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How Dawkins got the wrong end of the stick about Aquinas

St Thomas Aquinas was not proving the existence of God as you would a piece of furniture. He was testing whether the concept of God made philosophical sense

By on Tuesday, 3 April 2012

St Thomas Aquinas is depicted in a painting at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington (CNS photo)

St Thomas Aquinas is depicted in a painting at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington (CNS photo)

I was challenged by one of the commenters on the last post to point out one of the mistakes that Professor Dawkins makes in his book The God Delusion. Looking at the section on Aquinas, it is clear to me that Dawkins has largely misinterpreted what the saint is saying.

First (recalling from memory) Aquinas puts the question about the logical possibility of the existence of an all-good God co-existing with evil in the world, and concludes that as evil does exist, then an all-good God cannot exist. This of course was the great question that troubled St Augustine in his Manichean days, but the solution is an easy one, once one can grasp that God’s existence and the existence of evil are not the same thing. Indeed, evil is a privation of good, and so God can co-exist with evil, as evil does not “challenge” the fullness of God’s goodness.

Then Thomas goes on to ask “an Deus sit?” You can see the English translation here, but for the original Latin look here.

But what does “an Deus sit” mean? It literally translates as “If God be?” As opposed to “If God is?” sit is subjunctive, not indicative. So, I think this question is not “Does God exist?”, but more “Is it logically possible to think about God?” or even “Does the concept of God make philosophical sense, or is it nonsense?”

One thing is clear that though Aquinas uses the word demonstrabile, he does not, as far as I can see, use the word “proof”. And Fr Coplestone was most particular about this point – the five ways are ways, not proofs.

Think about it: God’s existence cannot be proved in the way the existence of a piece of furniture can be proved. If it could, then God would be shown to be an existing thing in the world, and thus he would not be God. God’s existence is not in the same category as the existence of existing things in the world. God’s being rather is the condition of possibility of the existence of all other beings in the world. But God himself is not part of, or in the world.

Aquinas surely understands this as he says at the end of each of the five ways that these lead to what people call God or understand to be God (“et hoc omnes intelligunt Deum… quam omnes Deum nominant”). They do not lead to God himself. For human understanding cannot comprehend God, who transcends all human understanding.

The mistake that Dawkins makes is that he does not understand that the word exist or is can be used analogically, and must be used analogically of God. His refusal to believe in God makes sense if by God you mean a character like Zeus or Mercury – they clearly do not exist. But God, understood as an absolute necessary being, the ground and precondition of all being, cannot be disproved in this manner.

I am not a philosopher, and only have my seminary training to go on, and I am pretty sure that what I have written here will outrage atheists, and cheese off believers in equal measure! I also know very little about Aquinas, being an Augustinian sort of person… but that is what I make of reading Dawkins.

  • Honeybadger

    Aquinas is bigger, smarter and cleverer than you, squirrel poo!

    Who is going to remember, cite, quote and write about the great Barry Lyons? He of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Green Teapot, Elf on his shoulder and about as much use as a liquorice lace climbing rope!

    Perhaps psychologists will study him as having a classic case of borderline narcissistic personality disorder.

    Not quite certifiable but getting there slowly but surely!

  • theroadmaster

    I must take issue with you assertion that the atheists are “healthier” and “wiser” than the religious, although “wealthier” can be argued with plausible arguments form both sides .  Independent studies show that religious adherents who frequent religious services at least once a week have better survival rates from life-threatening disease and live on average longer than those who are irreligious or atheistic.  Some think that these trends are because those who attend religious services have the benefit of personal hope in a Supreme Being and in an after-life, with the earthly benefits of social networking that comes with a Church community.   
    Although there may be multiple reasons for someone to take their own lives, a common thread of utter despair seems to run through the minds of those who resort to this.   One can sense that where there is a lack of hope in a psychological and spiritual sense when dark thoughts take hold.  Although fundamentalists within religious circles are a present reality, generally people of Faith are mentally lucid and intelligent and with a firm belief in the possibility of salvation, have the necessary hope to live their natural span of life in expectation of the spiritual realm that awaits them when they depart from this world.

  • Honeybadger

    Edith Stein, Maximilian Kolbe and several other priests, religious and lay people were put to death for speaking up against evil.

