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Aristotle -> Aquinas -> Atheism, Part 8

To wrap up some loose ends, the aformentioned proofs aren’t the end of proving the attributes of God.  The scholastics had many proofs and reasons for his various attributes.  Aquinas only touches on a few because at this particular point in his work he is trying to focus upon the causes outlined by Aristotle.  One would need to look at the total of the Summa Theologica for the total of his proofs for the various attributes of God.

It would be hard to understate the impact Aristotle had on Church thinking.  Taking just one theological point as an example: the causes of justification.  The council of Trent (1945-63) listed five causes of Justification.  The final cause, the efficient cause, the meritorious cause, the instrumental cause, and the formal cause.  Aristotle’s causes are all but the meritorious one.

On a side note of history, the sole formal cause of justification is grace.  One of the rallying points of the early Protestants was Sola Gratia (a.k.a., Grace Alone) which Trent affirmed in its’ statement on the formal cause of grace.

The 5 solas of the reformation.

The 5 solas of the reformation.


Aristotle -> Aquinas -> Atheism, Part 7

Proof Five: Final Cause

The final cause of Aristotle is to consider what is a things end, purpose, or use.  The last proof revolved around form, and this one revolves around function or “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”.

Aristotle found acting upon ends is not simply the domain of humans, but even of nature.

“If, then, a swallow makes its nest and a spider its web both naturally and for some end, and if plants grow leaves for the sake of the fruit, and send roots down rather than up for the sake of nourishment, it evidently follows that this sort of cause is among things that come to be and are by nature.” (Physics, Book 2, 199a)

Further, things without awareness act to attain ends, “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” (Aquinas).  More simply put, a rock always falling when dropped is attaining its’ best result, its’ natural end.

The best result for everything but your car!

The best result for everything but your car!

Taken in it’s broadest form, this cause of Aristotle might be understood as: matter expresses itself according to the laws of physics; with Aquinas adding: laws need to be created by intelligence, whom we name “God”.

Dawkins response that we have evolution, and in this he misses the grandeur Aristotle.  Evolution does nothing to explain the four fundamental forces in the universe; or even more broadly: why do things follow laws at all?  Physics is great at noticing the laws, but has yet to take even the most rudimentary guess as to why laws exist.  Aristotle shows that air does not rise because of luck (as he notes Empedocles believes in Physics, Book II, 196a), but rather that all of nature acts out of principles (the laws which physicists discover).  Aquinas echoes this when he writes, “it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do [natural bodies] achieve their end”.  The designs of nature are enforced in laws, like that of gravity or magnetism.  These laws must have a source, just as other causes needed a source, and Christians similarly call this source of law God.

Aristotle -> Aquinas -> Atheism, Part 6

Proof 4: Degree

The argument from degree relates to the formal cause of Aristotle. The formal cause is the cause from form (think Platonic form). When a seed in a pine cone grows, it transforms to become more and more like the form of a pine tree. A newly conceived baby is less like the form of an adult human than a newborn baby is. Plants and animals grow to approximate their adult form.

But humans also grow in another way, they grow in goodness. Anyone with a toddler can attest to the fact that children aren’t very good.

"But I don't wanna share!"

“But I don’t wanna share!”

As we develop, we grow to approximate this goodness. Some of us are worse than others, but no one refrains from making any mistakes.

If you think you are perfect, just ask a cat.

If you think you are perfect, just ask grumpy cat.

What is the perfection or good we try to approximate as we grow? What is the form of good we strive to achieve? As my grandma used to say:

Good, better, best,
never let it rest;
’till your good is better,
and your better best.

We strive towards some concept of “good”, and Aquinas states Christians name this good “God”.

The sum of Dawkins response is:

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. Or substitute any dimension of comparison you like, and derive an equivalently fatuous conclusion.

In doing so, he misunderstands Aristotle and subsequently misunderstands Aquinas. Of course there is a platonic form of stinky. We use the word “Stinky” in a whole slew of situations because the word points to the form which the situation approximates. When you read the word “Tree”, a certain form of “tree”-ness pops into your head. For me, it looks something like this:

For me, this is a close approximation of the platonic form of "tree".

