Yesterday, we looked at how Richard Dawkins failed to understand Thomas Aquinas’ first three “proofs” for the existence of God. Instead of even attempting to understand them, Dawkins simply dismissed them as “vacuous.” As we continue on with Aquinas’ final two “proofs,” we will see Dawkins’ dismissive reaction and inability to understand are on display once again. To get a jump on things, though, let’s first take a look at Thomas Aquinas’ fourth “proof”: that of the Argument from the Grades (or Degrees) of Perfection.
Aquinas’ Proof from the Grades of Perfection
Aquinas’ fourth proof involves what he calls “grades of perfection,” particularly in terms of transcendental values such as goodness, and justice. This argument is actually very similar to the argument regarding the moral law C.S. Lewis puts forth in Mere Christianity. Simply put, this argument starts with the acknowledgment that we constantly evaluate people and events on a moral scale.
For example, for all the immoral behavior in America today, America is still most certainly more moral than the Nazis. Compare me to Saint Francis of Assisi, I’m pretty sure I’ll come out looking pretty bad; compare me to a Charlie Sheen, I come out smelling like roses. And so, whenever we compare moralities along these lines, what we are actually doing is comparing them to some accepted standard of perfection. Therefore, Aquinas argues 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” (Summa Theologica 1.2.3).
That being said, we would be mistaken if we assumed that Aquinas envisioned God as some sort of Platonic Form. After all, Plato’s forms were pure unchanging abstractions that were completely distinct from the particulars of the created order. If one thing is certain when one reads the Bible, it is this: God is certainly involved with His creation. So, rather than viewing God as some abstract standard, Aquinas proposes that we view his proof in light of God’s participation in the natural order. Perhaps an illustration from the natural world will help.
Think about how the basic elements of life like water and sunlight are “taken in” by plants to aid them in the higher form of plant life. Then think how plants are often eaten and “taken in” by animals to aid them in the higher form of animal life. And then think about how various animals are often eaten and “taken in” (along with various fruits, grains, and vegetables) by human beings to aid them in the higher form of human life. At each step of the way, the lower form of biological life participates in the development and maintenance of the higher form of life. Or to put it another way, the higher form of life incorporates the lower form of life into its own, and thus further perfects it. (This is also something C.S. Lewis talks about in Mere Christianity).
Aquinas thus argues that, just as this is true on the biological level, it is also true when it comes to transcendent values. Every time someone participates in a good, truthful, or noble act—no matter how great or small—that person is, in fact, pointing beyond his own particular good, truthful, or noble act to some higher form/degree of goodness, truthfulness or nobility. Therefore, any value within human morality, by virtue of its being inherently relational and participatory (i.e. “justice” only can be achieved when there is a relationship between two or more people), inevitably points toward and participates in a higher degree of virtue, of participatory moral perfection. This, Aquinas argues, points to the existence of God.
Dawkins’ Reaction to Aquinas’ Fourth Proof
It goes without saying that if your knowledge of Aquinas depended solely on what Dawkins puts forth, then you would have absolutely no knowledge of Aquinas, for Dawkins feels no need to put forth any useful information. Instead of actually discussing Aquinas’ fourth proof, Dawkins, once again, dismisses and mocks it out of hand, along with C.S. Lewis’ argument regarding a standard of right and wrong. He writes:
“That’s an argument? 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” (102).
To be kind, this can hardly be considered a thoughtful or well-reasoned critique of Aquinas. One would expect such a reply from perhaps a cocky know-it-all high school sophomore, but hardly from a supposedly well-respected micro-biologist. Both Aquinas’s proof and Lewis’ argument are very thought-provoking. It is true that every single culture in the world has a basic standard of morality that is pretty much universal. “Morality” is a uniquely human phenomenon—where did it come from?
Dawkins, though, doesn’t even address the actual argument. Instead, he chooses to equate the idea of transcendent values and morality with body odor. Apparently he doesn’t know the difference, so let’s spell it out. Body odor emanates from a variety of biological functions within the human body and can be scientifically explained. It is a bodily function that we have no control over—it happens without our choosing it to happen. Morality, on the other hand, doesn’t just “happen.” Moral (or immoral) choices are completely subject to a person’s will. If someone walks up to a person at Starbucks and shoots him in the heart and kills him, we say that that person committed murder—an immoral act. It didn’t just “happen”—he chose to do it, and because it was wrong, he must suffer the consequences.
