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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.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Taking your points one by one:

    1) We are initially talking about drawing distinctions between concepts and it is irrelevant at the first stage of any argument whether those concepts exist or not. (Once we know what we mean, we can then go on to examine whether the clarified concepts exist or not.)

    2) Certainly, God is connected with the material, observable world. But it is more as the basis for the existence of that world than as an entity within it. So, analogously, mathematics is found throughout the observable world, but is rather the basis for the experienced world rather than something directly observable in it.

    3) Catholicism is not based on a purely abstract God. The God of the philosophers is part of the toolkit of Catholicism which responds to the rational part of the human being: unlike some versions of Christianity which are based simply on felt, subjective experience, Catholicism takes that rational, philosophical aspect of humanity extremely seriously. But it also takes account of the desiderative and aesthetic elements, as well as the historical encounter with God in the history of the Jews and, pre-eminently, in the incarnation of Jesus. The difference between (eg) Mercury and God is this: Mercury is purely a god of (fictitious) human experience; God is the meeting of historical encounter and philosophical reasoning.

  • Oconnord

    In reply to Lazurus:

    ‘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 

    Lazurus

    1) a: You don’t deny that the fifth way is flawed as it is based on an assumption.
        b: I do mean what I say, do you think the word teleological was a series of random keystrokes?
        c: Perhaps not all five of the ways are as simple but an amateur like me could find reason to dismiss one at first reading. So now it’s down to four ways!

    2) Again with the assumptions.  
    a: You assume that “Aristotelian metaphysics” is a subject worthy of consideration. 
     b: You assume that I might want to move on and if I did so I would be somehow defeated.  
    c: You assume that I think catholics are morons, despite the fact I earlier said that the term “catholic atheist” would be an apt description of me. 
    d: You assume that I’ll give any import to your bald assertions and polite insults.

    For someone who speaks of philosophy, you seem to lack the ability to read between the lines.  

  • badjumbly

    Even if love WERE a straightforward thing (which in my experience it isn’t), Jonathan West was addressing the complexity of God, not the complexity of love.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Oh boy! 

    1) ‘Teleological’ is understandable in a number of different ways: it might be understood as purposes being imposed by an extrinsic agency (a human being making or using a tool, for example), or (as in the case of Thomism) an immanent teleology present in substances. Certainly, there is a philosophical background to Aquinas’s arguments just as there is a background to everything we say here: the mere existence of such a background is not a refutation of Aquinas’s position but merely indicates the need for further intellectual exploration.

    2) I merely assume that, in the absence of understanding the metaphysical background, you won’t be able to understand or critique the argument rationally. As to the worthwhileness of understanding Aristotelian metaphysics, I’d simply point you to philosophers like Kit Fine or David Oderberg. They seem to think it worthwhile considering and secular universities pay them for doing it.

    3) Whether or not you think faithful Catholics are morons, others of this Dawkinsian Hydra that seems to have settled recently on the Catholic Herald’s comboxes certainly do. Pleas feel free to ignore my insults and assertions: I’d much rather you stuck to my arguments. But as you’ve previously declared your lack of interest in philosophical reasoning, that’s going to be quite tricky isn’t it?

    4) As for reading between the lines, mind if I actually stick to what you write rather than what you might think you’re writing? 

  • Jonathan West

    (Reply to Lazarus. Setting it as a new thread as the messages were getting a bit narrow)

    1) You are claiming that complexity of effects depends on complexity of cause. Evidence? (I gave a counterexample.)Your counterexample was flawed. The avalanche is not caused solely by the initial movement of the boulder, but also by the specific configuration of the material below it. You’re also confusing size of effect with complexity of effect. Moreover, you have ignored the issue of detailed organisation. For instance, we know of no way of making a detailed prediction concerning the movements of an individual H2O molecule within a bucket of water, but we can predict with great accuracy the behaviour of the contents of the bucket as a whole, because the water lacks any kind of detailed organisation and complexity.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.)It is a matter of the information expressed within the computer. Complexity is a way of expressing the degree of information needed to completely describe an object, its capabilities, and the mechanisms by which it achieves those capabilities. Even if an immaterial computer contained no atoms, it would still have to have a very high degree of detailed organisation in order to function and compute things.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.I make no such concession. I have been very careful to stick to Dawkins primary argument, merely compressing and summarising it for reasons of space. He happens to use as an example Fred Hoyle’s idea of a tornado ripping through a junkyard by chance assembling a working Boeing 747. For reasons of space I didn’t mention it. But the principle that complexity of capability needs just as much explanation when applied to God as when applied to life is precisely Dawkins’ argument. The fact that pure chance is not a valid explanation is also Dawkins’ argument. It is also Dawkins’ argument that both design and evolution by natural selection, while both being valid explanations of complexity in other cases, are unavailable when considering the complexity specifically of God, since these mechanisms are both ruled out because of other properties of God which have been defined by the church.

  • Jonathan West

    Sorry about he lack of paragraphs in the above, they were in the message editing window, but seem to have got lost when the message was posted. Hopefully the use of italics makes it clear enough what is quoted and what are my responses.

  • Jonathan West

    (Reply to Alan)

    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?