I think this is a close approximation of the platonic form of “tree”.

The argument Aquinas makes is that when I, as a Catholic, say “Good”, the form that pops into my head is God. That the form of God pops into my head shows the non-theistic philosophy of Aristotle doesn’t exclude God as some of the Muslim Philosophers thought. It is a proof God exists within the rational mind and within the framework of Aristotelian thought.

To digress upon the matter, it is clear that there is a good towards which people aim their lives.  Some have named that good “Family”, others “Comfort”, and still others label that good “Success”.  All these things are the abstract forms of what we actually accomplish in life.  The family is mutable: adoption, marriage, birth, and death all change the family while the form remains the same.  Comfort and success are similar.  I might have some comfort and success where I am at in life, but I might still strive for more or different comfort and success.  There is no limit or perfect expression of these goods on our earth.  No one argues these goods don’t exist, even if they are impossible to perfectly pin down or impossible to hold and see.  One man’s success might be becoming president, another’s might found in be being a house spouse.  One woman’s comfort might be found by having children, which might be the discomfort of another.  I cannot see externally the success or comfort that is being strived after.  The argument Aquinas makes is that a Catholic labels the good towards which we aim our life as “God”, rather than “Family” or “Money” or “Fame” or what have you.  That we have a unique label to describe a unique type of good we experience in our lives and that we strive after that good is proof that this good exists.  After all, how can we get closer to approximating something that doesn’t exist?  The degrees of goodness in our various lives therefore show we can approximate something, and that thing is what Catholics call God.

It is not a “fatuous conclusion” to draw because it is the reasoning power of Aristotle combined with the raw experience of life. A better way for Dawkins to disprove this proof would be to offer a better solution to the problem of universals than Plato and Aristotle had (i.e., find a way to to explain universals without recourse to platonic forms), or to expand upon Hitchens work to create a disconnect between God and good in my mind.  If it is shown that the good I am advancing towards has some characteristic incompatible with God, then it becomes easy to argue this proof is a failure.

Hopefully one might also see how this is a rather insufficient proof of God if one hasn’t already experienced God.  If the good I seek is “Money”, then I am not trying to get close to God but rather to cash.  This proof would then confirm wealth exists, rather than be proof that God exists.  That is hardly a winning argument if used to try to convert souls.

Aristotle -> Aquinas -> Atheism, Part 5

Proof 3: Contingency

The proof from contingency works as follows: Some finite things depend upon other things. To have a chair it is first necessary to have a tree, to have a tree it is first necessary to have soil, to have soil it is first necessary to have sand, to have sand it is first necessary to have rock, and so forth. The nature of things is such that other things are used to make them.

Aristotle’s material cause points out that the materials that are used to make something will shape what that thing will be like. A rock made from magma will be different from a rock made from sediments. Aquinas uses this principle to think about where matter came from. If things come from other things, we have an infinite chain which can never find its start. Therefore there must be a being like from the first two proofs that exists outside of contingent things to get the world started.

As Monseigneur Lemaître’s big bang theory goes: first there was nothing, then it exploded.

Lemaitre and Einstein, rocking out new physics theories.

Lemaitre and Einstein, rocking out theories of physics.

There must have been a cause of that explosion, by which material things gain their matter. This cause, like the two before it, has to be eternal and non-material to make any logical sense.

To sum the first three proofs then is to point out that our world makes no logical sense if we don’t have an eternal, non-material and not caused source of our world. According to Aquinas, this source is what we call God.

Dawkins argues that the above definition of God doesn’t yet include his other attributes, such as “omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design” and so forth. How true this is, but then again, it’s only three arguments for the existence of God out of many arguments. The countless others help flesh out these five from Aquinas, who isn’t concerned with proving God per say, but very concerned with showing faith mixes with reason.

“The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” – G. K. Chesterton

“The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” – G. K. Chesterton

Dawkins other argument is that the above three proofs all amount to cosmological arguments from which God himself can’t escape. In other words, why doesn’t God also need to be caused?

