reason (and also irrelevant to his arguments).[9]

 

The Fifth Way

 

The Fifth Way says this, essentially: Inanimate objects (that lack consciousness by definition) behave as though they did have consciousness – they move towards “goals” – and, because it is fundamentally obvious that such behavior cannot arise from nothing, there must be something that is the source of these laws or behavior.  (Examples: electrons orbit nuclei, elements undergo predictable chemical reactions, stars and galaxies move according to the law of gravity, etc.)

 

So, the Fifth Way concerns the notion that the factually pre-ordained behavior of physical matter lacking consciousness must have originated from a Consciousness.  But Dawkins thinks Aquinas was arguing for “intelligent design” in the sense of modern opponents of Darwinism.  Proceeding with this extremely naïve assumption, Dawkins tells us that “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… Evolution by natural selection produces an excellent simulacrum of design…”.[10]  Perhaps, Dr. Dawkins, but this has nothing whatever to do with St. Thomas’ Fifth Way.  It seems that Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, has a hammer, which he has named “Darwin”, and sees the world of metaphysics as a forest of nails. 

 

So, this argument has nothing to do with evolution vs. creation or anything biological.  It has been noted that if the universe consisted of one electron comprising a shell around a single proton, Aquinas’ Fifth Way would still demonstrate the existence of God.  How does the electron “know” to orbit the proton?  Why do all electrons do likewise?  “Just because” is actually not an answer: this order, this behavior, this knowledge impressed upon brute matter has a source.

 

And Darwin, clearly, has nothing to do with such things.  As St. Thomas said, “Things that have no knowledge cannot be directed towards an end except by something that does have knowledge”; that is the argument, and there is no possible way that Dr. Dawkins  has refuted it, as he has not engaged it any more than he has the prior proofs.

 

Further, he opines, incredulously, that, “The argument from design is the only one still in regular use today”.[11]  Translation: I, Richard Dawkins, professional biologist and very amateur philosopher, fed by and feeding popular culture and the mainstream media, am aware of nothing other than what they & I offer up. 

 

[As a demonstration of just how inexcusable is Dawkins’ ignorance on this subject, if one were to Google, at the present time, “Aquinas Five Ways”, the very first link makes clear with its description of the Fifth Way (which is all of four sentences) that the proof concerns teleology in nature in the general sense and not biological evolution.]

 

The Divine Attributes

 

Dr. Dawkins tells us that “…there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator [that of Ways One-Three] with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness…”.[12]

 

In matter of fact, as alluded to previously, these divine attributes are directly deducible from the proofs themselves.  Once again, even if that assertion were false, it is beyond doubt that Dawkins has not refuted anything, for he has not engaged any argument and is indeed apparently in complete ignorance of them.  Aquinas wrote extensively on the topic, including how these attributes follow directly and necessarily from his proofs, and every Thomistic philosopher of note has done the same - for these conclusions follow so readily from the proofs that to miss them is to not have understood the proofs to begin with.

 

Here is a brief summarization of these attributes and how they are related to the various Ways; this is not intended to be a serious or complete demonstration of their derivation:

 

-        The First Cause is omniscient and omnipotent because the limitations of a being are received from what caused it to exist, but the First Cause, by definition, is uncaused; He is existence itself, with no agent to impose limitations in knowledge or ability.

-        The First Cause is outside of time & space as He is immaterial, as any material being is necessarily at least capable of undergoing change, something incompatible with the Unmoved Mover, who is “Pure Act”.

-        The Intelligence of the Fifth Way is, of necessity, infinite, as any finite intelligence works by means of deduction – thoughts in succession.  Such a thought process requires a Cause outside of it to commence it, but the Uncaused Cause has none.  Thus, it can be thought of as “one, unchanging, subsistent act of understanding”.[13]

-        Monotheism follows directly: Any two Unmoved Movers would be identical, as would any two First Causes; thus, there can be, out of logical necessity, only one God.[14]

-        The First Cause is not a combination of essence and existence, not an instantiation of a type, but Being Itself.  God is thus supremely simple, unlike all created beings.  God has no “parts” or composition whatsoever, being immaterial, and also the simplest metaphysical entity possible. As Garrigou-Lagrange puts it, “The supreme being is absolutely simple and perfect, and hence could not participate in existence, but must be self-existent.”[15]

-        God is the sole Necessary Being because His essence includes and is identical to His existence. Hence He is incapable of non-existence.  Other beings are contingent; they are either possible to be or not be, or else have their necessity from something else. 

