Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Richard Dawkins vs Thomas Aquinas

Of the "new atheists", Richard Dawkins is one of the few who seems to realize that he ought to address the arguments theists have given for theism. Harris, Hitchens, and Dennet don't really address theistic arguments at all in their most popular books. So credit due where credit is due. However, when Dawkins addresses the Thomistic First Cause arguments, he mucks them up so badly that they are beyond recognizable. Let's take a closer look at what Dawkins says about Aquinas in The God Delusion:
All three of these arguments rely upon the idea of a regress and invoke God to terminate it. They make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress.
The arguments in question do not make an unwarranted assumption at all. The whole point is to argue that a "vertical" series of in esse causes must terminate in something that can "hold up the whole stack" without itself needing to be held up by anything further (for more detail, see here). We use the same kind of reasoning when we are listening to the radio and we wonder where the radio station is transmitting from: our radio is a receiver, which entails that there must be a transmitter, or something that can give the radio signal without having to get it from anything further. Or how a series of spring-loaded clamps, each dependent on the next clamp for being held shut, must terminate in a clamp that doesn't need to be held shut by any further clamps. As you can see, this is not unwarranted at all.

Next, Dawkins talks about the divine attributes:
Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design...
Did he miss questions 3 through 26 of Aquinas's Summa Theologica? Once Aquinas argues for a first cause, he then goes on to extract the divine attributes of such a thing one by one, such as simplicity, omniscience, omnipotence, and even lovingness and mercy.. For a shorter look, see my article on the attributes of pure actuality. Dawkins seems completely unaware of this.
Incidentally, it has not escaped the notice of logicians that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can't change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent.
The whole point of the argument is to say that all changeable things must trace "down" to an unchangeable bottom-level. As something unchangeable, the bottom-level does not live "in time" like the rest of us, but its existence is simultaneously whole. There is no "future" for it. Its actions are already in place. So it makes no sense to talk about it changing its mind, since everything is already done, from its perspective. Had Dawkins been knowledgeable about the argument, he would not have made this mistake. Continuing:
To return to the infinite regress and the futility of invoking God to terminate it, it is more parsimonious to conjure up, say, a 'big bang singularity', or some other physical concept as yet unknown. Calling it God is at best unhelpful and at worst perniciously misleading.
And here Dawkins makes clear that he thinks, as most people do, that Aquinas is arguing for a beginning to the universe. The argument that the universe had a beginning is called the Kalam cosmological argument, and Aquinas clearly rejects this argument because he does not think it can be proven philosophically that the universe had a beginning. To quote Aquinas: "By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proven, that the universe did not always exist..."

Aquinas's argument is for the most fundamental layer of reality in the present, not the event that kickstarted the Big Bang. If you don't understand the difference between in fieri and in esse causes, then you cannot understand the argument. Dawkins, as most people, thinks Aquinas is talking about "in fieri" causes, stretching back to the Big Bang, rather than "in esse" causes stretching down in the present. 
Some regresses do reach a natural terminator. Scientists used to wonder what would happen if you could dissect, say, gold into the smallest possible pieces. Why shouldn't you cut one of those pieces in half and produce an even smaller smidgen of gold? The regress in this case is decisively terminated by the atom. The smallest possible piece of gold is a nucleus consisting of exactly seventy-nine protons and a slightly larger number of neutrons, attended by a swarm of seventy-nine electrons. If you 'cut' gold any further than the level of the single atom, whatever else you get it is not gold. The atom provides a natural terminator to the Crumboblious Cutlets type of regress. It is by no means clear that God provides a natural terminator to the regresses of Aquinas.
Good! I'm glad he is open to the idea of some regresses having a natural terminator. Because a vertical causal series does have a terminator. Dawkins would know this if he were aware that the argument is for an in esse chain of sustaining causes, rather than an in fieri chain of events. But, of course, he doesn't know this and so can't think of why a chain of events would necessarily need a first cause, as even Aquinas himself agrees! As Aquinas says: " ....it is not impossible to proceed to infinity "accidentally" as regards efficient causes...as an artificer acts by means of many hammers accidentally, because one after the other may be broken. It is accidental, therefore, that one particular hammer acts after the action of another..." That is to say, a chain of events could stretch back into the past for infinity, and does not necessarily need a first cause. It is only a concurrent chain of sustaining causes that has an natural terminator.

Hopefully, this will show that Dawkins doesn't get Aquinas even close to right, and if anyone uses Dawkins to "refute" him, they are only exposing their own confirmation biases.

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