Understood within the context of Aquinas trying to process Aristotle, this counter argument makes little sense. The non-theistic philosophy of Aristotle proved these causes must exist, and need to have a start at some point. All Aquinas does is to describe that start as God. It would be a truism that God is immune from the infinite regress problem because he as been defined by Aquinas as the eternal source pointed to by both Aristotle and the Prophets — pointed to by Reason and Faith.

Dawkins argues that the above definition of God is misleading, because there could be a natural source. However, this counter argument doesn’t fit within the logical framework of Aristotle nor does it match our current scientific understanding of the world. Aristotle showed any natural endpoint to the infinite regressions above would need to be eternal, and science, through it’s wide acceptance of the Big Bang Theory (a term originally coined by atheist Fred Hoyle to denigrate the priest who came up with it), has shown that in nature there is no such thing. Only by rejecting the logic of Aristotle and what scientists currently tell us might we consider a natural endpoint to the regressions.  Aristotle might be shown to be incorrect, and science might tell us something different in the future, but Dawkins argues for neither of these points.

Aristotle -> Aquinas -> Atheism, Part 4

Proof 2: First Cause

Drawing on the previous proof of the first mover, Aquinas says there should also be a first causer.  Because we can deduce a single eternal source of motion from the fact that some things move, we can work in the same fashion to show that because some things have causes there must have been a first cause to set those causal chains in motion.

This works well because Aristotle was looking at change; how one thing can become another.  His word for motion had a much broader sense to it, and could encompass the idea of the motion of cause to effect and not just object to object.  Because our modern idea of motion is much more limited, this proof fleshes out what the first proof showed.

The proof also allows us to see the emphasis Aquinas placed on universals, which follows from his acceptance Aristotelian thought.  The two universal concepts (motion and cause) are proved the same way.  This is in contrast with the nominalism of the Franciscans Scotus and Ockham.  In nominalism there are no universals, only particulars which happen to appear similar to each other.  Subsequently we can only understand movement or cause in so far as we actually experience those things happening in particular cases.  We are unable to reason about first causes or motion because we have no experience with those things, so Aristotle (and consequently Aquinas) are seen as overstepping the bounds of reason.  In other words, if we could reasonably reason about these things, Aquinas would have a great proof, but regrettably we cannot reasonably reason about them, so they don’t provide good proofs of God.

Nominalism reintroduced the division between faith and reason in such a way that further fostered scientific development.  If we cannot reason about things we don’t experience, we better pay a lot of attention to all that we do experience.  By paying such close attention, the experimental side of science was confirmed and supported to the expense of metaphysics.  In a sense, we still live with this legacy.  Science even today only answers how things work the way they do, not why.  We have laws of science, but no reasoning as to why laws should exist rather than chaos.  The current understanding of metaphysics in our world is woefully inadequate.

Further, this division between faith and reason is also being lived out in daily life.  Recall the atheist picture showing all the contradictions in scriptures, and the religious picture of dinosaurs living with people, from part 2.  The denial of universals is part of why this division exists.  Some religious people deny scientific reasoning and some atheist people deny the contextual faith distinctions in scripture.  When we rely upon universals like Plato and Aristotle, this division can be erased.  By focusing on particulars and denying universals, we end up dividing reason and faith.

Recall from the last post how Dawkins considers Aristotle to be making the vaguely phrased, “unwarranted assumptions”.  A far better critique is to deny universals exist, as the nominalists did.  While this denies such abstract universals as “Love” or even “Tree”, it does successfully denude Aquinas of any meaningful claim to proof of God’s existence.  Again though, this denuding of Aquinas is only because it first denudes Aristotle of any room to reason about things people haven’t directly experienced.

Aristotle -> Aquinas -> Atheism, Part 3

We turn now to looking at each proof in it’s own right, and how that fits within Aristotelian causes and how that in turn effects the Christian and New Atheist (through Dawkins) understanding of the proofs.

Proof 1: The unmoved mover.

This proof of God relies upon the efficient cause.  In particular, the efficient cause in relation to motion, and why anything moves.