-        God is perfectly good because evil is the lack of it some quality that should be present.  Since God has no limitations of any kind, he is Goodness, by definition.

-        God is a “personal” being because, to give intellect & will (which form a personality), God must possess these attributes as well.

 

It can also be said that God is indistinguishable from His attributes – He is each one of His attributes as well as the composite of  them. 

 

So, it turns out that Dr. Dawkins, in asserting that there is “no reason” to ascribe any of the attributes philosophy gives to God (as following logically from His definition itself) demonstrates only his complete ignorance of classical philosophy.

 

Dawkins’ [Sole] Argument

 

We have established that Professor Dawkins shows no sign of understanding the most compelling logical arguments for the existence of God.  Perhaps, however, his own arguments for the contrary are persuasive?  He has but one of these, essentially by his own admission, and it is this: If God exists, He must be enormously complex – at least as complex as His creations – and his existence is thus supremely unlikely.

 

Dawkins’ “argument” would be better called an “assertion” as he does not attempt to prove it.  Nowhere does he give any hint of offering evidence for the hypothesis that God would need to be “complex” – he assumes it just as he assumes the philosophical materialism it is based upon.

 

Dawkins summarizes his argument at the end of chapter four; here is a paraphrase:[16]

 

1.   Explaining the appearance of design has been a challenge to human intellect

2.   The “natural temptation” is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design

3.   This “temptation” is “false” [sic] because it “immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer… It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable”.

4.   Darwinian evolution is capable of producing organisms that appear to be designed.

5.   We don’t yet have a equivalent tool for physics, but the anthropic principle at work in a multiverse might suffice.[17]

6.   Yet we should “not give up hope” for some kind of “Darwinism” in physics analogous to that in biology.  Even without such, Darwinian evolution is a better explanation for reality than God.

 

The astute reader will have noted one thing in particular: This isn’t any sort of logical or metaphysical proof.  Rather, it’s an evidential sort-of “argument” that – as the author himself tacitly admits, though he appears to not be too aware of the ramifications – is inherently probabilistic in nature.  Even by the title of the chapter – “Why There Is Almost Certainly No God” (emphasis mine) – exudes this innate empiricism.  We will return to this subject later.

 

Mr. Dawkins does not define what he means by “complex”, but his meaning is clear from the context: He is referring to physical, mechanical complexity.  (Again, we can understand his assumptions here by being aware he is a materialist – he believes only matter exists.  This is, of course, another root assumption he does not attempt to demonstrate, as previously noted.)

 

Now, if God were a material being, it is indeed reasonable to assert he would need to be very complex.  However, should we assume that God is material?  We have already seen that the classical proofs for God lead to the opposite conclusion.  Based on that alone, the assumption is hardly reasonable, since this is exactly what Dawkins purports to be refuting. 

 

Dawkins does actually treat, extremely superficially, the notion that God is simple, preposterously attributing it to the 20th-century philosopher Swinburne.[18]  But there is still no actual argument for his assertion that God must, actually, be “complex” (by which he means material); he assumes that he can safely assume that God must be material, because he assumes that everything is material, and indeed in the circles he runs in he can get away with that quite easily.

 

Thomas Crean has an excellent discussion, in his refutation of Dawkins, of this topic.[19]  Fr. Crean notes that the non-material is, in many if not all respects, “simpler” than a “corresponding” material reality.  Aristotelian forms (abstract representations, so to speak) are simpler (perhaps infinitely so) than instantiations of them.  For example, the form of a sphere has no properties other than its radius, while any physical sphere has a (virtually infinite) number of actual radii, color, weight, texture, and much more.  It has parts.

 

Crean notes that Dawkins conflates complexity with richness – the ability to possess, and give, a certain quality or feature.  God, being immaterial, can be simple (even the essence of simplicity) yet (since He is also without limits) able to will the existence of complex physical realities.  In Aristotelian terms, God possesses every possible feature eminently, if not formally, as He is pure Act.

