Dawkins on Aquinas, again

Ch. 3: Arguments for God’s Existence

Aquinas and DawkinsJust in case you can’t be bothered to work through my posts on the Five Ways (I won’t hold it against you), here’s a quick summary of what I think is wrong with Dawkins’ presentation of Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God. It is not, by the way, that I think Dawkins gets to the wrong basic conclusion: I too think that the Ways don’t quite work as a proof of the existence of God. But I find Dawkins’ mistakes in presentation interesting.

First, the minor points. I would have liked Dawkins to have the grace to acknowledge that the mysterious Fourth Way might have made more sense in Aquinas’ intellectual context than it does in ours – and to have done the minimal research required to know that the examples he (Dawkins) gives are not the kinds of gradation Aquinas was talking about. Once again, Dawkins is all too eager to represent a religious thinker as incoherent buffoon. I would also have liked him, purely for the sake of conceptual hygiene, to note that the Fifth Way is not quite the standard design argument (it’s not about things ‘looking designed’, but about apparently purposive action) – even though it is, I think, very nearly as vulnerable to Darwin.

The major point, though, is that Dawkins simply misses one major strand of Aquinas’ argument. Dawkins’ main complaint is that Aquinas arbitrarily invokes God as the end of the regress that the first three ways point to. Whereas, in fact, Aquinas argues at great length about what would count as an end to those regresses – and Dawkins doesn’t even hint that he’s aware of that part of Aquinas’ account. Far from simply asserting, Aquinas argues, in detail and at length – and Dawkins has missed that completely. (As for his aside about omniscience and omnipotence: well, if he had read on in Aquinas’ account, he’d know that whatever the silly little argument he offers is about, it isn’t about the God discussed by Aquinas.)

Aquinas, by the way, would clearly have thought Dawkins’ own answer – that we can terminate the regress with the big bang singularity or some other natural phenomenon – quite as vacuous as Dawkins’ thinks his, and that the supposed analogy with the natural termination to the divisibility of matter was wholly beside the point. To say that we can’t, in fact, go on dividing matter for ever is not quite the same as saying that at some point we can’t go on asking Why? Dawkins, in Aquinas eyes, is giving up on the intelligibility of the universe.

Note two things. First, I think this is a place where Dawkins fails to see the necessity for philosophy. That is, he thinks that the regress is going to be answered by a scientific discovery, by some physical concept – whereas I’m with Aquinas in thinking that once we get to questions like, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing’, we are inevitably beyond physics, and in the realm of metaphysics.

The second, I think that Dawkins regards Aquinas’ argument as an obvious failure because, unlike Aquinas, he is operating with a picture of God as one particular kind of thing – one of the things that there is – which is therefore clearly just as contingent, just as question-begging as any other particular thing. Aquinas and Dawkins don’t just disagree about whether God exists; they disagree about what ‘God’ means.

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