Responding to Hank Green’s objections to Aquinas’ 5 ways

So lots of y’all have asked me to respond to the video below. So … I did. I reserved my remarks for his four objections to Aquinas’ arguments.

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    (1) There’s a stronger way of framing the objection, which is to say that the notion of “God” as “unmoved mover” is inherently discrepant with the notion of him acting as he is depicted in the Bible. The argument, if it succeeds, only works for a notion of “God” as a perfectly static being, which stands at odds with the dynamic, personal God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who ostensibly feels emotions and is even capable of regret. Basically, this objection gets to the heart of a longstanding theological problem — how to reconcile these conflicting notions of “God” as abstract, impersonal, perfectly static “ground of all being” and a personal agent who cares about humanity and even intervenes in the course of history to bring about the fulfilment of some divine plan.

    (2) You claim that the argument establishes that the cause is “intelligent”. Where and in what sense? Intelligence, or cognition, is complex and dynamic. How is something perfectly static capable of engaging in anything that we would recognise as “thinking”? And if it is capable of thought, which unfolds over time, and is capable of of having many thoughts about many things, then wouldn’t it be, in a sense, a composite of those thoughts? But if it is a composite it cannot be necessary, according to Aquinas; it must be contingent.

    (3) “The cause he is arguing for is ‘pure existence’ or ‘being itself’.” If that were all that theists meant by the term “God”, there would hardly be a debate to be had between theists and atheists. In fact, if that is ALL that is meant by “God”, then practically everyone would count as a “theist”. But this is why it’s a mistake for you dismissively hand-wave anthropomorphism as though it were inconsequential to the debate. Because, inevitably, theists do burden this seemingly uncontroversial notion of “existence” itself with all manner of anthropomorphism. “Existence” becomes a “he”, who ostensibly has a salvific “plan” and wishes for us to live a certain way.

    (4) Nitpicking the gears example: I don’t think the movement begins and ceases simultaneously. Physical forces don’t propagate instantaneously.

    (5) “Who created God?” is a bit of a caricature of a much better question: Why does God exist? “Because he is metaphysically necessary; he is self-sufficient.” Ok, why is necessary? “He just is.” Ok, well, then why wouldn’t that be a satisfactory answer to the question of why there is a universe? “There just is.”

    • Hi Philo, thank you for your thoughtful comments but I don’t think I’ll have the time to respond to—I count at least 6—questions. If you would like to propose one I’ll do my best to try to answer.

    • Vincent Herzog

      Dear Philo,
      (1) The response to your (1) is at least in part in the podcast: anger and other passions are attributed to God metaphorically. But you go on to ask a distinct question, which you seem not to recognize as distinct: how can God be both unchanging and yet care? There is no problem here, if caring is desiring and willing the good of the other for the sake of the other: God could do so, without change, for all eternity. That is, God desires the best for you, and wills the best for you, and always has, and always will, all at once. He does so once, yet the effects of that one act of will are manifold. The problem seems to be that you are mistaking “unchanging” with “not acting,” almost as if God were frozen. The problem, in short, is that you don’t sufficiently understand the concept of God as Pure Act.
      (2) Your claim that intelligence is dynamic is confused. You equivocate on both key terms (“intelligence” and “dynamic”). “Intelligence,” here, primarily means something like the capacity to know, desire, and will, but you imagine these must be done the way we do them. “Dynamic” can mean powerful/having effect, but also “changing,” but these meanings can certainly come apart. It is not Aquinas’s claim that God reasons, but you cannot assert that all intelligence must be mediated through a process of reasoning without begging he question. Furthermore, you would be stuck in an infinite regress of reasoning. That wouldn’t be as much of a problem for God as it would be for you, who cannot have reasoned through infinite steps.
      (3) Again, you have apparently not given any thought or study to what Aquinas means by Pure Act. You seem to have no knowledge of Aristotle’s thinking on potentiality and actuality, nor of causation and change. Notionally, you are talking about Aquinas’s thought, but apparently you know very little about it.
      (4) This is a fair point—about the shortcoming of the illustration. But it’s about the illustration, not about the concept illustrated. The result of the objection, if you were to follow it all the way through, should be that the illustration fails to perfectly illustrate an essentially ordered series of efficient causes. I expect Matt would totally agree.
      (5) There is seemingly a very clear answer to your rhetorical question: the universe does not have in itself the reason for its own existence. It is a contingently existing thing. It could have not existed.

