A Bellowing Ox and a Roaring Lion — part five

Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways to Prove the Existence of God

The Fourth Way: Gradation

‘The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But ‘more’ and ‘less’ are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. [Aristotle]. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call ‘God’.’

- Thomas Aquinas, (1225–1274), ‘Summa Theologica’

Aquinas’ Five Ways, as I explained in A Bellowing Ox and a Roaring Lion part two, are cosmological arguments in that they begin with a premise the truth of which can be recognised a posteriori (we recognise its truth based upon observations or experiences), in this case the a posteriori (is it though?) premise is that things are more or less X to the extent to which they more or less approach X, for instance, things are hotter the more they approach that which is hottest. Hence there is something that is truest and best and noblest of things, and consequently most in being, (maxime ens), for Aristotle (384–322 BC) asserted that the truest things are the things most in being. Whatever is most X is the cause of whatever else is X, just as fire (Aristotle’s example) is the hottest thing and the cause of all other hot things. (I don’t quite follow this argument. Scarlett Johansson, (1984 — ), is the hottest thing but she is not the cause of all other hot things). Therefore there is something which causes being and goodness and any perfection in all things and this we call God..

‘Crystal Gradation’, 1921, Paul Klee

Richard Dawkins answers that:

Richard Dawkins, (1949 — ), characterises the argument thus:

‘The Argument from Degree. We notice that things in the world differ. There are degrees of, say, goodness or perfection. But we judge these degrees only by comparison with a maximum. Humans can be both good and bad, so the maximum goodness cannot rest in us. Therefore there must be some other maximum to set the standard for perfection, and we call that maximum God’.

‘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 pre-eminently peerless stinker, and we call him God. Or substitute any dimension of comparison you like, and derive an equivalently fatuous conclusion’.

- ‘The God Delusion’

Frequently when I read something of this quality, or rather lack of, in which the published and respected (well, by some) author is clearly out of his or her depth I consider if it was handed in by a student what grade would I assign it? This is good practice, try it with ‘Intellectual Impostures’ (‘Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science’, written by two physicists Alan Sokal, (1955 -), and Jean Bricmont, (1952 -). If you have read it you will know that when Dawkins is quoting a postmodern intellectual to entertain his audience with he is quoting a quote given by Sokal and Bricmont because of course Dawkins himself has never read these intellectuals. In the chapter on French philosopher and sociologist, Bruno Latour (1947 -), for instance, they present a big chunk taken from one of his works followed by a dismissal of it as being meaningless. When I was an undergraduate and given the dos and don’ts of academic writing (I wonder if scientists are given such tips?) I was told to keep your quotes short, (and infrequent though if you want to give evidence that an author is saying what you are saying he or she is saying you have to quote from them), and how often students will give a quote and then continue with their essay saying nothing about the quote they have just given so what was the point? Even worse is presenting a huge chunk and then just dismissing it as meaningless. What kind of grade would you give to a student who did that? And I hesitate to say so given his eminence (to echo Dawkins speaking about Thomas) but for Dawkins’ effort (‘fatuous conclusion’ indeed, is that proper academic language?), well I say effort but there is none, I’d give it a U for ungraded having failed to achieve anything worthy of credit.

Edward Feser answers that:

As Catholic philosopher and Christian apologist Edward Feser, (1968 — ), points out, Thomas is here talking about the transcendental aspects of reality, in particular Being, Truth, Goodness, and according to some Beauty. Such talk is about the degrees to which a thing might have Being or Reality, and for Medieval philosophers Being or Reality come in degrees. Is something either real or not? There is a clear sense in which things can have differing degrees of reality, we know from Plato, (c. 429–347 B.C.), a shadow has reality but not the same degree of reality has whatever is casting the shadow, there is an asymmetry here, a tree casting a shadow, for instance, the shadow will exist only insofar as the tree exists to cast the shadow but the tree would exist even if the shadow did not, were the tree surrounded by light. The shadow is real but with a derivative reality, one thing might exist in a contingent way depending upon other things and some thing may exist in a necessary way, it not only exists but could not fail to exist, it depends upon nothing else for its existence, and so things might come in degrees of Being, and things might come in degrees of Goodness, a more commonsensical way (according to Feser but is it? What’s commonsensical about it?) in which things come in degrees. Thomas’ argument only focusses upon transcendental attributes of Being, Truth, Goodness, those attributes come in degrees that makes sense only something has the maximal degree of reality of Goodness, of Truth, and Medieval philosophers argue that these transcendentals are convertible, they are all the same thing looked at from different points of view, that Goodness, Truth, Beauty, Reality, are the same thing looked at from different points of view, the same reality to which we apply different concepts but it is only these transcendentals that Thomas is tracing up to an absolute maximum, not smelliness or greenness or roundness or these other kinds of features of reality. The argument is not open to Dawkins’ kind of objection. (But what’s with the example of fire then?)