    … or for just being a former Jew, like Edith Stein!

  • Honeybadger

    I wonder how Hitchens is getting on with Mr Redpants?

    Well, Atheists HAVE presided over evil dictatorships, communism and fascism! DEAL WITH IT, SQUIRREL POO!

  • TreenonPoet

     It only takes one exception to disprove a hypothesis. I shall ignore, for the moment, what I consider to be the most extreme indications of lack of wisdom in the Church’s history (cruelty inflicted on heretics, stealing of babies, etc.) because I am not prepared to enter into a long argument as to why they were unwise. Instead, take the issue of heliocentrism. Provided with a rational argument and evidence as to why some things orbit the sun and other planets rather than the Earth, why did it take so long for the Church to adjust to this? Does this not destroy the hypothesis of an inherent wisdom in the Church? (The stubborness persists.)

  • Honeybadger

    Atheist Spirituality? Heck, it gets worse with you lot!

    Atheist Spirituality is an oxymoron!

  • Araujo Ferreira

    I never insulted an atheist, by the way have many friends that believe like that. In my cathecism classes I let the children free to confirm or not their faith. This was clearly and open discussion. 

  • Honeybadger

    Hang on, Squirrel Poo!

    We believers are NOT losing the plot.

    When your beloved Dick the Dawk tells his small bunch of school bullying delegates at his laughingly called Reason Fest to call us names and laugh at us… it’s obvious to anyone – including people like you with the intellect of an amoeba – that Dick the Dawk is losing it!

    Faith is rapidly growing, bub – DEAL WITH IT!

    As G K Chesterton said, ”Without belief in God, there would be no atheists!”

    So, you silly piece of squirrel poo, WE are not losing the plot.

    You, and your like, ARE!

    So build yourself a bridge and GET OVER IT!

  • Honeybadger

    It sounds like it.

    That’s what I find chilling about atheists like Barry ”nuttier-than-squirrel-poo” Lyons, Dawkins and the rest!

  • Honeybadger

    That is sooooo true!

    Look at the Iron Curtain…. and China (but the RC Church and other faiths are thriving underground), North Korea etc. etc.

  • JabbaPapa

    Heliocentrism is no more self-evident that quantum indeterminacy.

    Gallileo was censured for rebellion, not for publishing his scientific opinions.

    an inherent wisdom in the Church

    = an inherent strawman in your post

  • badjumbly

    Father Lucie-Smith attempts to confront atheism by distinguishing between material and non-material existence and insisting that the Christian God is not of the material world. This is problematic in three ways.

    Firstly, atheists do not believe that God exists in ANY sense of the word “exist” – whether material or non-material – so distinguishing between the two is irrelevant in the face of the atheist demand for proof. I can believe that a non-material reality such as goodness exists when I read about Aung San Suu Kyi and similar figures, because the way she has lived her life is just one proof of the existence of goodness. On the other hand, I cannot believe in the Christian God as a non-material reality because there is nothing certainly attributable to Him that I can observe. Christian aid workers might be able to prove the existence of their own goodness and of their BELIEF in a
    good God, but they do not prove the existence of God or GOD’S goodness.

    Secondly, it is difficult to make a complete separation between the material and the
    non-material. We classify “goodness” as an abstract noun, but when we talk of Aung San Suu Kyi’s goodness, we talk both of things that she has physically done , including speaking, and also of thoughts and resolutions formed in her brain, which is a physical thing. All the non-material realities in whose existence atheists believe as much as anyone else does – such as honour, shame, justice, injustice, happiness, sorrow, truth and falsehood – are connected to the physical world in a directly observable way, whereas God, outside the covers of a Bible, is not.