    I don’t suggest that the writers were propagating what they believed to be a fiction, I’m sure that they sincerely believed Jesus to be the Messiah. But both Matthew and Luke knew that Jesus came from Nazareth (John’s gospel for instance mentions that people noticed his Nazarene accent) and yet knew the biblical prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So they each invented a story that would put him there at the time of his birth. And the two stories are completely incompatible with each other. I suggest you have a look at Matthew 2 and Luke 2 and compare the stories.

    Matthew has Joseph and Mary living in Bethlehem originally, the visit of the Magi, the escape to Egypt, the massacre of the innocents and the move to Nazareth after Herod died, avoiding Bethlehem as it was still too dangerous because Herod’s son still ruled there.

    Luke has Joseph and Mary living in Nazareth, going to Bethlehem for the census because a remote ancestor of Joseph came from there, the visit of the shepherds, and the return to Nazareth after the birth of Jesus.

    The two stories are entirely inconsistent with each other. Both are obvious inventions, designed to provide an explanation for Jesus being from Nazareth when the Messiah had to be from Bethlehem.

  • badjumbly

    1) I assume you use “concept” here to mean “the thing conceived” rather than “the act of conceiving”, since if we apply the second meaning, it is clear that concepts must exist in order for a distinction between them to be made. (For example, I believe in the existence of material and non-material CONCEPTS of God, but I don’t believe in God.)
    In your reply you seem to assume we are still at the first stage of an argument in which are doing no more than define terms. Are we? When I replied to Father Lucie-Smith’s (correct) assertion that God’s existence cannot be proved like that of a piece of furniture, I was already at the second stage you mention, in which the question of the existence of the thing conceived is considered: that is, I appreciate the distinction between the concepts of God he is contrasting, but was arguing that the distinction doesn’t much matter in the face of demands for evidence. From an atheist perspective, a non-material God is as easily discountable as one that is supposed to live in a real marble palace on top of Mount Olympus. The second type can be easily disproved by aerial photographs of Mount Olympus. The first cannot be entirely DISPROVED but can just as easily be DISCOUNTED, since there is no justification for belief or worship.
    2) Regarding your first sentence, the Christian God is widely considered an operative entity within the world. Otherwise why would you pray? Surely you do not believe that God set up the world and then had nothing further to do with it? Your second sentence is self-contradictory. If maths is found throughout the observable world, then it IS directly observable in it, as any botanist knows.
    3) I agree that “Catholicism is not based on a purely abstract God” and made that point at some length in my first posting. One of the problems faced by Christianity in the modern sceptical world is that the physical manifestations of God described in the Bible, culminating in Jesus, lie oddly beside attempts to deflect the evidence question by taking refuge in the non-material. You would liken the two conceptions to two tools in your toolkit: equally necessary and effective for different jobs, but if the job in hand is convincing a stubborn old atheist like me that he is wrong, which do you use? The hands-on material God who wore a beard and sandals and was a dab hand at suspending the laws of physics? I can’t take that seriously. The transcendent non-material God who is by nature beyond my understanding? If I can never understand it, I won’t bother to try. Both at the same time? That’s what YOU might call a transcendent complexity and I would call a hopeless muddle.

  • JabbaPapa

    Science has the means to “resolve” the conflicting ideologies of the various religions ?????!!!???

    hahahahaha :o)

    Keep on providing the jokes, I think we could all do with an extra few good laughs !!!

  • JabbaPapa

    You have obviously failed to understand that I will not be falling into this silly little rhetorical trap.

    Not even *after* I have explained why not.

    My beliefs are not relative to my non-beliefs, and whatever revelation I have had does not require that I must compare it with anything else.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    OK. So now we’re moving into questions about the nature of complexity, none of which is dealt with in ch4. So we’re way beyond anything that Dawkins acknowledges exists as a problem to be dealt with. Again, the fact the issue is simply mentioned in the chapter does not mean that he has dealt in any way with the philosophical issues at stake. (The Boeing 747 example doesn’t deal with the conceptual issues: it’s merely a graphic analogy.)

    Your definition of complexity appears to be: ‘Complexity is a way of expressing the degree of information needed to completely describe an object, its capabilities, and the mechanisms by which it achieves those capabilities.’

    1) One problem with this is that it gives no sense of what the methodology of description is: what is the favoured theory which will (presumably subject to Occam’s razor) describe the object etc with greatest economy. Moreover, ‘information’ is an intentional term: it depends on the existence of a mind in order for it exist. So if the definition of ‘complexity’ is mind dependent, you need to explain whether different levels of complexity are the result of differences in reality (the object being described) or the mind which is doing the describing. (So God may well be complex for us to describe, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean that he was complex in himself.)

    2) Moreover, the definition you give fails to take account of the differences (in Aristotelian jargon) between essential attributes and accidental attributes. A simple object placed in relation to many objects may well affect those objects in complex ways; but that would not be because of the essential attributes of the simple object (which would remain simple) but of the complexity of the objects it’s acting on. Remember that (as the Boeing analogy makes clear) Dawkins is not dealing with cosmological questions about the First Cause, but about how existing matter is arranged in designed-like patterns. Thus, God may be essentially simple even if, accidentally, he produces complex effects.