‘The Gradation of Fire’, 1939, Rene Magritte

Feser by way of an aside suggesting it is not of much significance as far as transcendentals go mentions that ‘some’ would include Beauty among the transcendentals. Transcendentals, the properties of Being that is. From an ontological point of view the transcendentals are understood to be what is common to all beings. From a cognitive point of view they are the first or primary concepts in virtue of the fact that they cannot be logically traced back to something preceding them. But what are we to include among the transcendentals? Beauty apparently is up for debate but I would have thought Goodness presents a greater difficulty. Therein lies the problem with Thomas’ fourth way, for it is really a moral argument, given that it brings with it a commitment to some form of objective axiology or absolute morals and so it is open to the all the kinds of objections to be raised and raised successfully against this kind of argument. Dawkins cannot object to the fourth way because of its commitment to absolute goodness even if he had spotted such an objection. Dawkins did say in a rambling passage of empty verbosity and tendentiousness which is nonetheless often quoted:

‘The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference’.

But as Christian apologist William Lane Craig, (1949 — ), points out: ‘Richard Dawkins is a diehard, stubborn moralist. His book is filled with moral judgements. For example he condemns unequivocally the Incal practice of human sacrifice, he condemns the religious indoctrination of children, he condemns persecution and harassment of homosexuals, he condemns prizing cultural diversity over the interests of Amish children. He even gives his own amended ten commandments in the book for guiding moral behaviour. So it is very clear that Richard Dawkins is a moral realist, he believes in the reality and objectivity of moral values … that implies that God exists and Dawkins doesn’t connect the dots … on pain of irrationality Dawkins himself is committed to the existence of God’.

Fair point about Dawkins’ moral realism, (the view that there are facts of the matter about which actions are right and which wrong, and about which things are good and which are bad but see below for why it is an empty charge establishing not in the slightest what he wants to establish). And as C. S. Lewis, (1898–1963), said: ‘Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience’. But what does Craig mean by ‘that implies that God exists’? Well, Craig champions a moral argument for the existence of God that lays bare just how vulnerable arguments grounded upon the supposition that objective moral values exist are to easy demolition. Craig formulates his moral argument thus:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

2. Objective moral values do exist.

3. Therefore, God exist.


Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), similarly brings in supposedly a priori moral principles not to prove the existence of God but to justify faith in God. Kant was influenced by David Hume’s, (1711–1776), putative dilemma that all of our knowledge comes from experience but we have no experience of God, Creation, or other such things: ‘Our ideas reach no farther than our experience: We have no experience of divine attributes and operations: I need not conclude my syllogism: You can draw the inference yourself’. Kant accepted the conclusion (but what does ‘experience’ mean exactly?) that we can have no knowledge of God since all such knowledge lies outside our experience (prove it) and he argued that much of the confusion surrounding religion comes from ungrounded assertions concerning the objects of religion that transcend the bounds of human reason, that is to say, people claim to know or to have demonstrated things that lie outside the sphere of what is accessible by means of the human cognitive faculties, a quite natural way of thinking but erroneous nonetheless. Kant decided that the problem with all prior metaphysical systems lay in their failure to recognize the limits of the human cognitive capacity (but to recognise such limits don’t we have to go beyond them?) and their uncritical assumption of reason’s access to the objects of metaphysics, (what is an object of metaphysics?) Hence Kant endeavoured to demonstrate the limits of reason by critically examining the faculties of the human mind to discover that which it would be possible to truly know and he arrived at the conclusion that only those things that were given in representation were possible objects of knowledge and those things that were not possible representations could not be known and remained forever cut off from us, these latter including God, immortality, and freedom which cannot be demonstrated given that they transcended the sphere of experience, but as he famously remarked the point of his critique of reason was ‘to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith’, for by knowing the limits of human reason one could then properly identify what lay beyond its range of experience or thought and was thus the proper object of religious belief.