    Thirdly, and following on from the second problem, the difficulty of completely separating non-material from material existence means that it is not possible to create a successful religion around an entirely abstract deity. A God that is not considered to be in the world in SOME sense is an irrelevance to mankind, which is why the God portrayed in the Bible is far removed from the depersonalised abstract one Father Lucie-Smith proposes here, whose “being rather is the condition of possibility of the existence of all other beings in the world”. The God of the Bible is portrayed as a very physical force which acts with specific intent: not only fashioning the world, but also flooding the world, sending plagues, signs and commandments, and smiting people who annoy Him. He is also personalised and capable of feelings and highly specific tastes and opinions. He gets  angry and jealous, prefers a burnt meat offering to a vegetarian one, doesn’t approve of certain hairstyles, sex acts and cooking practices, and has a particularly soft spot for the Hebrews while some other tribes are frowned upon. It makes no sense to me to claim that such a deity is
    conceived as being “not part of, or in, the world”, especially when, in the New Testament, he becomes a living figure of flesh and blood who walks around Galilee and performs sensational physical feats. With this degree of physical representation, specification and involvement in human affairs, the God of the ancient Hebrews cannot reasonably be said to possess a type of existence essentially different from that of the ancient Greek and Roman gods who were likewise believed to visit mankind in physical forms, accept burnt sacrifices, and prefer some tribes to others, however different from them He might be in particular aspects. The real reason Father Lucie-Smith categorises Yahweh as essentially different from Zeus or Mercury is that he believes in the first but not in the last two.

    A final question: if God transcends all human understanding, what are all these priests getting paid for?

  • Alan

    I’ll just take up your assertion that Mark wrote after AD 70.  Much has been written and speculated about Gospel datings, but the overwhelming consensus is that Mark wrote well before 70, and Matthew and Luke were pre-70 also.  Most think John was post-70 (though the “radical” Bishop Robinson argued otherwise, providing sound reasons for doing so).
    I agree the writers had an agenda.  But that agenda was hardly likely to be propagating what they believed to be a fiction; what would be the point?

  • TreenonPoet

     My comment referred to the insults contained within Jesus Echevarria‘s post. Some of the nicest people I know are Catholics (or, at least, nominal Catholics).

    I am very pleased that you give children a choice, but I wonder whether they understand all the options?

  • JabbaPapa

     erm, I wasn’t disagreeing wiuth *you* [confused]

  • JabbaPapa

     Do I *really* need to point out that your fanatical adherence to atheism is biased , one-sided, and uncritical ?

  • JabbaPapa

    Just as a starting point : once found a more degistible – albeit lengthy in itself – analysis of these documents ; but I’ve no longer any idea where)

  • theroadmaster

    Sorry Jabba,I apologize for my mistake, as my posting was destined for someone else.

  • theroadmaster

    I mean’t that God cannot be summoned in person by Scientists, just like we cannot mutter some incantation and expect Him to appear as a genie would in fairy tales.  Our Creator is at work in our world through the laws of Nature that He created but that is His will at work and not dependent on man.  Your confused reference to the Eucharist bears no direct relation to my main point, as the priest through the special words of consecration, invites Our Lord to transform the elements of bread and wine into His Body and Blood.  It is not a whimsical or arbitrary thing that someone can will but requires a rite.

  • TreenonPoet

    No because that would only apply to gnostic atheism. To rest where current evidence points is neither biased nor one-sided, and tends to give little scope for self-criticism. That is Dawkins’ position and, I suspect, the position of most atheists.

  • Lazarus

    ‘based on  teleological reasoning.’ 1) Not all the proofs in question are based on teleological reasoning (if by that you mean the claim that substances have tele or ends. 2) Aquinas is in any case relying on the background of Aristotelian metaphysics. If you now wish to pass from arguing about God to arguing about metaphysics and the nature of substances, do feel free! But in doing so you are tacitly conceding the point at issue here: that Catholics are not morons who have abandoned reason, but possessors of a deep philosophical and theological tradition that cannot be disposed of by the random thoughts of  a biologist.

  • John Byrne

    theroadmaster: ”
    The first of the gospels written by one of Jesus circle of disciples was written in around 60-70 A.D by St Mark,  which was just some 30-40 years after the crucifixion..”

    This is most unlikely. The date is purely speculative in any event, St Mark almost certainly could not write anything and whatever was originally written down has been translated and re-translated countless times over the centuries, lost, found, lost again, found again, changed (both by error and as a matter of deliberate policy) and changed again. It is absurd to regard the Gospels as historical documents.
    There are many other Gospels in addition to the canonical ones, but not even they agree about numerous matters.
    John wonders why Jesus was NOT born in Bethlehem, for example. The others get Mary to Bethlehem by the simple untruth that Caesar made a decree that all the world should be taxed…etc  - this lie was “necessary”  for them because the Messiah “had” to be born in Bethlehem.