 

Even children tend to understand, readily if not intuitively, that God is not some kind of giant machine, yet Dawkins has really apparently never considered anything else.  And that does work out well for his argument.

 

Dawkins’ Hammers

 

“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” goes the saying.  Dr. Dawkins, in his defense, has not a single hammer, but two: empiricism and evolution. 

 

Hammer #1, the empirical method, is, of course, valid in & of itself.  The inductive cycle of hypothesis, observation/experimentation, refinement, etc. is the heart of the scientific method, which has led to great knowledge of the natural world.  Empiricism, however – the view that only empirical methods are valid – is a philosophical position and as with materialism, Dawkins makes no attempt to prove it, rather assuming it implicitly, or at least with no logical foundation he cares to share.[20]

 

For example, concerning Anselm’s ontological argument (rejected by Aquinas, incidentally, and unimpressive to this author, who may be thick), he remarks that he has “an automatic, deep suspicion of any line of reasoning that reached such a significant conclusion without feeding in a single piece of data from the real world” (emphasis mine).[21]  Such statements – that only sense-derived data and subsequent inductive reasoning are valid – permeate his work, to the extent that he himself tacitly admits that God might exist, with comments like, “The argument from improbability, properly deployed, comes close to proving that God does not exist,”[22] and, “However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable” (emphasis mine).[23]

 

His is a curious and altogether nonsensical stance, though one completely representative of the New Atheists (and, it must be said, modern man).  For it is deductive logic, either within a closed system (mathematics) or (as with metaphysics) based on simple first principles that gives not just the surest knowledge, but the only certain knowledge. 

 

Newtonian gravity is a theory that had enormous success for centuries – it could be used to predict the movement of heavenly bodies with astounding precision.  Yet, Newton’s theory of gravity is wrong: There are edge cases for which it predicts incorrect results.  General Relativity, the theory of gravity that supplanted it, gives predictions that cover these same cases admirably.  Yet it, too, may be supplanted one day.  Such is the nature of induction.

 

However, we know – our minds are capable of knowing with certainty – that x + y = y + x, and always will, to use among the simplest mathematical theorems.  There is no other possibility, and can never be any other possibility, across space & time – period!  This truth exists objectively apart from any human mind.  It is not dependent upon any sort of sense data nor inductive reasoning.  And it provides certain knowledge.

 

Dr. Feser notes that, “Scientific arguments start from empirical premises and draw merely probabilistic conclusions.  Mathematical arguments start from purely conceptual premises and draw necessary conclusions.  Metaphysical arguments of the sort Aquinas is interested in combine elements of both these other forms of reasoning: they take obvious, though empirical, starting points… [and] certain metaphysical conclusions follow necessarily… Part of the problem with Dawkins’ criticisms of Aquinas (and of the other New Atheists’ criticisms of certain other religious arguments) is that they fail to understand the difference between a scientific hypothesis and an attempted metaphysical demonstration, and illegitimately judge the latter as if it were the former” (emphasis mine).[24] 

 

It would probably not be an overstatement to say that the man who eschews deductive reasoning (especially implicitly, with no attempt at justification) is not even doing philosophy.

 

Dawkins’ Hammer #2 is evolution.  As we have seen, Dawkins mistakes the Fifth Way for some sort of modern “Intelligent Design” argument presented in opposition to evolution, which it most certainly is not (perhaps Dawkins assumes there was a 12th century equivalent to the Scopes trial).  Beyond that, his “central argument”, as he calls it,[25] is absolutely nothing but an argument for Darwinian macro-evolution, which he supposes in his ignorance to be a counter to theism in general.

 

Chapter Four of The God Delusion is titled, to repeat, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”, and runs 53 pages.  Of this, the first 26 pages are directly and solely concerned with biological evolution/biogenesis, nine pages constitute a whimsical aside (about evolution and God’s “complexity”), and the remainder concern the anthropic principle on both the local and cosmological scales – during which he advances the cringe-worthy hypothesis that universes themselves undergo “natural selection”.  He suggests that those cosmologists who haven’t considered such a hypothesis (obviously not only bereft of evidence but bereft of even the possibility of evidence) need to have their “consciousness raised”. 

 

A Protestant Atheist?

 

There is an old joke regarding Northern Ireland that goes like this:

 

“Are you Catholic or Protestant?”

