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Dawkins vs. Aquinas

Richard Dawkins fundamentally misunderstands each of St. Thomas' Five Proofs

Matt Fradd

In his best-selling book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins responds to St. Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs for the existence of God in the Summa Theologica with the bold claim that these proofs are “easily [. . .] exposed as vacuous” (The God Delusion, 100). Before I show why Dawkins does not refute Thomas’s arguments, I need to point out two problems with his approach.

First, Dawkins seems unaware (or at least fails to mention) that these five proofs are summaries that Aquinas expands upon in his other works (see Summa Contra Gentiles, I, ch. 13). They were not meant to be comprehensive cases for the existence of God that address every objection. Instead, they conform to the Summa Theologica’s mission to treat “whatever belongs to the Christian religion in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners” (Summa Theologica, preface). This is a common mistake made by both theists and atheists, and as Thomistic scholar Edward Feser points out:

Aquinas never intended [these five proofs] to stand alone and would probably have reacted with horror if told that future generations of students would be studying them in isolation, removed from their immediate contact in the Summa Theologica and the larger content of his work as a whole (Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, 62-63).

Dawkins’s failure to understand the context of Aquinas’s arguments, including the foundational metaphysics in the Summa they rely upon, compounds his second misstep. Throughout his entire argument, Dawkins never directly quotes Thomas. Instead he summarizes what he thinks Aquinas’s argument is and, as a result, he attacks a straw man, or a weakened version of the saint’s arguments.

Although Dawkins is an accomplished biologist, he simply isn’t a skilled philosopher, and that’s a severe handicap when confronting a philosophical issue like the existence of God. In his review of The God Delusion, renowned philosopher Alvin Plantinga writes, “You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class.”

Now, let’s examine each of Aquinas’s Five Ways in order to understand how Dawkins’s arguments end up deserving such a bad grade.

The first three proofs

Dawkins’s response to Thomas’s first three proofs begins with the claim that “[they] are just different ways of saying the same thing” (The God Delusion, 101). It is true each proof ends with the conclusion that God as the ultimate cause of the world exists, but they do not reach this conclusion in the same way.

The first one, or the argument from motion, proceeds from the Aristotelian analysis of change as the actualization of a potentiality. It shows that only a reality that is pure act can explain the chain of motion we observe in the universe. The second proof proceeds from the existence of efficient causes and shows that an only an “uncaused cause” can explain this chain of causation in the universe. The third proof argues from the existence of beings that can fail to exist and shows that only a necessary being could be keeping all of these contingent things in existence.

Rather than engage each proof based on its analysis of motion, causation, or contingency, Dawkins says merely that all these proofs “rely upon the idea of a regress and invoke God to terminate it” (ibid.), which he claims is dubious and arbitrary. He thinks something like a “Big Bang singularity” is a more parsimonious explanation for the beginning of the universe, and that makes God an unnecessary conclusion.

Aside from the problem with making a finite and contingent part of physics the ultimate explanation of reality, Thomas is not claiming to prove from reason alone that God created the universe from nothing in the finite past.

According to Thomistic philosopher Ralph McInerny, “[Aquinas] spends a good deal of time showing that there is nothing internally inconsistent in talking of a created eternal world” (Ralph McInerny, ed., Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, 711). Dawkins evidently doesn’t realize this, and so he misunderstands each of these proofs. He says of the first proof, “Something had to make the first move, and that something we call God”; and of the second, “This [causal chain] has to be terminated by a first cause, which we call God”; and of the third, “There must have been a time when no physical things existed, but, since physical things exist now, there must have been something non-physical to bring them into existence and that something we call God” (The God Delusion, 101).

But all of this is precisely what Thomas is not arguing.

Thomas claims that even if these causal chains or contingent realities existed eternally into the past, there must still be a final or ultimate cause that explains not just the past existence of those things but also their current existence, which is something a “Big Bang singularity” cannot do. In order to grasp this point, it is necessary to distinguish between two different kinds of causal series: accidentally ordered series and essentially ordered series.

Types of causation

An accidentally ordered series of causes is one in which one independent object interacts with another independent object and causes it to move or change, similar to a series of dominoes falling one after another. These changes take place over a period of time, whether short or long. Dye, for example, is applied to hair, and, after a few minutes, hair changes color. A man drinks many beers and is eventually drunk. What all these changes have in common is that the past parts of the series do not directly affect the future parts. You can throw away the hair dye and the beer, but you’ll still be a drunk person with blue hair.