    3) Traditional design arguments fall into two types. First, the attribute of functionality is seen in the world and then a designer is postulated to explain it. Second, the existence of something is so statistically improbable that it is more probable that it was produced by intention than by chance. (Dawkins doesn’t distinguish between these two types of argument.) On the first, the existence of a designer doesn’t require that the designer is designed. (eg: it might well be that (say) certain features of the present world were only explicable by the existence of a designer (the Spaghetti Monster if you like!) who was not himself designed but evolved). So it doesn’t follow that any design argument of this type has to explain who designed the designer. On the second, whilst we have a clear idea of probability in terms of an event in the real world with alternative outcomes -so it’s easy to say why this or that gravitational constant is unlikely- it’s much harder to see why a unique being such as God could be described as statistically improbable. In short, on either the ‘design’ or the ‘statistical’ version of the complexity in the world that has to be explained, it’s not clear that ‘complexity’ can be applied univocally to both the effect to be described and to the cause of that effect. So it’s perfectly consistent to explain the (created world) complexity in terms of a God who is not complex in the same way.

    I don’t pretend that any of these arguments are knock down: such clearcut arguments simply don’t exist at this level of metaphysical discussion. But that’s precisely the point: Dawkins thinks they do and that’s why his discussion is jejune.

  • JabbaPapa

     Both are obvious inventions

    You have failed to demonstrate this, instead committing a few basic interpretative errors.

    1) Matthew actually has :

    Cum ergo natus esset Jesus in Bethlehem Juda in diebus Herodis regis

    Which simply states Bethlehem as Christ’s birthplace with no other explanation — this Gospel does not say that Joseph and Mary were “living in Bethlehem”.

    and

    Audiens autem quod Archelaus regnaret in Judæa pro Herode patre suo,
    timuit illo ire: et admonitus in somnis, secessit in partes Galilææ

    Which does not mention Bethlehem at all, so that they decide to establish themselves after their return from Egypt not in Judea, but in Galilee.

    2) More importantly, there are numerous possible explanations for divergences in accounts of historical events, and whilst in this case “invention” might be a plausible explanation for such a divergence, human error, conflicting stories from different primary sources, contamination of the texts by another hand, embellishment by the author’s secretary or by an early copyist, and so on, are just as plausible. Furthermore, both texts name Christ’s birthplace as Bethlehem, and his home town as Nazareth — which is a clear case of agreement on both of these points of biography. Also, even if one were to accept the “invention” theory, you would need to do some extra work to justify that it should apply to both texts !!

    In other words, there would be nothing “obvious” about any such “invention” — particularly given that there actually is NO direct contradiction of Luke by Matthew, given that NO details are provided by Matthew of Joseph and Mary’s actions nor their living arrangements prior to the birth of the Christ. The two accounts are NOT “entirely inconsistent with each other”.

  • TreenonPoet

     Firstly, I should point out that I did not use the term ‘self-evident’.

    I am not accusing the Church of collective confirmation bias – the reasons for the long delay before withdrawing its disapproval of publications pushing heliocentrism could be more sinister. Neither possibility makes the Church seem wise.

    What is clear is that the Roman Catholic Church and other religious institutions encourage confirmation bias. They build up in their followers such a strong emotional attachment to certain beliefs that it causes even the most obvious of facts to be rejected, let alone well-supported hypotheses. The insistence on the integrity of the Christian Bible (despite its contradictions and falsehoods) has been a major factor inhibiting scientific progress (the Qur’an even more so recently – did you know that it states that the sun sets in a muddy puddle?). I accept that this is not the only possible cause for the idea of heliocentrism to be held back, but you must compare the speed with which the idea was accepted by rational thinkers with the apparent sluggishness of the Church.

    Of course, the Bible is a pillar of Christianity. The efforts of theologians such as Thomas God-therefore-God Aquinas do not alter this. For how long its faults can be persuasively ‘interpreted away’ I don’t know. Civlisation is becoming ever more desperate for scientific solutions and the last thing science needs is religious obstruction.

  • JabbaPapa

    the reasons for the long delay before withdrawing its disapproval of publications pushing heliocentrism could be more sinister.

    Gallileo included some unnecessary attacks against the Church hierarchy in the book that was put on the List, and that is the main reason why it was included on that list — particularly since the Church had funded and supported Gallileo in the first place.

    I mean — if *you* were to provide support for someone in his publishing endeavours, then the book came out and you discovered that it contained insults against your person, would you feel happy about that ?

    I am not accusing the Church of collective confirmation bias -[...] – What is clear is that the Roman Catholic Church and other religious institutions encourage confirmation bias. [etc]

    Interpretative bias is not the same thing as confirmation bias.

    Interpretative bias causes the misinterpretation of texts or other sources provided by people not actually sharing one’s own worldview as if in fact they did.

    Confirmation bias causes the interpretation of phenomena to conform intellectually to one’s previously held beliefs.

    FWIW, Richard Dawkins is actively promoting the spread of a rather virulent strain of confirmation bias by means of his religious agitation.

    Examples of bias abound in this latest production from yourself :

    The insistence on the integrity of the Christian Bible (despite its
    contradictions and falsehoods) has been a major factor inhibiting
    scientific progress

    Does this address any argument that anybody has made ? Even so, you’ve *really* picked the wrong person to discuss this with…

    1) You’re making a basc genre categorisation error — the Bible is not a scientific text, nor does it pretend to be one, and throughout the history of the Bible, other sources were routinely used, as they are today, for the scientific instruction of youth, and for the development of scientific investigation by scholars, philosophers, and scientists.

