Tag Archives: Aquinas

Choosing Theism or Self-Contradictions?

self-contradictionIn discussing St. Thomas Aquinas’ Third Way, Mackie attacks the idea that something which could possibly not exist will eventually not exist. I’d agree with Mackie that this isn’t a logical necessity unless one accepts the Aristotelian views of matter and essence. Still, that hardly makes Mackie’s view the most likely possibility.

And, without opening the massive discussion about the Aristotelian philosophical system, this is one more case of Mackie arguing from possibility. It is certainly much more likely that something which is contingent will eventually go out of existence.

St. Aquinas argues that, barring divine assistance, the universe simply can’t go on forever. This is not, it should be clear, the argument that the universe began to exist. Aquinas, rather famously, thought this couldn’t be proved to anyone who rejects the authority of scripture. Rather, it is the argument that an eternal universe (as nearly all atheists claimed the universe was until very recently) would need something external to sustain it. And, once one works out what sort of thing could do this, one is left with theism.

And science seems to be catching up to philosophy here in discovering that we are headed for a heat-death. Even scientists are saying that, baring divine intervention, things aren’t going to last forever. As such, I’m not sure why (other than trying to unfairly discredit the argument) Mackie wants to argue that Aquinas is wrong to suppose that things can’t last forever.

This is doubly strange in that he follows this with the suggestion that the universe doesn’t need to sustain itself forever, because it, in fact, had a beginning.

And Aquinas, I think it is fair to say, would take that “objection” as a major concession. If one is going to assert that the universe came into existence in the finite past, then one has to contend with Kalam-style arguments for God. No self-respecting atheist would have conceded that the universe was past-finite before the twentieth century.

This seems like more of Mackie’s characteristic scattershot approach, where he shifts between contradictory views as the momentary need arises. It simply isn’t a logical, systematic refutation.

Even worse, Mackie’s argument against the Second Way, you will remember, was that it is “dubious” to claim that there are not actual infinite chains of causation. But this, given the modern cosmology that leads Mackie to suggest that the universe is past-finite, is far from dubious. Rather, a finite number of operations and causes is exactly what scientists have found to be the case.

Mackie can’t simply demand that we remember this science when Aquinas (purely for the sake of argument) shows that not even an eternal universe could exist without God, then expect that we forget this when faced with arguments (from Aquinas and others) based on the idea that infinite chains of causation don’t exist.

This “heads I win, tails you lose” approach is, to me, one of the surest signs that theism has the stronger claim on truth. It can answer either set of objections, and it is only by vacillating between the two that Mackie can make his atheism seem plausible.

In the end, that strikes me as rather desperate.

Unfair Dismissal

290117-redundanciesIn The Miracle of Theism, J.L. Mackie simply dismisses Aquinas’ first two arguments for God’s existence as based on antiquated science. This is the whole of his discussion of these arguments (and I’ve already pointed out the falsehood of that claim).

However, he does interact briefly with the argument of the Second Way later in the chapter. Here, he argues (wrongly, in my view) that an essentially ordered causal series can stretch to infinity.

Or, at least, that seems like what he is arguing. As in many places in the book, Mackie attempts to cast doubt on a premise without actually claiming that the opposite is true. He seems to write as if, so long as a premise is uncertain (at all), one can completely dismiss an argument’s conclusion without concluding that the premise is false.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Second Way, I find this a good summary. But a rough explanation would be that it is an argument from efficient cause (the type of causation studied by science). It begins with the idea that, in some causal chains, the removal of any one link will prevent the effect from occurring.

This is not true in all cases. Even if one’s great-grandfather has died, this doesn’t mean that one couldn’t have been born–and that the family he helped to cause must die with him. But, in other situations, this does seem to be the case.

As such, it is very much like the first way, but taking a similar line of reasoning to efficient causation, rather than actualized potentials.

A classic example is the idea of a watch could run without a motor or a spring if only it had an infinite number of gears, each one turned by the one before it. This strikes me as clearly absurd, illustrating the point that some causal chains (called “essential”) require something that doesn’t get its ability to cause things from an external source. And this self-existent thing, as Aquinas says, all men call God.

But Mackie doesn’t seem to think so. He thinks it is “dubious” to claim that the infinite-gear watch would not turn.

And again, it isn’t clear whether he’s arguing that such a thing is not only possible, but happens in the world all the time (as he would have to argue to properly counter Aquinas), or if he’s merely casting doubt on the idea to say that we aren’t perfectly certain of it.