    If one thing is fairly clear it is that Jesus of Nazareth was actually born in Nazareth !

  • TreenonPoet

     I disagree with your opinion on how evident heliocentrism is. Clues were there before the invention of the telescope, but afterward I don’t see how anyone would have doubted the evidence if the Bible had not contradicted it. You might argue that there was some wisdom in not allowing the Bible to be seen to be wrong, but (1) that could already be seen (for example, regarding the flat earth), and (2) it is not the sort of thing that can be kept secret forever.

    The wisdom I was referring to was that perceived by Lazarus, not any that might be claimed by the Church.

  • scary goat

     Doesn’t spirituality mean of the spirit? What spirit? I thought we were all just freaks of pond life, lumps of flesh, brain chemicals. Now I’m seriously confused. How can you have spirituality without a spirit? 

  • Oconnord

    That’s a good point. But of course I’m comparing one blatantly false proposition with another blatantly false proposition. The purpose of the exercise is to encourage you to explain why my proposition is false and yours is true.

    If in some way the comparison between the two lessens the truth of your proposition… Well it probably isn’t either blatant or true.  

  • Oconnord

    This thread is too thin. So I’ll reply on a new comment. 

    I often wonder if a “to and fro” went on long enough would the thread just be a column of letters.

  • Jonathan West

    Knowing better than the theologian Richard Swinburne, who conjures up such numbers with no justification, I know that you don’t do statistics without a population.

  • scary goat

     I read some of the God delusion and soon gave up because of the mocking unpleasant attitude. I have read some of Pope Benedict xvi writings and find such a pleasant man.  This alone tells me something of the nature of things. I am not an expert in science or theology although I take a reasonable interest in both and do not find them to be contradictory, but quite simply a nice nature calls to me, agression repulses me. One local priest said to me once that sometimes he wonders if he’s got it all wrong and its all a load of bunk, but then he thinks, well if that’s the case it doesn’t matter because at least I have lived my life trying to do good.  Ultimately none of us really know, it’s a matter of faith and philosophy, but I do tend to feel “by their fruits ye shall know them”.  I am a believing catholic but like most people I have my moments of questioning, and I find most of my catholic friends to be quite humble in their faith.  I find atheists to be most arrogant and abrasive. On one level you could say whether it’s true or not, I am happy with the way of life the catholic church teaches me and I like the people in my catholic community. On another level, to me that in itself is a proof because the teachings of the church cause nice people, so there must be something behind it.  Maybe I am a simple person, but I think it all depends how you look at things.  I remember when they discovered DNA and there was a trend for oh well, now we know how it works, the mystery has gone, we don’t need religion any more.  When I saw DNA my reaction was, wow, look at that, we’ve hacked God’s machine code!

  • Barry Lyons

    Okay, I’ll calm down (a little bit).

    Per your numbered points:

    1) I may have false beliefs, but a false belief, if it is at least grounded in experiential reality, is “better” than a belief that is spun out of pure imagination, which is what Aquinas is doing with angels. We could, for example, talk about the flaws of communism, but at least the argument has a base level of integrity and respect because it pertains to the grounded subject of how societies ought to be organized or set-up or regulated (choose your term), whereas religious arguments exist in an intellectual stratosphere, in an empyrean of pure thought. That’s why I find it difficult to respect religion: the starting points are all suspect. For example, religious people assume that each of has an ethereal entity in us they call “the soul” — and they say that the soul survives death and that depending on how one has lived one’s life, the soul may go to a place called heaven or it may go someplace else — or they may all go to heaven anyway because of certain acts or dispensations or displays of forgiveness and so on. But never mind for the moment that these “places” called “heaven” and “hell” are just nonexistent fictions that don’t exist (except in the minds of believers — in exactly the same way that Oz “exists” in the mind of Baum and his readers). My point here is that I can’t “go” or flow with the conversation about souls because I’m stuck at the starting point with a question that no one on the planet has yet answered: Why do human beings think they have a “thing” called a “soul” in their bodies? What, because a “holy” book or some theologian says so? Sorry, that’s not good enough.