    At time of writing, the Greek and Roman scientific works were the ones that were in most frequent use.

    2) Contradictions in the Bible are only a problem for people who falsely believe in the literal inerrancy of its contents. Catholics are neither taught to believe any such thing, nor does the Catholic Church teach it. I do not believe any such thing, and I doubt that any contributor to this thread does so.

    Furthermore, biblical literalism is a modern invention of 17th century Protestantism, and yet has only become widespread as a heresy since the 20th century. As such, your argument is conditioned by a fallacy of anachronism, given that the development of Science has been completely divorced from influence from this Protestant error, until these last few decades when activist Young Earth Creationists (aka not Catholics) have been agitating for their ludicrous teachings to become a part of the general education system in the United States of America.

    but you must compare the speed with which the idea was accepted by
    rational thinkers with the apparent sluggishness of the Church

    This is a straightforward historical fallacy, and a sheer invention of atheist dogma.

    The speed with which heliocentrism was accepted was dependent on one thing, and on one thing only — the development of industrial printing and the adoption of cheaply available printed works as the basis of scientific education.

    Gallileo’s ideas were accepted by the Church even before he published them, because the publication of those ideas was supported by the Church. And when I say “the Church” — I mean the Holy See, ie at the very highest level ; and the Jesuits.

    Gallileo was punished for his **disobedience** ; not for his science ; for seeming to mock and ridicule Pope Urban VIII in his book.

    … and the last thing science needs is religious obstruction.

    Again with this ignorant fallacy that religion and science are somehow inherently antithetical.

    Ask your friend Dawkins to stop with his own pointless obstructions then. The last thing that anybody needs is any more of his own particular brand of obscurantism and religious hatred.

  • JabbaPapa

    Thank you for all of this by the way Lazarus !!! :-) I generally lack the patience to detail the sources of my reasoning for atheists such as this particular horde of them (due to bitter past experience), instead preferring to just attack the weaknesses of their own conceptions, but these are exactly the sorts of considerations that belong among my own sources.

    As you said elsewhere, we do not have the same background nor theoretical bases — but I do nevertheless very much appreciate the presence of someone who is willing to do this particular sort of basic conceptual legwork… ;o)

  • JabbaPapa

     Someone else had already Godwined the thread, just FYI :-)

  • Barry Lyons

    I understand that “God” is the steeple on the castle in the sky, and in terms of sheer argument I can see why you would say that a focused discussion on the alleged nature of God would bring me to understand the nature of souls and angels and holy water and the Special Wafer and all the rest of it.

    But I see it differently: these smaller elements (angels, souls, etc.) are like bricks in the edifice that get us to God (the steeple). In other words, you’ve got to build the structure first before you can put a steeple on top. You’ve got to have a ground floor before you can have a top floor. So all these smaller elements (angels, holy water, souls) are in service to a larger argument (the steeple: God). But when I stop you in the lobby and insist that no magic talk can do anything to water or a wafer, then that means I’ve just pulled some bricks out of the castle. That’s what I’m doing here: I’m pulling out bricks — and once enough bricks have been pulled out or chipped away, the steeple (“God”) will fall. Right? It’s exactly like architecture. I don’t want to hear about the glory of the top floor. If I can point to some loose bricks and support beams that are weak and rickety, then what’s the point about going on about the greatness of the top floor? So what you’re trying to do is this: “Barry, come on up to the top floor. Look at how beautiful it is. Look at the steeple.” And I’m saying that I don’t want to get in the elevator because it hasn’t passed inspection.

    Another way to put this: it doesn’t matter where I start. At the end of the day, “Transubstantiation” and a belief in angels and souls are substantial ingredients in the cake of Catholicism. It doesn’t matter when they get in the cake. The point here is that they ARE in the cake — and I have no interest in eating a slice.

    Like I say, you might find some argumentative gaps or flaws in Dawkins’s reasoning (I don’t), but the ground on which he toils is rock solid, whereas Catholicism just floats in the air untethered to the world. And I will defer to Jonathan West, who’s been giving some excellent replies here, and his one below that starts off with “The issue of defining…” nails it.

    Let me repeat: Dawkins’s central ideas are firmly ensconced in the real, experiential world; Catholicism exists in the world of pure abstraction (otherwise known as make-believe). “Heaven” and “hell” are fictions in EXACTLY the same way “The Land of
    Oz” is a fiction. “I don’t want to die. I want to live forever.” That’s the cry of human beings everywhere. So what do they do? In a feeble attempt to deny their mortality, they create a god and an afterlife, confabulate some accompanying fictions with mind-numbing “arguments” to justify their arrogant denial of the natural life/death cycle of all living organisms on the planet (that is, us included) and then — presto! “I get to live forever!” says the believer. Wow, is that lame.

    Theology is hilarious: all this obscurantism and over-reaching earnestness — and all in service of trying to get me to believe that Oz is a real place. Sorry, no superficial party game going on here. The only superficial partyers here are the believers — and the object of this game is to grab smoke and chase rainbows. We atheists are just trying to get a hold of you by the collar and say, “Come on, man. Get a grip on yourself. It’s just a vial of water. It’s just a cracker. You’re living in a world of ceremonial make-believe.”