      • Thanks for the reply Vincent. I’ll address 1–3 altogether, since they are closely related. If we are talking about “intelligence” or cognition, then we must be talking about a system capable of processing information in multiple modalities in the service of internal goals. Such a system is dynamic in the sense of manifesting mental activity and undergoing change in response to environmental circumstances—in short, intelligence evolves. You say that I “imagine these [processes] must be done the way we do them.” Not at all. There may be other forms of mental activity that don’t resemble what we are familiar with from human and animal research. But, how would we recognize such activity as “mental” in the first place?; what would suggest its intelligence? This point was captured in the question given above: “How is something perfectly static capable of engaging in anything that we would recognise as ‘thinking’?”

        You bring up Aristotle, which is fair to mention given that much of Aquinas’ thought is derived from Aristotle. But it’s worth noting that Aristotle’s “God” is one forever engaged in self-contemplation—if “contemplation” is even the right word for it. This again relates to my first point (and Green’s summary of the objection), which is that apologists don’t worship or pray to Aristotle’s “God”. For their religious needs, they turn to the much more personable God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—a God that thinks of the creatures of his creation and even tailors the cosmos to their unique needs.

        To get to the core of this objection, it’s worth asking whether “pure act” is seen as synonymous with “existence itself”. If it is, then the atheist objecting to the argument need only point out that there is nothing inherently theological about “existence itself”.

        Regarding your last point (5), how do you know that to be the case? That is, how do you know that “the universe does not have in itself the reason for its own existence”? As far as I can tell, nothing in philosophy or science would allow us to firmly conclude that the universe is “a contingently existing thing”. It may exist necessarily, or it may depend on something else in nature which exists necessarily. If you think that “the universe” and “nature” are the same, and that they must exist contingently by definition, then it seems to me that you’re begging the question.

        • Hi, physicist here.

          > As far as I can tell, nothing in philosophy or science would allow us to firmly conclude that the universe is “a contingently existing thing”.

          First a distinction: there are all the observable, physical things in the universe (energy, matter, time, space, etc.), and there are all the laws and theories that govern the “stuff” of the universe and attempt, to a greater or lesser degree, to explain them: general relativity, quantum theory, maybe string theory if it can actually generate something testable (pace Lee Smolin), grand unified theories, etc.

          With regards to the directly observable physical stuff of the universe — matter, energy, time, space, the fundamental forces, etc. it is widely accepted as a “fact” that they do not, in the language of the current debate, “contain within themselves the reason for their existence.” Material things and matter itself comes into and goes out of existence; energy changes form — from kinetic, to potential, from photons or excitations of some field, to rest energy contained in an electron-anti-electron pair, etc.

          Even the more abstract observables, like time and space, are not absolute in any sense, are “continengent”, and are not “necessary”. Relativity shows that time and space itself are dependent (i.e., contingent) on one’s reference frame.

          Despite over half a century (or more, maybe) of trying, some of the brightest minds in physics have tried to come up with a theory of everything; a theory that explains all other theories, all observable quantities. None of these efforts have borne out, or provided any testable predictions to gauge their verisimilitude (pace John Polkinghorne).

          The best we’ve done thus far — General Relativity for big stuff, the Standard Model for small stuff — have all sorts of magic numbers (like the masses of fundamental particles, the fine structure constant, planck’s constant, and dozens of others) and things that are “just so”. Even these theories do not contain within themselves the reason for their existence. String theory and others that try to resolve these gaps still just kick the can down the road, with their own set of “just so” things.

          So to claim that the universe (and all laws that govern it) is “necessary” and not “contingent,” you would have to hold, against our best, validated theories, that there is an all explaining theory that no one has thought of yet that demonstrates the universe’s intrinsic necessity.

  2. Actually, I can’t believe how fair a treatment Aquinas got from a video produced by PBS!

  3. Disappointed to find my (critical) comment not published.

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