    2) No, I was ridiculing religion long before I read Dawkins. I think it was Gore Vidal who got me going down that road. As for Aquinas, it appears that he starts the “Treatise on the Angels” from the point of view of the necessity of the existence of incorporeal creatures. But why? What makes the existence of incorporeal entities a “necessity”? See what he does there? He just starts (if that is the start) at an assumption — that angels must exist — and then goes on to describe how he arrives at his belief. No doubt you’ll accuse me of chickening out from a detailed argument (and you’d be correct to a certain degree), but for me it’s a case of not wanting to go down the rabbit hole of opaque and evanescent thought (Lewis Carroll really is helpful in this regard). I just don’t see the value in trying to chase a rainbow or wrestle with smoke. I can’t argue with Aquinas in detail because there’s nothing to hold on to. There’s nothing I can “grab”, intellectually speaking. Communism may be a wretched way to organize society but at least I can talk about it, whereas going after religion is like shooting ducks in a barrel for me because the starting points or premises are vacant and vacuous. To talk about angels and souls and whatnot is to have a discussion of pure abstraction (because there are no Earth-based referents) whereas a discussion of communism or socialism, while abstract, is not totally abstract (because there are Earth-based referents); therefore, there is no value in even beginning a discussion about angels or souls. “The soul enters the body at the moment of conception”? Oh yeah? Sez who? How would anyone KNOW this to be true?

    3) That’s good. A 19th century Barry probably would have laughed at quantum mechanics — just as Jesus would have laughed at the germ theory of disease. Right? This is how far we’ve come in 2,000 years: if Jesus or any of his pals saw a man quivering and shaking uncontrollably on a road they would have assumed demonic possession. Today, we’d call it epilepsy.


    PS: Re an earlier comment of yours, you said that the “The God Delusion” is a “wretched” book (presumably through and through). Really? You can’t find one insightful thing that makes you think differently? Not one thing that gives you pause with regard to the secular viewpoint? I ask this because even though I’m an atheist and have little use for the Bible, I will concede that some of the Psalms are very beautiful. And even Christopher Hitchens, who had little good to say about religion, notes (in the video below) that the commandment about not bearing false witness is an excellent commandment — and probably the finest of them all because of its “rare nuance” (Hitchens’s words).

    So no good shout-out for secular humanism or the atheist view for you? Not even one little thing?

  • Jonathan West

    The issue of defining and explaining complexity is easily dealt with. Living organisms are incredibly complex, we are still only at a relatively early stage of developing our understanding of the details. We understand the principles of how the complexity developed. Nothing in biology makes any sense in the absence of evolution.

    But consider this. The human eye can detect photons of a relatively narrow range of energies passing through a circle a few millimeters across. A human arm can move items weighing a few kilograms, a human voice can make itself heard a few hundred meters away.

    The Teleological Argument that mankind was too complex to come about by natural causes and must therefore have been designed was a very good argument, until the discovery of evolution and of the very great age of the Earth which gave time for evolution to do its work.

    But God is claimed to know everything, to be able to see everything going on in the whole universe, to detect photons of any energy travelling in any direction anywhere. To be able to affect the course of any atom anywhere in the universe. These are inevitable consequences of God being considered to be omniscient and omnipotent. Omniscience and omnipotence might mean even more than this, but it at least means this. So, God has vastly greater capabilities than man, and this cannot be achieved without a corresponding increase in complexity.

    Modern computers are much smaller and lighter than the monsters weighing several tons which were built in the dawn of the computer age. but though they contain much less material, they are vastly more complex in terms of the information they process and the software they run. Even if in some unimaginably far-off day, we manage to build a computer that has no atoms in it at all, that is wholly immaterial, are you going to say that because it is immaterial it has no complexity? I think not. Complexity is a consequence of capability, and this in not affected by immateriality.

    So, let’s stop pretending that the God you believe in isn’t complex. Omniscience and omnipotence require enormous complexity. Therefore, the complexity has to come from somewhere. You have essentially three options. 

    One option is to say that God was designed. This was the Teleological argument with respect to Man, positing God as man’s designer, but it won’t do here. It would mean that God is not quite as supreme as you previously claimed him to be, and I suspect that having been designed by some other entity is logically incompatible with omniscience and omnipotence. 

    Another option is to say that God gradually evolved into his present state by a long process analogous to natural selection. I suspect that to go that road would require quite a considerable revision of your ideas about God, not least the claim that he is eternal and outside of space and time. Its a bit hard to spend a long time coming into your present form if you are outside time altogether.