    “Barry, I see that your ‘ugly’ tone has returned.” Yes, it has.

    Oh, and Lazarus, one last thing: you are still an atheist — of a kind. But I see you have zero interest in trying to figure out why I say this. Too bad. But when the light dawns (if it ever does), it will put your theological knickers in a twist. I guarantee it.

    Barry

    PS: I would love to see Sam Harris go after Aquinas’s hylomorphism. That’s a smack down I would pay to read.

  • Jonathan West

    Your main point in justifying divine simplicity is to say “God may be essentially simple even if, accidentally, he produces complex effects”.

    But that won’t do at all. An omnipotent God does produce effects (complex or otherwise) accidentally. For God to have an accident would by definition mean his is not omnipotent.

    Traditional design arguments fall into two types. First, the attribute of functionality is seen in the world and then a designer is postulated to explain it. Second, the existence of something is so statistically improbable that it is more probable that it was produced by intention than by chance.

    I would change “chance” to “natural processes”, but yes, I would agree with this, and argue that both aspects of a design argument make their contribution – i.e. that the entity in question could have been designed and could not have arisen naturally.

    On the first, the existence of a designer doesn’t require that the designer is designed. … So it doesn’t follow that any design argument of this type has to explain who designed the designer.

    I agree, but if the designer is not itself designed, then positing the existence of the designer requires you to ask and answer the question of how the designer came about. An infinite regress of meta-designers is obviously unsatisfactory, so the regress has to be terminated at some point.

    On the second, whilst we have a clear idea of probability in terms of an event in the real world with alternative outcomes -so it’s easy to say why this or that gravitational constant is unlikely- it’s much harder to see why a unique being such as God could be described as statistically improbable.

    No, that doesn’t follow. We know from experience within the universe that a degree of complexity of construction is a necessary prerequisite for complex capabilities – we don’t for instance expect a bucket of water to display consciousness. We also know from the definitions offered by religions that God as defined has far more complex capabilities than any mere living thing, and can accordingly be inferred to be more complex in construction.

    Whether God is made up of atoms or or of complex arrangements of some immaterial substance is really neither here nor there, there is still the complexity of construction to consider irrespective of the materials or immaterials used.

    So, you have to explain either how this construction occurred, or explain why, uniquely for God and in the face of all evidence of other entities, complexity of construction is not a necessary prerequisite for complexity of capability. 

    In terms of explaining how this construction occurred, it seems to me that Dawkins has quite correctly identified the two routes to complexity available in principle – design or time plus natural selection. And Dawkins has also quite correctly stated that that neither of these approaches are available when considering God.

    You are therefore in a position of having to explain why complexity of construction is not a prerequisite for complexity of capability. The arguments in that direction have been either “because it’s God and the rules are different for him” or “God exists, so it must be possible somehow”. Neither goes any distance in attempting to explain the how or why, it is merely defining God as such, and we are expected to accept proposition as a matter of faith.

  • Jonathan West

    In that case you have a definition of God as unfalsifiable as the proposition that the universe sprang into existence fully formed last Thursday, so perfect that you cannot distinguish your real memories of events since last Thursday from the synthetic ones created along with the rest of the universe.

    You cannot disprove the last-Thursday Hypothesis. But I suspect you don’t waste much time with the considering the possibility that it is true.

    If God is as undetectable as you suggest, why should be treat the God Hypothesis any differently?

  • TreenonPoet

     Thank you for your extensive reply. You will not be surprised that I don’t fully agree. I will try to reply when I return from our Easter break (dodgy internet connection permitting) if someone else has not already done so by then. Meanwhile, have a happy fertility festival!

  • JabbaPapa

    The meaning of “accident” in general philosophy is roughly equivalent to that of “individual characteristics” or “individual features” in ordinary language (except that accidents are not necessarily individual in nature).

    In terms of genetic evolution, any parts of the genome of any human individual that are commonly shared among all humans would be “essential” (that is to say, of the essence of humanity) whereas any parts of the genome that were personal would be “accidental” in this sense, as well as any tertiary characteristics developed by the individual during gestation and aging such as specific patterns of freckles, fingerprints, scars, extent of athletic and muscular development from individual sports training, etc.

  • Barry Lyons

    No intellectual cowardice here. I’m always ready and eager to rip religion to shreds. It’s so easy to do!

    You got the news flash wrong: “Being a Believer of a Fairy Tale Does not Allow you to Make S— Up and Then Fob it Off to Others as if it Represented Something Real in the World”.

    That you think the “burden of proof” argument is tedious is evidence of just how deep you are in the Catholic cult. Scary!

    There’s nothing silly about Jonathan West’s request. Nothing at all. By the way, I didn’t know he writes (or has written) for The Guardian. Look up his pieces there on being an atheist. Every one is excellent.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    This pretty much boils down just to repeating complexity can only be produced by complexity. As Jabbapapa has pointed out, you’ve misunderstood the meaning of ‘accident’. I’d add that you’ve combined the cosmological argument  with the design argument, and just faced down the complexities of ‘complexity’.