Aristotle first shows that there is an unmoved cause of all motion.  He does this by pointing out how motion is an everlasting quality, things always have the property of motion (A force vector might sum to 0, but it still has the property of being a force vector).  To be in motion that is more than zero feet per second, there needs to be a something to cause that motion.  As this website states: “Efficient causes, according to Aristotle, are prior conditions, entities, or events considered to have caused the thing in question.”  There must then be some unmoved prior condition which effected (aka, caused) the first movement.  As Aristotle states: “for in fact there is something that initiates motion without being movable” (Physics, Book 3, 201a).  This cause of motion is outside the realm of moveable things because it is a prior condition to movement.  In short, the argument he makes is that all moving things we know about have been acted upon by another agent.  I can think of nothing now moving that wasn’t first forced into motion.  As Isaac Newton’s first law of motion reminds us, resting objects will stay resting unless forced to do otherwise.

Following this, Aristotle goes on to say: “Since motion must be everlasting and must never fail, there must be some everlasting first mover, or more than one.  The question whether each of the unmoved movers is everlasting is irrelevant to this argument; but it will be clear in the following way that there must be something that is itself unmoved and outside all change, either unqualified or coincidental, but initiates motion in something else.” (Physics, Book 8, 258b)  Simply put, there must have been one or more than one prior conditions to achieve motion in our universe.

Aristotle then ends up with: “If, then, motion is everlasting, the first mover is also everlasting, if there is just one; and if there are many, there are many everlasting movers.  But we must suppose there is one rather than many, and a finite rather than an infinite number.  For in every case where the results of either assumption are the same, we should assume a finite number of causes; for among natural things what is finite and better must exist rather than its opposite if that is possible.  And one mover is sufficient; it will be first and everlasting among the unmoved things, and the principles of motion for the other things” (Physics, Book 8, 259a)  In this way Aristotle shows there is only one eternal unmoved mover.  An eternal condition which creates movement.

Stealing the whole shebang from Aristotle, Aquinas points out that a singular eternal source of motion sounds an awful lot like how Christians describe God as creator and sustainer of life.  As wikipedia translates him:

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.

At this point it should become apparent that Aquinas isn’t in an fight to prove the existence of God, but rather to engage Aristotle in such a way as to unite Aristotle’s reason to Christian faith.  Those Christians who utilize this as a proof of God shouldn’t treat this argument as though it exists in a vacuum.  Only upon accepting Aristotle as correct in his secular logical argument that we need an eternal unmoved mover does this point of Aquinas hold any water.  As Dawkins treats the first three proofs of Aquinas as one, I’ll hold off discussing his rebuttal of Aquinas ’till the third proof.  Suffice it to say, Dawkins disagreement is that Aristotle’s eternal unmoved mover should also be subjected to motion.  In his book, The God Delusion, he fails to point out any logical problems with Aristotle’s (and subsequently Aquinas’) proof, and he instead denigrates Aristotle by saying his logical proof of an unmoved mover immune from movement is merely an “unwarranted assumption” (for more, see the third chapter of his book).  It’s hard to believe someone so bright as to be called “The First Teacher” could have made an oversight both as grand and as previously unnoticed as Dawkins seems to propose it is.

He was so smart, there are more brains in this bust of Aristole than in my noggin.

He was so smart, there are more brains in this bust of Aristotle than in my noggin.

Aristotle -> Aquinas -> Atheism, Part 2

Both Christians and Muslims had a great challenge in learning how to cope with Aristotelian ideas.

One Islamic approach to dealing with a comprehensive and reasonable system that didn’t include God was to further develop the “Theory of Two Truths”.  This was done by primarily by the brilliant Muslim philosophers Avicenna and Averroes.  This approach considered there to be two bodies of truth, religious and secular.  By creating incompatible sets of truth so solve the problem of Aristotle being so secularly awesome, a new problem was created.  Why adhere to the secular body of truth when the religious one is equally true but given by God?  This ended up stunting Islamic thought because truth that was reasoned to was harder to attain than truth revealed.  Why work through reason when revelation will give different but just as true answers?  This stunted growth in thought is one reason why Christian countries pulled ahead of Islamic ones in production of science, whereas before the development of the Theory of Two Truths the Islamic societies were more advanced and developed.