    Given the traditional Christian understanding of God, there is no third alternative source of explanation. Dawkins is merely following Christian understandings of God to their logical conclusion, and the logical conclusion is that God, as you understand him, almost certainly does not exist.

  • Oconnord

    That was meant as a question, my bad phrasing made it seem confrontational. 

    I can’t see the difference between a Rite, a Summoning, an Incantation or a Ritual. Or simply a contract where god agreed to appear under the right circumstances.

    If god allows free will then he allows anyone qualified to perform the Eucharist, outside of his control, when they choose, so they are summoning god up at will.

  • Jonathan West

    Fine. In that case, the burden of proof is on you to explain why you disbelieve in Jove, Thor, Zeus, Allah, Ra, Russell’s Teapot, The Invisible Pink Unicorn, and why the universe didn’t spring into existence fully formed last Thursday.

    I look forward to your answers on all of these points.

  • Jonathan West

    I didn’t enter the contest. If I was entering the contest, I would have emailed my reply, as requested by Barry.

  • Oconnord

    Missed the point much? I said that Pascal’s Wager and Hitler are often  used as canards. They are both things that are dragged into internet debates even when they are not relevant. But thanks for proving my point.  

  • Benedict Carter

    ” I also know very little about Aquinas …”.

    That’s because the study of the Angelic Doctor was binned in the wake of … yes, you guessed it … Vatican II. 

    Seminaries are not what they were. 

  • Benedict Carter

    You sound like a right tosser, Barry. 

    Aquinas is rated even by we arrogant Moderns as one of the very greatest minds in all human history. 

  • Benedict Carter

    ” …. all that incredible complexity …”.

    I’ve never thought of God as complex. LOVE is a pretty straight-forward thing, isn’t it?

  • JabbaPapa

    If that is how you “understand” the Eucharist, then you are about as far away from understanding it as you possibly could be.

    Just because you confuse religion and spirituality with black magic does not automatically require that they are the same.

    They are not.

    Black magic seeks to impose the will of the individual upon outside material reality ; religion and spirituality are a passive means of engagement with reality and with the divine.

  • JabbaPapa

     Prayer is not black magic.

  • JabbaPapa

    I disagree with your opinion on how evident heliocentrism is.

    There is a common interpretative bias, well described in the theory of literary reception.

    Readers naturally assume that the most basic contents of their worldviews are obviously true, so that any texts contradicting those views must be inherently wrongful in a variety of different ways.

    Now, in the case of texts describing scientific questions or historical ones or other such forms of positive data, this is usually a non-problem.

    But it is a HUGE problem for the purposes of a proper interpretation of texts that have been written at a time when such worldviews as the reader may have were either very unusual, or non-existent.

    NO — there is nothing about heliocentrism that is either self-evident or obvious — and it is simply a modern bias of our own worldviews that suggests otherwise ; falsely.

    Scripture actually says very little of substance concerning the relative positions and locations of the Sun and the Earth, the Moon, and the Planets.

    But the greatest stumbling block for a pre-16th century understanding of cosmology for the acceptance of heliocentrism was the prevailing theory of the nature of the sky — which was conceived as a dome or a globe surrounding the Sun and the Earth, the Moon, and the Planets.

    This cosmological model was assumed to be both correct and self-evident (by virtue of having been extensively supported by a near-totality of the astrologers [astrology and astronomy were one and the same thing until heliocentrism became accepted -- so that technically, Gallileo was actually an astrologer] and other scientists), so that the people of the time, motivated by the exact same interpretative bias, are extremely likely to have had just as much difficulty accepting heliocentrism as we today might have accepting quantum indeterminacy, or people a century ago had accepting the theory of General Relativity, or 150 years ago the theory of evolution. Gallileo himself probably had to privately overcome his own interpretative bias when faced with the nature of his own observations !!

    FACT : *no* emerging truth never heard of before is self-evident, including the Christian truths which are also not self-evident.

    Self-evidence is not a good yardstick for measuring truth ; nor is the lack of self-evidence indicative of falsehood.

  • JabbaPapa

    Theoretical (as opposed to descriptive/historical/doctrinal) theology is as capable of error as any other field of research — in the same way that geology is capable of some kinds of errors that physical geography would be unable to commit.