    Remember that in chapter 4 the burden of proof is on Dawkins to make himself clear. I certainly wouldn’t expect you to be able to sort out his mess in a combox -so don’t read the above as a criticism of you: no one could resolve all the difficulties here in a debate of this nature with this sort of space. But that’s precisely the problem with Dawkins: he thinks he has knock down arguments when he clearly doesn’t. And all the over excitable rhetoric in the world won’t cover up the fact that you can’t disprove the existence of God by focusing on refuting one argument (the design argument), and certainly not in the way that Dawkins does it in ch4. You’ve made a brave effort to start filling in some of the holes, but it’s an impossible task in such a short space.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Thank you, that’s kind! I know these spats on the internet are probably in the end little more than ‘vanity and vexation of spirit’ but I hope sometimes the variety and depth of Catholicism shines through all our efforts just a little.

    Anyway, I shall try to keep of the computer for the remainder of the Triduum! 

  • Barry Lyons

    So Justin Martyr talks about “the most true God”. Wow, talk about falling into a trap! Obviously, this guy had a pea-sized brain if he couldn’t anticipate the following.

    A believer of ABC religion says his religion concerns the “one true god” and the believer of XYZ religion says that HIS religion concerns the “one true god”. The theologians of ABC religion have an earnest fervor for their faith that is defended with their holy text(s) and the theologians of XYZ religion have their fervor that is defended by their holy text(s).

    Question: how is this dilemma adjudicated and resolved? Answer: it can’t be done — which leads us to the only solution possible: to realize that both religions are false.

    “No, no!”, cries the ABC believer. “My religion is the Truth, the Light, and the Way.”

    “No, no!”, cries the XYZ believer. “MY religion is the Truth, the Light, and the Way.”

    And so there we are, going around, and around, and around, running fast but getting nowhere. Where’s Lewis Carroll when you need him?

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    1) Going back to your first post, you said:  ‘ so distinguishing between the two is irrelevant in the face of the atheist demand for proof’. But clearly, it is important to distinguish between the sort of entity something is because that will determine what sort of proof will support its existence. (Unless of course you’ve already made up your mind that any sort of God doesn’t exist…)

    2) & 3) Part of the issue here is some claims of Catholicism are based on reason, and some are based on revelation. Eg: the existence of God is based on reason. The incarnation of God is based on revelation. (But that revelation is, in turn, capable of rational support.) As far as which would better convince you, since I know nothing about your psychology (other than you like appearing on Catholic sites to witness to us savages), I can’t say. Personally, I started with the rational proofs and then worked my way onto  the revelation: I found it easier to believe in the abstract God of the philosophers and only gradually realized the depth in Christ and the Trinity. But in the end, it hardly matters if they are mutually supportive and illuminating (which they are).

    Two specific points: a) God isn’t totally beyond our understanding. b) The maths analogy isn’t exact (being an analogy and not an identity) but the connection is that observable world is, in general, measurable, but that quality is not something that is empirically verifiable in any direct way. Maths helps us understand our whole experience better; equally God helps us understand our whole experience better. (I’m talking here simply at the level of natural theology: if there are, beyond sustaining the being of the creation, direct miraculous interventions in that creation, that’s a further step and a matter of revelation.)

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    “Barry, I see that your ‘ugly’ tone has returned.”

  • JabbaPapa

    — *that* stupid rhetorical trick

    All that it provides is empty verbiage, devoid of any reference to reality.

  • JabbaPapa

    Your lengthy post contains nothing of any intellectual value.

    Summed up : Barry Lyons does not believe in God ; therefore anything concerning belief in God is wrong.

    That is the entirety of your “argument”.

    Its emptiness is blatant.

  • badjumbly

    1) You propose that it’s important to know what sort of entity something is before you know what sort of proof would support its existence, but if you don’t even know whether it exists, how can you begin to determine what kind of thing it is? If it doesn’t exist, the word “is” can’t apply, except in a fictive sense, and you have suggested that your God is not fictive. In any case, your proposition does nothing towards answering the question of what kind of proof might support the existence of a deity beyond both the physical world and human observation. The more you abstract God, the more unfeasible evidence becomes (which could be one reason for the abstraction) but evidence doesn’t become unnecessary as a result of becoming unfeasible. 

    2) I believe that the most trustworthy sort of revelation RESULTS from reasoning rather than preceding it. When the revelation comes first, there is a greater risk of the reasoning going awry in the attempt to support what has already been accepted without the reasoning. It is to your credit if you started with what you regard as rational proofs, but when you claim these led to a revelation, I assume you are no longer using the word “revelation” in the more mystic sense that it has in the first sentence of your second paragraph.
    I realise the sentence about maths was an analogy, but that doesn’t stop it being self-contradictory in the form you have given it. If we apply the analogy to God, as you intended, what you seem to be claiming is that God is not an observable entity within the world but his work in creating the world is observable. Atheists will happily agree with the first part of that claim and do not generally need to be reminded of it, but they will not agree with the second. Offering the world as evidence of God and His creative powers does not become more convincing to us just because we all agree to discount the idea of God Himself as a present-day physical entity.

    3) How can you possibly tell if, or how much, you understand God? If we are to be sure we understand something, there must be some way we can test that understanding, e.g. doctors can test their understanding of what cancers are and how they work by finding cures for them. What possible test can there be for an understanding of God? A friend of mine applied to be a Chuch of Scotland minister. While receiving feedback from one of the interviews he was told that he had “a good understanding of the mystery of God”. “How is that possible?” I asked him. “Once you understand something, it isn’t a mystery”. He replied just by smiling, mysteriously. I’ll never get religion!