The theory of Two Truths is very useful if kept within limits.  Erving Goffman’s work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life touches on the idea that even in our own lives, we present different versions of the truth to different people.  Scripturally this means that various passages aren’t all meant to be understood in the same way.  Some passages are poetry, some are history, some are myth (I’m looking at you, Tobit), but all are used to portray an accurate picture of God.  The single truth of God, just like the single truth of ourselves, are presented in a variety of different and sometimes superficially contradictory ways.  Simply put, there is a truth in the story of say, Noah, about who God is.  Changing the story to make it more historically factual would lose that truth.  However, changing the story to express the truth of God can mask the truth of what historically happened.  Two truths — both contradicting each other, but neither wrong if understood within its own context.

Just as secular people are doing today by ignoring the context of scriptural truth, a la below:

Bible conntradictions according to some atheists.

Bible contradictions according to some atheists.

So too do some religious people do when they ignore the contexts of scientific truth, a la below:

dinofeedingThis is the downfall of the Theory of Two Truths.  It becomes easy to ignore one truth for the sake of another.

So why did Christian countries not end up with a similar incompatibility between faith and reason?  Why is the Theory of Two Truths a fringe theory in Western society today?  The answer is in that great dumb ox, Aquinas.  He synthesized Aristotle and Christianity by applying Aristotelian reason to Christian truths.  In this way neither faith no reason was separated from the other, so that both could flower together rather than one supersede the other.  One major way he did that was by utilizing the four causes of change that Aristotle came up with and showing how they can fit within Christian belief.  The five proofs of God Aquinas gives aren’t so much to prove God exists (Aquinas already believed that), but rather to prove secular reason isn’t incompatible with God.  This was a big question in his day, as Islamic scholars had only recently introduced Aristotle to Western Europe; whose scholars seldom had any training in Greek (this again shows how much more advanced Islamic society was then Christianity society was at that time).  Had Christian scholars taken the approach of their Islamic brothers, we might never have had the scientific revolution.  Therefore the five proofs of God Aquinas came up with mark quite a turning point in our intellectual history: not because they definitively proved God exists but because the definitively proved faith and reason can intermingle.

Next Time: The first cause of change.

Aristotle -> Aquinas -> Atheism, Part 1

There is a connection of thought between Aristotle and Aquinas that is sometimes overlooked when both Christians and New Atheists look at Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God. By understanding this historical context we can see in what sense the proofs were originally meant, and thereby see how modern Christians overstate the proofs and how New Atheists (in particular, Mr. Dawkins) actually argue against secular Aristotelian thoughts instead of Aquinas’ Christian thoughts.

To begin, no news is new. Aristotle (some 2,300 years ago), like most Greek philosophers, put in great effort to understand change. When I finish replacing the parts of a boat one by one, do I still have the original boat? If it has become a new boat, at what point did that happen? How does change occur?

In an effort to understand this problem and other problems associated with change, he recognized four causes of change.

  1. The efficient cause: this might also be understood as the external (or perhaps the proximate) cause of change.  The efficient cause of a chair is the carpenter.  It is the thing outside the object causing change within the object.
  2. The material cause: what a thing is made of can “cause” what it can be turned into – no one makes a chair out of Jello because Jello cannot effectively be a material for chairs.  The natural fracture lines in marble limits what that marble might be carved into.
  3. The formal cause: the concept (or platonic form) of chair will effect how finished chairs will look.
  4. The final cause: the purpose of a chair causes chairs to be made in a particular way (otherwise they couldn’t be sat upon).

In his work Physics, Aristotle shows how these four causes effect all change in nature. The anger of Zeus didn’t cause a dry spell and ones crops to fail, but rather these four natural causes. The bold claim of a way to understand the world without recourse to gods would have a tremendous impact upon both Islamic and Christian thought.

Next time: Examining the impact of Aristotle.