  • JabbaPapa

    These are inevitable consequences of God being considered to be omniscient and omnipotent. Omniscience and omnipotence might mean even more than this, but it at least means this. So, God has vastly greater capabilities than man, and this cannot be achieved without a
    corresponding increase in complexity.

    Here you are, parroting yet another false Dawkinsism.

    1) Dawkins YET AGAIN assumes that God must obey the rules of positivist materialism. This suggestion has yet to be demonstrated — oh, but of course it is materially impossible to demonstrate any such thing, isn’t it…

    2) The notion that greater capability requires greater complexity is in fact a straightforward fallacy. The modern computer is basically, if you remove all of its peripherals, a machine that can tell the difference between 0 and 1, and can record either 0 or 1 into a memory sub-system. That’s it, the computer by itself has no other capabilities. It’s hard to get more simple than the difference between 0 and 1 !! And yet the field of application of this extremely simplex capability is **enormous**. Similarly, the simplicity of the wheel ; and the very wide field of application of this extremely simple mechanical system. A contrario, human DNA is very complex indeed — and it can only perform one single task ; the reproduction of specifically human cells at the cellular, sub-cellular, or meta-cellular levels ; in three extremely restrictive fields of activity, human reproduction, cellular regeneration within an existing human being, resistance to foreign antigens and mutations in vivo. It cannot perform any other tasks. Greater complexity provides greater specialisation ; NOT greater capability.

    The rest of this latest batch of your Dawkinsisms relies on the acceptance of the false premises in question, and are therefore not to be relied upon as being accurate.

  • JabbaPapa

    Right — so you don’t want the book either then.

  • Lazarus

    Thanks, for turning down the rhetoric! It makes for a better discussion.

    Let me take your final point first. The reason why I found Dawkins’s a wretched book is that I came to it after many years of having been an atheist and many years of having studied the sort of arguments he was referring to in an academic environment. So having read Hume, Mackie, Kenny etc, and having felt myself the pull of atheist arguments both intellectually and emotionally, reading it was rather like watching a drunk urinating on your family’s photo album: he doesn’t really understand what he’s doing and it’s nauseating to watch his performance. There are far better and more thoughtful atheists around.

    Turning to your general point about disembodied entities (souls and angels), in general in Catholicism, you’re going to find things which are foundational to the religion and things which follow on from those foundations. If I were trying to convince you to become a Catholic, I wouldn’t start off with transubstantiation, just as, if I were trying to teach you science, I wouldn’t start off with quantum mechanics: you might see the point after you’d understood the foundations, but not before. So here, I wouldn’t start off with angels: once you’ve got God and human beings right, then maybe angels will follow on, just as, if you get the nature of the Bible and the Church right, maybe transubstantiation will follow on.

    But I would regard the nature of human beings as being pretty fundamental. And here I’d just advise you to pick up any serious survey introduction to modern philosophy of mind and to get a sense of quite how open this field is: philosophers just don’t really have much idea of how to place mind within a purely material universe. Moreover, although to someone coming at these ideas fresh, the idea of disembodied minds might seem ridiculous, after a few years of being bashed around the head with functionalism and the extended mind and the possibility of artificial intelligence, let alone the underlying problems of qualia (felt experience), intentionality and the privacy of mental contents, the sort of nuanced Catholic analysis you find in Aquinas’s hylomorphism (the analysis of mind as the form of the body, part of which is separable but part of which is dependent on the body (hence the need for a bodily resurrection)) might begin to look like sober commonsense.

    Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting the Catholicism and Thomism can give knock down answers here: I don’t think there are any knock down answers in this sort of philosophical and metaphysical reasoning. But its answers are not stupid and are worthy of far more attention than Dawkins is able or willing to give. 

    And on a personal note, it was the incongruity when I was an atheist of meeting pub atheists who assured me that religion was all bollocks and having (atheist) academics telling me to read Aquinas, not because they agreed with him but because they thought he was a serious and worthwhile philosophical thinker, that was a key element in my eventually becoming a Catholic. Atheism does itself no favours when it reduces itself to a superficial party game.