 

“Neither; I’m an atheist.”

 

“Ok, but are you a Catholic or Protestant atheist?”

 

The point is that the Troubles actually have nothing to do with religion.  Like some Irish citizens, who are perhaps only superficially either Catholic or Protestant, atheists often have adopted a set of associated intrinsic religious assumptions without being aware of them (as with materialism, but that’s not what I’m referring to).  This is demonstrated by Dawkins in his assumptions regarding the canon of Scripture, his assumptions (or hopes) on where the best intellectual arguments for the existence of God lie, and, most tellingly, his adaptation of Protestant misunderstandings of the faith.  I’m speaking about his denigrating honor of the saints as “paganism” and similar nonsense.  Such things are beyond the scope of this piece.

 

Perhaps a Catholic atheist would at least be aware of Aquinas enough to know he has to take him seriously.

 

Conclusion

 

The traditional proofs for God’s existence are extremely powerful (depending on only very basic first principles and giving sure knowledge).  Neither Richard Dawkins nor any of the other New Atheist leaders show any sign of understanding them and do not seriously engage them even in what they consider their serious assaults on theism.

 

Regarding philosophy in general, Dawkins has this to say: “I mean it as a compliment when I say that you could almost define a philosopher as someone who won’t take common sense for an answer.”[26] As usual, our author is unaware of the irony he’s exuding: His favored breed of philosophy (the modern variety) is, indeed, largely nonsensical, while the Realism he rejects (again, by all appearances without being cognizant of it) has been long described exactly as “sophisticated common sense”.  And so it is.

 

Dawkins, like every sane human, presupposes and uses the first principles of non-contradiction, sufficient reason, causality, etc., but without attempting to defend them critically, as do Thomists.  Atheists reject Realism and embrace materialism, both of which lead directly to the undermining of reason itself and the human ability to reason[27].  They ultimately offer no answer to either causality or the obvious teleology of the universe save to throw up their hands and claim that real explanations are unknowable or irrelevant. 

 

But then, we are taught that sin darkens the intellect.[28]  With no subjective judgment necessary or intended, that seems the best general explanation as to how the arguments we have examined here are taken seriously by anyone.

 

The author would like to thank Dr. Dennis Bonnette, who taught university-level Thomistic philosophy for over four decades, for acting as philosophical consultant for this article.

 


[1] This has been regarded as curious, since at least one of them, Daniel Dennett, is actually a trained philosopher.  However, it seems they are both equally poor philosophers when it comes to honest treatment of metaphysics and theology.

[2] Philosopher Michael Ruse, in an emphasis email to Dennett that went public, remarked that, “you and Richard [Dawkins] are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design... what we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues... neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas…” (emphasis mine).

[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (First Mariner Books, 2008)

[4] The great Thomistic master of the 20th century, Garrigou-Lagrange, devotes around 2/3rds of his classic work God, His Existence And His Nature to establishing first principles, upon which the proofs depend for proper understanding and effect..

[5] It is true that there may be more than one event in this act (that is, temporally-distinct events), but each of those still has a chain of essential causality.

[6] Ibid, 101

[7] Sorry, Dr. Dawkins, but these two things, properly understood, are not mutually-exclusive.

[8] Ibid, 101-102

[9] Thomas Aquinas, De Aeternitate Mundi

[10] Dawkins, 103

[11] Ibid, 101

[12] Ibid, 101

[13] Thomas Crean, O.P., God Is No Delusion (Family Publications, 2007)

[14] “For to lack a feature is just to have an unrealized potentiality” – Feser, 97.

[15] Reginald Garrigou-LagranceGod, His Existence And His Nature (Lonely Peaks Reproductions, 2007), 290

[16] Dawkins, 187-189

[17] Dawkins’ speculation that universes themselves may “evolve” (by changing physical constants) is truly the stuff of the wildest speculation imaginable. 

[18] Dawkins, 176

[19] Crean

[20] The tenet that only empirical knowledge is valid is not itself empirical, hence empiricism is a self-refuting position.

[21] Dawkins, 107

[22] Ibid, 137

[23] Ibid, 138

[24] Feser, 83

[25] Dawkins, Index

[26] Ibid, 107

[27] See Part I

[28] Ephesians 4:18