An essentially ordered series of causes, on the other hand, occurs when the motion or change in the series is dependent on every past member in the series. For example, imagine Thomas Aquinas’s great works are sitting on a table. These books can be positioned as they are because there is a table underneath them. The table, in turn, is able to hold the books because the floor supports it. But the floor rests on a foundation that lies on the earth and so on and so on. Everything in the series is essential to the end result: the book sitting on the table. If you took away the table, the book would not be sitting on it. If the house no longer had a foundation, then the floor, the table, and even the books would collapse.

Another example of an essentially ordered series would be a series of gears. In an accidentally ordered series, like a set of dominoes, the previous members of the series could be removed or destroyed and not effect the motion in the latter part of the series. But in an essentially ordered series such as a set of gears, any tampering with a previous member stops the whole series from changing. If you remove any of the past gears in the series, every other gear will stop turning as well.

Examining a hierarchical series helps us to see God as the First Mover. When we consider a series of causes that all exist at the same time, we recognize that something holds the series together. The earth holds the foundation of the house, but who holds the earth? “Gravity,” we might answer. But what keeps gravity in existence? Eventually, in every hierarchical series, we trace all the causes back to a first cause, a power that supports and holds everything together in existence, or what Aquinas calls God.

We know Aquinas is describing an essentially ordered causal series because of the examples he uses. For example, in his explanation of the argument from causality, he says, “Subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore, it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God” (ST, I, q. 2, a. 3).

An infinitely long series cannot explain the motion of the staff, because adding members to the series, even an infinite number of them, does not explain why there is any motion in the first place. As Garrigou-Lagrange once quipped, “To do away with a supreme cause is to claim that, as someone has said, ‘a brush will paint by itself provided it has a very long handle’” (God: His Existence and Nature, vol. 1, 265).

The fourth proof

In Aquinas’s fourth proof, the argument from degrees of being, the saint argues from the idea that there is a great chain of being in which creatures become more perfect. For example: rocks, then animals, then man, then angels, and so forth. But if this chain is to be meaningful, there must be a perfect being, or what we call God. A modern understanding of this argument would ask if “goodness” is a real attribute or just a label we assign arbitrarily. If it is real, then to what objective standard does it correspond?

Of course, some people will ask, “How do we know there is an objective ‘better’? Aren’t all our value judgments subjective?”, to which the philosophers Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli have a witty reply: “The very asking of this question answers it. For the questioner would not have asked it unless he or she thought it really better to do so than not” (Kreeft and Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 54).

So, if the increasing degrees of goodness are real, then what’s the standard we use to show that they are real? Logically, we must have a standard that includes perfection itself.

But Dawkins, not understanding this line of reasoning, simply responds:

That’s an argument? You might as well say people vary in smelliness but we can make the comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness. Therefore, there must exist a preeminently peerless stinker, and we call him God. Or substitute any dimension of comparison you like and derive and equivalently fatuous conclusion (The God Delusion, 101).

Dawkins’s refutation fails because he misunderstands Aquinas’s concept of perfection and how it relates only to having more or less being. Imperfections, or evils in the world, come from a lack of being. We have gas in our intestines, for example, because we lack the proper food or bodily abilities to make digestion happen without waste.

But the chain also goes in the other direction. A better being would be one without gas, and then one that needs no food, and then one that is not encumbered by a body. In fact, a being that is not limited by space or time itself would be superior to all these material beings. Kreeft and Tacelli summarize Aquinas’s conclusion this way:

If these degrees of perfection pertain to being, and being is caused in finite creatures, then there must exist a “best,” a source and real standard of all perfections that belong to us as beings. This absolutely perfect being—the “Being of all beings,” “the Perfection of all perfections”—is God (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 54).

The fifth proof

Thomas begins his fifth proof by talking about things that lack intelligence but that routinely act for an end that is good. The Latin text that is often translated as “designedly” in the fifth way is ex intentione, which, in other passages, Thomas identifies with the natural inclinations of non-intelligent things. Since these things lack intelligence, they cannot choose to act toward a good end any more than an arrow can send itself to the bullseye of a target.

But because they routinely act in that way, we can rule out chance as the explanation. The only other explanation that makes sense is that natural things act this way because of a natural inclination they have, and an intelligent cause—or God—must give them this inclination.

Dawkins mistakenly thinks that the theory of evolution has made Aquinas’s fifth proof obsolete: “There has probably never been a more devastating rout of popular belief by clever reasoning than Charles Darwin’s destruction of the argument from design” (The God Delusion, 103). But Aquinas is not arguing that complex beings need an explanation for why they are complex (evolution can explain that). Rather, he wants to know why unintelligent causes move toward intelligible ends.