  • Lazarus

    ‘Even if in some unimaginably far-off day, we manage to build a computer that has no atoms in it at all, that is wholly immaterial, are you going to say that because it is immaterial it has no complexity? I think not. Complexity is a consequence of capability, and this in not affected by immateriality.
    So, let’s stop pretending that the God you believe in isn’t complex. Omniscience and omnipotence require enormous complexity. Therefore, the complexity has to come from somewhere. You have essentially three options. ‘

    1) Interesting that you concede the possibility of an immaterial computer! (I’d probably take back that thought experiment if I were you.)
    2) I  think you’re confusing complexity of effects, complexity of cause, and obscurity. Now, I’d certainly accept that the nature of God is (in part) obscure: we don’t understand him fully. But obscurity is not the same as either complexity or knowing nothing about him. On the latter point, if Aquinas’s arguments go through, we know (eg) that he is analogous to an intelligent agent. Now Dawkins might have a perfectly good point about explanation obscurum per obscurius (explaining the obscure through the more obscure) -good but not unanswerable- but that isn’t what he argues in ch4: there he argues explicitly for complexity in God. (I expect this is simply another example of his tin ear where it comes to reasoning.)
    So we turn to the distinction between complexity of the effects and complexity of the cause. Now, it’s clearly fallacious to assert that complexity of effect depends on complexity of cause: for example, one trivial event (say a stone falling) could trigger an avalanche. A single idea can provoke a world war. So why do we have to infer complexity in God from the complexity of the effects of his agency?
    The problem with ch 4 is that Dawkins confuses two different questions. First, there is the general question of where does an entity like God come from? That’s in essence a cosmological argument: an argument about causality and the possibility of uncaused causes and necessary beings. Second, there is the argument about complexity within the argument from design. Give the appearance of functionality in the world, where did this come from? Well, it’s the latter question  ch4 deals with -and, on a theistic point of view- there’s no problem in answering it: it comes from a simple cause, just like many other complicated things come from a simple cause. 
    The confusion between the two arguments can be seen most clearly in section 3 p158 where he runs together a) ‘who designed the designer’ and b) ‘it is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable’. The answer to the first part is very simple: no one designed God just as no one (in human terms) designed a watchmaker -agents aren’t designed. That certainly does leave open the question, ‘Where does God come from?’ -but that’s a different issue. And it’s this (typical) failure to keep separate issues separate that is typical of someone who is really out of his depth.
    Again, note that I entirely accept that good (but not conclusive) arguments exist against proofs in natural theology which are hinted at in Dawkins. It’s just that he doesn’t have to ability or knowledge to make them himself.

  • Jonathan West

    Re the immaterial computer – why would I take back that thought experiment? I know the flaws in the ontological argument, so a mere exercise of the imagination doesn’t mean that what I imagine is either true or even possible.

    I’m not making the mistake of confusing the kinds of complexity you describe, I’m not even referring to them. I’m referring to the complexity of the heterogeneity and arrangement of parts, even immaterial parts. The immaterial computer example was designed to show that a highly capable computer would still be complex even if it was immaterial. The capability of performing complex tasks is dependent on that heterogeneity and arrangement of parts.

    Of course, you can simply say “God doesn’t obey those rules, he is simple by definition”, but that isn’t reasoning, that is avoiding the question. It would be a call to ignorance, it would be deciding what the truth must be instead of trying to find out what the truth is.

  • Jonathan West

    But science does.

  • Lazarus

    1) You are claiming that complexity of effects depends on complexity of cause. Evidence? (I gave a counterexample.)

    2) You are claiming that if (per impossibile) a computer was immaterial, it would be complex. Now I understand why a material computer is complex: it has lots of different material bits. But for any immaterial entity, a) it is not clear why it is necessarily complex (see 1); and b) the notion of complexity here cannot be the same as that of material objects where we are talking about having lots of different material bits. (So you need to explain i) what you mean by complexity in an immaterial object; and ii) why, even if a material cause of complexity has itself to possess complexity (and I’ve argued it doesn’t), an immaterial cause has to.)

    3) You’ll appreciate that none of this is in Dawkins, so you have implicitly conceded the main point at issue here: that Dawkins’s arguments as they stand in ch4 are unsound.

  • Jonathan West

    You try building a machine that loves, and then tell me how simple it was.

  • Jonathan West

    Nice that you accept Swinburne was in error. We agree on something!