  • Jonathan West

    Is that another way of saying there is no way of knowing if it works?

  • JabbaPapa

    No, it is a way of saying that your understanding of it is inherently flawed by a seminal confusion of magic with spirituality.

  • Jonathan West

    So, how do you know it works?

  • Jonathan West

    That “complexity can only be produced by complexity” is the essence of the Teleological Argument. It was demonstrated to be false when Darwin described another way of coming up with complexity – natural selection plus time in geological quantities.

    But Darwin only gave us one additional route to complexity, so we now have two known possibilities – design and natural selection.But given the unavailability of both design and natural selection as a process available for causing the complexity of God (and I’m glad that you do now accept that God is complex), and that Christianity since Aquinas has been very hot on the Teleological Argument, it seems that if you are to assert God’s existence, then you need to explain by what process you think the complexity of God came about.

    And having offered that process, explain why it is that the same process can’t equally give rise to the universe spontaneously without the prior creation of God.

  • Barry Lyons

    “Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist’. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” — Sam Harris

    To which I would add two things, for clarification: the Laws of Nature have never been suspended, and there is only the natural world and no other. It really does come to these two basic truths about the world. I can’t think of a third.

    In the “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution” Denis Dutton writes: “Philosophers…are given professional leave to concoct purely imaginary thought experiments.” I would say instead that it’s theologians who concoct purely imaginary thought experiments. Colin McGinn and Thomas Nagel don’t concoct “pure imaginary thought” because the wellspring of their thought is rooted in the real, palpable, experiential world. When McGinn writes about the nature of consciousness he is writing about something that is palpable to all of us, namely, consciousness. But to speak of “angels” or the ethereal “soul” that allegedly exists in all of us, or to believe in telepathy, or to believe that a wafer is not simply a wafer, is to engage in pure mind thought that is utterly untethered from the palpable world. To be a Catholic one must take certain “leaps of faith”. In other words, one must entertain certain ways of thinking that are divorced from (or contrary to) the real, experiential world. Here’s my question: why am I supposed to want to take this leap of faith?

    Believers like to say that atheism is just another religion. Hah. Don’t be silly. Atheism is a religion in the exact same way not collecting baseball cards is a hobby.

    Barry

  • TreenonPoet

    Gallileo included some unnecessary attacks against the Church hierarchy in the book that was put on the List, and that is the main reason why it was included on that list — particularly since the Church had funded and supported Gallileo in the first place.

    I had not mentioned Galileo as I can only guess at the Church’s true motives for its reaction to his works, but I would point out that its sentence in 1633 repeatedly states its opposition to heliocentrism. Your account does not agree with other literature I have read either. However contrived the 1633 judgement might be (and it is possible that it was contrived in response to a perceived insult to the Church), the document that I have just linked to provides (towards the end of the document) the reasoning behind the Sentence that the inquisition wished to record. I will refer to it below as the ’1633 Sentence’. If, as you suggest, the motive was a reaction to the perceived attacks against the Church, then the record demonstrates the utterly inappropriate way in which the attacks were dealt with.

    FWIW, Richard Dawkins is actively promoting the spread of a rather virulent strain of confirmation bias by means of his religious agitation.

    How can you describe what Dawkins promotes as ‘bias’ if what he promotes corresponds to the evidence? If I was to say that the Earth is not flat, would that demonstrate a bias against flat-earthers?

    Does this [claim that insistence on Bible integrity inhibits scientific progress] address any argument that anybody has made ?

    In the 1633 Sentence, the cardinals refer to Holy Scripture as justification for their opposition to Galileo’s position on heliocentrism. Also, Aquinas has been talked about as if he provided independent confirmation of the God hypothesis. I am therefore not only addressing the argument about the wisdom of the Church in relation to heliocentrism, but also touching on the the basis for Thomism.

    1) You’re making a basc genre categorisation error — the Bible is not a scientific text, nor does it pretend to be one, and throughout the history of the Bible, other sources were routinely used, as they are today, for the scientific instruction of youth, and for the development of scientific investigation by scholars, philosophers, and scientists.

    And yet the Bible was taken by the Church to be the definitive scientific word in the 1633 Galileo case. How unwise!

    2) Contradictions in the Bible are only a problem for people who falsely believe in the literal inerrancy of its contents. Catholics are neither taught to believe any such thing, nor does the Catholic Church teach it. I do not believe any such thing, and I doubt that any contributor to this thread does so.

    And yet you place great store by some of the contents of this errant book, even when the claims are extremely far-fetched (as with the Resurrection (death is death after all)).

    This [apparent sluggishness] is a straightforward historical fallacy, and a sheer invention of atheist dogma.

    Wikipediastates that in 1758 the Catholic Church dropped the general prohibition of books advocating heliocentrism from the Index of Forbidden Books. The Church’s final retraction of its condemnation of Galileo occurred within my lifetime. What is your evidence that this is a straightforward historical fallacy, and a sheer invention of atheist dogma?

    (It seems that news of the Church’s eventual public acceptance of heliocentrism has not yet reached Rick Santorum.)

    The speed with which heliocentrism was accepted was dependent on one thing, and on one thing only — the development of industrial printing and the adoption of cheaply available printed works as the basis of scientific education.