This applies not just to living things but also to non-living things. For example, electrons, by nature, are attracted to protons. If electrons did not have this natural inclination, none of the elements on the periodic table would form, which means none of the physical life forms we experience—including ourselves—would exist anywhere in the physical universe.

So, not only is evolution an insufficient response to Aquinas’s fifth proof, evolution would not even be possible if the building blocks of the universe did not have the right kinds of natural inclinations that only God could provide. As Leo Elders concludes, “The terminus of the fifth way is God’s intellect as the author of the order in the world and so it implicitly refers to the supernatural order which surpasses whatever man may conceive” (The Philosophical Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, 133).

Divine attributes

Dawkins thinks that he can undermine Aquinas’s proofs by claiming they are non sequiturs, or that the conclusion of God’s existence does not follow from the premises in the arguments:

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 need to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins, and reading innermost thoughts (The God Delusion, 101).

First, Aquinas’s arguments do not prove every truth about God that Christians believe, but that is not their purpose. Philosopher Andrew Younan makes an excellent point: “Aquinas is not saying . . . ‘some things move; they are moved by others; this cannot go on to infinity; therefore, Baby Jesus will hear your prayers and heal your grandmother’” (Thoughtful Theism, 34).

This objection is on par with someone replying to Dawkins’s arguments for evolution by saying, “Even if we allow the dubious luxury of a common ancestor, that does not explain how life first began on Earth or how the universe began to exist from nothing.” Just as Dawkins would say that the theory of evolution was not meant to explain all the mysteries of the universe, Thomas would say his proofs were not meant to prove all the mysteries of God’s nature. Instead, they were intended to prove only the existence of the God of classical monotheism—or the infinite, eternal act of being itself.

In fact, Aquinas does argue elsewhere for the divine attributes that Dawkins accuses theists of taking for granted. On the very next page of the Summa, Aquinas asks if the first cause of the universe has a body and if he is composed of matter and form. Thomas then uses logical arguments to show the cause of all existence must be omnipotent, omniscient, all-good, and possess creativity of design (this begins to be addressed in Aquinas’s fifth proof).

Further on in the Summa, Aquinas shows from divine revelation that God listens to prayers, forgives sins, and, if God is omniscient, then he can obviously “read innermost thoughts.”

That Dawkins seems to not know this should make us wonder whether he read Aquinas in the first place or just a summary of Aquinas’s proofs from a secondary source. The Summa Theologica is a systematically constructed argument for the truth of the Christian faith that begins with God’s existence and works its way up to the person of Christ and the role of the Church. Like a majestic skyscraper, it is built with tremendous precision from its foundational questions (e.g., Does God exist? What can we know about God?) all the way up to the heights of Christian revelation (e.g., What is the Trinity? Did God change when he became man?).

Complaining that the five proofs do not reveal everything about God is like complaining that the foundation of a building doesn’t reveal who took the last Coke in the vending machine on the observation deck. Concerning the divine attributes, Dawkins also says:

Incidentally, it has not escaped the notice of logicians that omniscience and omnipotence and 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 God Delusion, 101).

But it is precisely because God is perfect in knowledge and power that he cannot change his mind. Only by failing to understand these attributes can Dawkins make a case for their contradicting each other.

“Omnipotence” refers to the ability to make any potential reality an actual one. This does not apply to impossible states of affairs that can never become actual, such as square circles, married bachelors, or imperfect perfect beings, such as a God who changes his mind. When a person changes his mind, it is usually because: 1) he learns of a better way of accomplishing X than he had previously known about, or 2) he is prevented from accomplishing X due to something out of his control, and so he does Y instead.

The first example cannot apply to an omniscient being, since God already knows all things and therefore he does not need to learn anything. The second example also cannot apply to God, since nothing is outside of his omnipotent grasp of reality. If someone objects that since God cannot learn he is not all-powerful, the objector fails to understand that learning implies a deficiency in knowledge and, because God is perfect, he has no deficiencies of any kind.


There are multitudinous deficiencies, however, in the objections Richard Dawkins has leveled against Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God. He erroneously believes the first three proofs merely assume that God brought the universe into existence from nothing. As a result, he fails to rebut how they prove God is the ultimate foundation of a chain of essential ordered causes.

Dawkins also misunderstands the fourth way and thinks it has to do with any dimension of comparison and not a comparison of being and its relation to perfection. Finally, Dawkins thinks the fifth way is about complexity and not the regularity we perceive in nature that can be explained only by a designer of the universe.

Therefore, we should conclude that Dawkins’s attempted refutation of Aquinas’s Five Proofs is, in Dawkins’s words, “easily exposed as vacuous.”

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