Given that reality, we must ask, “Where did we get this sense of morality from?” It certainly is not simply biological, as if a man who committed murder and a man who forgot to put on his deodorant one day are the equivalent of each other. To say such a thing would be ridiculous—yet here is Richard Dawkins, saying that very thing. He isn’t just comparing apples and oranges—he’s trying to compare apples with something akin to poetry. He might as well say, “How can you say apples taste ‘good?’ It’s so obvious that Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ is a metaphor for modern society’s loss of faith!”
Does that make sense? Of course not—neither does Dawkins’ critique of Aquinas’ fourth proof. Let’s now learn about Aquinas’ fifth “proof”: Finality.
Aquinas’ Proof from Finality
Perhaps Aquinas’ most important argument for the existence of God is his teleological argument. In its most simplest terms, Aquinas’ teleological argument is that all things in the natural world are goal-directed and thus have a purpose. Just as an archer shoots an arrow at a target, all things in nature are directed toward a final end, namely God. Or as Aquinas himself says, “Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God” (Summa Theologica 1.2.3).
Simply put, everything done has an effect and purpose. The very concept of “purpose,” though, denotes some sort of intelligence, for it seeks to understand why something happened. Why did Oswald kill Kennedy? Why did Al-Qaeda fly planes into the twin towers? Why? That is a question intelligent beings ask, because “purpose” is something intelligent beings know exist. Indeed, nothing in the universe at all can be explained or truly understood without this concept of purpose. As Edward Fesser has stated, “…it is impossible for anything to be directed towards an end unless that end exists in an intellect which directs the thing in question towards it. It follows that the system of ends or final causes that make up the physical universe can only exist at all if there is a Supreme Intelligence or intellect outside the universe which directs things towards their ends” (117).
Dawkins’ Rejection of Aquinas’ Fifth Proof
The reason why Aquinas’ teleological argument regarding final causes has been discarded by modern philosophers and many in the scientific world today is that it argues that meaning and purpose in the world point toward the reality and existence of God. Yet ever since the so-called Enlightenment, the Christian worldview that was responsible for the resurrection of Europe and the explosion of arts, literature, architecture and scientific inquiry, has faced a violent assault by the worldview of philosophical naturalism, that starts with the presupposition that there is no God and that the natural world comprises the entirety of reality. Simply put, philosophical naturalism states, “If it cannot be scientifically tested and analyzed, then it cannot exist.” This, is the very worldview of Richard Dawkins—he is a philosophical naturalist.
Therefore, when it comes to explaining creation of the natural world, those like Dawkins who hold to philosophical naturalism (i.e. atheism) try to argue that the theory of evolution “proves” atheism. Dawkins writes, “Thanks to Darwin, it is no longer true to say that nothing that we know looks designed unless it is designed. Evolution by natural selection produces an excellent simulacrum of design, mounting prodigious heights of complexity and elegance” (103).
Of course, Dawkins’ claim is rather problematic. First of all, a description of the process of something does not disprove the idea that someone or something put that process in effect. If Dawkins described and explained all the inner workings of a clock and the process that went into building the clock, that still would not “disprove” the existence of a clock maker. Granted, it would not necessarily “prove” the existence of one either. But the point is this: one (i.e. the description of a process) does not negate the other (i.e. a Creator God).
Secondly, note how Dawkins describes evolution: “an excellent simulacrum of design,” and “mounting prodigious heights of complexity and elegance.” The very way in which Dawkins describes evolution, in and of itself, lends credence to what Aquinas is arguing in his fifth proof. Dawkins’ description takes the reader to a point recognizing a certain purpose and meaning of the created order. To say something is “complex” and “elegant” is to say that thing, in fact, has meaning.
Ironically, atheists like Dawkins go even further and argue that morality itself is simply the result of atheistic evolutionary forces. Or even more simply put: it was blind chance that brought about natural life, and it was blind chance that brought about morality. Evolution, they claim, explains both biological life and human morality.
Of course, the problem with that explanation is that it is, after all, an explanation—and by virtue of being an explanation, it is attempting to prove something and therefore provide meaning to a certain phenomenon. That action of “proving something” and “providing meaning” is in and of itself evidence of intelligence and purpose—the very thing that philosophical naturalism utterly rejects. Therefore to try to give a convincing argument that the universe is purposeless, meaningless, and the result of random, blind forces, is to do something that you are arguing doesn’t exist—namely give a purposeful, meaningful, intentional explanation for the way things are. The point is simple: nothing in the universe makes sense without the existence of final causes.
We will now leave Dawkins’ failed attempts to discredit Aquinas, and move on to other things in The God Delusion.