    The acceptance of a scientific idea by ‘thoughtful men’ is dependent on its persuasiveness. Those for whom dogma displaces thought are not so easily persuaded. That is not to say that nobody in the Vatican was persuaded, but that is an academic point given the pressure on them to outwardly support the dogma.

    Gallileo’s ideas were accepted by the Church even before he published them, because the publication of those ideas was supported by the Church. And when I say “the Church” — I mean the Holy See, ie at the very highest level ; and the Jesuits.

    Gallileo was punished for his **disobedience** ; not for his science ; for seeming to mock and ridicule Pope Urban VIII in his book.

    Again I refer to the 1633 Sentence.

    Again with this ignorant fallacy that religion and science are somehow inherently antithetical.

    If a hypothesis is disproved by new knowledge, science modifies or rejects that hypothesis. Religion retains its hypotheses if they are central to the dogma, and rejects the new knowledge. In what way are these two approaches not antithetical?

  • Mike

     But that’s not because of atheism but a religion-based dogma

  • Michael Kocian

    Mike, you’re completely backward.  Totalitarianism opposes Christianity.  It’s the first thing they want to eliminate.  Why?  Because the atheistic government wants to take the place of God.  

  • Michael Kocian

    Jonathan, there are many people with differing opinions.  There is only one true faith established by God Himself on the earth today.  It has an official teaching office, and is not in any way a democracy, but in the form of a Kingdom.  So, all “differing opinions” in Catholicism don’t matter.  Protestantism is not God’s Church, but man’s… so, what do you expect from them but a multitude of falsehoods.  No other faith on earth is from God.  

  • Michael Kocian

    Who God is, is certainly not a matter of agreement among people.  How absurd would that be?  God is.  We can know some things about Him without any revelation at all.  However, He did provide revelation and an official teaching office to teach the truth about Him.  Any opinion differing with this official teaching is a falsehood.  God gives us free will to choose or not choose to believe in Him and follow Him.  With God there is freedom.  However, one is quite stupid (meaning self-defeating) to choose “not God.”  

  • Michael Kocian

    Dawkins seems incapable of grabbing the full and real truth.  Science, logic, reason, statistics, all oppose Dawkins.  He’s just not man enough to believe in the truth, and the responsibilities that come with truth.  

  • Michael Kocian

    Barry, competing Theologies don’t mean God doesn’t exist.  It just means men disagree… and it’s not surprising because no man could understand God completely, and yet many grasp at this the best they can.  We do have authentic Theology among the many, though.  Theology upheld by Catholic Doctrine an d officially taught in the Catholic Church is truthful.  It’s the only Church God established.  You’re just not man enough to accept the responsibilities of living with God’s law.  It takes a real man to do so.

  • Wads42

    If you had understood Prof Dawkins’ comments in TGD and elsewhere, you would realize that he is not into “Fairyology”; by which he means that it is not necessary or desirable to be an expert in the nuances of Christian Equivocation and rationalisation of awkward problems like theodicy.  The whole point is that atheists reject Theology in toto, and therefore the equivocations of Aquinas, Augustine etc (whom I have read), are of no importance to us; it does not mean that we are completely ignorant of them; we just disagree with them.  Why for instance should we be condemned for not  following Aristotle as assiduously as Catholics do? And why do you hang on his every word anyway?–he is not a god; he was a pagan Greek philosopher whose writings were adopted by the Church because they had nothing of their own to offer.

  • Wads42

    I think he is doing rather well.

  • Wads42

    That is because one has never been allowed by the totalitarian Roman Church. The nearest they came to it was probably the Cathars of southern France around the 13th century;–and they were exterminated by the Holy Inquisition.

  • Wads42

    No,-it takes one totalitarian system to replace another. Stalin (I presume you are referring to him) was a politically motivated tyrant who was educated by the Orthodox Church and learned the value of totalitarianism. By becoming Communist leader of Russia he was merely imitating prior religious totalitarianism; he just took over where the Tsar/ State religion axis left off. Stalin did not replace God, he replaced the Tsar and the State religion. It was all politics.

  • Gypsycook

    Just imagine:  God himself comes down to Earth, and makes himself known to Mark, among others.  What does Mark say? O I don’t have time to write a Gospel about this trifling event at the moment; I think I will put it off for about 40 years; got a lot of fishing to catch up on.

  • Gypsycook

    I have no doubt you have experienced “something”, but the things we experience and the interpretation we put upon them is a matter of our cultural upbringing; how do you know it was God? And if it really was the Creator of the Universe, and he actually spoke to you, did he tell you anything at all of scientific, factual, ie epistemological interest?  Or did he just tell you (again) that he “loves you”?–(yawn).

  • Gypsycook

    Hey hang on. You are the devout followers of an infallible Vicar of Christ,–remember?  As a very polite but completely Dawkinsesque atheist (before I ever heard of Richard Dawkins), I do not blindly or devoutly follow anyone,-but I still agree with Richard.  If you make factual, ie pseudo-scientific assertions and hypotheses about the way the world works,–eg water into wine,–then you certainly deserve to be ridiculed.
    And by the way, that “despicable man” has never killed, raped or harmed anyone.

  • Gypsycook

    Shifting the goalposts again? What is it that he should be understanding? Should he first believe in order that he can believe?  Is that it?