So long as I’m reading the book as an attack on theism, he seems to mean the latter. But, so long as I’m reading it as a defense of a secular view, he seems to mean the former.

And strikes me as hopelessly confused. In an uncertain world, it is not enough simply to say that one’s opponent hasn’t proved a position beyond all possible doubt. Rather, one must show an alternative to be superior.

But Mackie does not do this. Rather, he seems to think having any reason at all to doubt an argument for theism is a reason to embrace a secular position.

And nearly all of the intellectual support for atheist views seems to suffer from this mistake. When it has come to offering an alternative (materialism, physicalism, platonism, etc.), secular views have done much more poorly than theism. As such, many of their proponents seem to rely on presenting vague doubts of theistic arguments in lieu of a positive case for atheism.

The Unmoved Mover

Unmoved-Mover-2008-movie-5In criticizing the arguments for God’s existence, Mackie turns to the most famous collection of such arguments: Aquinas’ Five Ways.

Unfortunately, he simply dismisses the first two ways with the claim that they are based too much in “antiquated science”. This is a common enough objection to Aquinas, but is simply false.

Beginning with the First Way, this argument has its core in the observation that potentialities do not actualize themselves. That is, something already actual must first exist in order to produce act from potency (to use the traditional terms). To attempt a more modern way of putting it: a possibility can never automatically be a reality simply because it is possible. Rather something merely possible must be realized by something else.

This seems obvious, and Aquinas goes on to argue that there cannot be an infinite string of things being realized in this way, but that the beginning of the chain must be realized without needing something else to realize it.

That is to say, something has to be an uncreated, necessarily extant being. After all, it is only in the case of a being who’s existence is logically necessary do we lack any need for an outside explanation.

As always with this argument, we need to note the fact that Aquinas is not tracing causes backward in time. Rather, he is tracing them “upwards” from effect to cause without reference to time. Most have had a particular type of causation drilled into us so thoroughly that it is hard to imagine any other type.

It is also important to note that Aquinas is only talking about essentially ordered causal series. That is, those series in which removing any link in the chain will prevent its effect from happening.

So, to offer an analogy: If there were a train moving through space, Aquinas would argue (rather reasonably) that it is not enough to say that the back car of the train is pulled by the one in front of it, and that by the one in front of it, and so on. Even if one were to suggest that the train is infinitely long, this would not explain where the motion of the cars ultimately comes from. To stop the “but what moved that” objection, we need to reference something that can move solely under its own power.

Aquinas himself uses the analogy of a rock being moved by a stick which is, in turn, moved by a hand. It is obvious that were we to remove any part of this chain (the hand, the stick, the arm, or any one car from the train), the rock (or the caboose) would not be moving.

Whatever objections one can make to the science of these examples, the basic point is clear: We need what Aristotle called an “unmoved mover” in order to realize the potentialities of things–thereby giving them the power to realize still further potentialities.

And, when one works out the details to their rational conclusion, one is left with the truth that God exists.

This is the third clarification that needs to be made. Those who have read only Aquinas’ famous summary of the Five Ways often complain that he never explains why the conclusion of these arguments is God (Richard Dawkins is a particularly famous example). While it is true that he doesn’t do this in the summaries, he devotes hundreds of pages to this elsewhere.

But, what of the claim that this is all based on “antiquated science”? Mackie doesn’t explain this, but merely references an outside source (Kenny) without addressing the responses that have been made to it. But he needs to. Aquinas’ argument doesn’t depend on medieval cosmology, but on the nature of causal relations.

In fact, Mackie’s response seems like dismissiveness, rather than a serious objection. It’s not any better than Bertrand Russel’s claim that science (presumably quantum mechantics) has destroyed the notion of causation.

But, to pick up that thread, it is notable that Russel’s response is never given by an actual particle physicist. This is because quantum mechanics does no such thing. Indeterminacy is not a logic-busting response to all causation (and, if it were, would be destructive of quantum mechanics, not logic). It is based on careful observation of causal chains.

Rather it is science fiction and bad science documentaries, not actual scientists, that have taught us to doubt causation. There is (very much) more that could be said, but, at the end of the day, nothing about modern science counters Aquinas’ point.

And I don’t understand what makes Mackie so confident that it does that he doesn’t even bother addressing Aquinas’ argument in a book intended as (and which, for the most part, is) a serious critique of the arguments from God’s existence.