The divine for Kant occupies the noumenal realm, all attempts to gain knowledge of God by means of empirical experience will be unsuccesful given that such endeavours always invoke something that transcends experience and thus that is impossible to know. God is not a representation or object of experience and so from a metaphysical point of view God is unknowable. Hence Kant analysed and refuted the traditional proofs for the existence of God that are characteristic of this error, the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, the physico-theological argument (the argument from design). Cosmological arguments of the kind Thomas presents claim to be grounded in experience and thus to be more in tune with the modern empirical sciences, (you will hear Christian apologists claiming that modern science points more and more towards God, because the universe has a beginning etc.), but in every instance, as Kant remarks: ‘[reason] spreads its wings in vain when seeking to rise above the world of sense through the mere might of speculation’. Such arguments may well provide us with some insight into the concept of God but they cannot prove anything about the actual existence of God, hence Kant writes: ‘Now I assert that all attempts of a merely speculative use of reason in regard to theology are entirely fruitless and by their internal constitution null and nugatory, but that the principles of reason’s natural use do not lead at all to any theology’

However, if we suppose that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated, ‘would we then have to give up the cognition of God? Not at all; for then we would only lack the knowledge that God exists, but a great field would still be open to us, and this would be the belief or faith that God exists’. Kant claimed that there are two kinds of reason, speculative (or theoretical) and practical, and the ground of faith comes not from theoretical reason but from the sphere of the practical ethics: ‘This faith we will derive a priori from moral principles. Hence if in what follows we provoke doubt about these speculative proofs and take issue with the supposed demonstrations of God’s existence, we will not thereby undermine faith in God; but rather we will clear the way for practical proofs. We are merely throwing out the false presumptions of human reason when it tries from itself to demonstrate the existence of God with apodictic certainty; from moral principles, however, we will accept a faith in God as a principle of every religion’. Kant’s endeavour to rescue belief in God can perhaps most precisely be understood in terms of his doctrine of the so-called postulates of practical reason, whereby although we cannot know or demonstrate the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, or human freedom with our reason, we must nonetheless presuppose them as postulates in virtue of the fact that we need such beliefs for ethics, we are obliged (morally obliged) to assume them for ethics to make sense.

Kant’s third practical postulate, that of immortality, is needed for ethics to make sense for this reason: On the assumption that there is a God who has created a universe based upon rational and just ethical principles we must presuppose that such a deity has provided for a system of rewards in accordance with the behaviour of rational agents and furthermore the promise of immortality is necessary to give humans an incentive to act morally. Humans should act in accordance with the universal laws of reason (how do we establish those?): ‘But if in the case of a creature who has conducted himself according to these eternal and immediate laws of nature and who has thus become worthy of happiness, no state can be hoped for where he participates in this happiness; if no state of well-being thus follows his well-doing; then there would be a contradiction between morality and the course of nature’. It is evident enough that in our world the morally righteous are not always rewarded and the morally wicked not always punished, hence the only assumption that can be made is that these rewards and punishments do not take place in this world: ‘But then there must exist a being who rules the world according to reason and moral laws, and who has established, in the course of things to come, a state where the creature who has remained true to his nature and who has made himself worthy of happiness through morality will actually participate in this happiness; for otherwise all subjectively necessary duties which I as a rational being am responsible for performing will lose their objective reality’.

And so we must thus assume that there exists such a state of happiness that is our reward for the performance of our ethical duties albeit we do not see any evidence for it empirically in the world around us. Immortality is also a necessary assumption given that it would be absurd to think that ethics demands of us something that is impossible, ought implies can, and the objective of the ethical agent is to purge oneself of one’s natural desires and to act solely in accordance with the good but since we are corporeal creatures who inhabit the world of sense it is impossible for us ever to reach this state of moral perfection in our mundane existence. In our moral striving we make infinite progress towards this state of perfection but it can never be achieved in the empirical world that we inhabit and so it follows that there must be some other world beyond the empirical in which we will continue and complete this moral development. Kant explains: ‘This infinite progress is possible … only under the presupposition of an infinitely enduring existence and personality of the same rational being; this is called the immortality of the soul’. The postulate of immortality thus ‘derives from the practically necessary condition of a duration adequate to the perfect fulfillment of the moral law’. It is necessary for us to assume that there is another realm beyond this one wherein we can carry on with our endeavours towards moral improvement and immortality of the individual is thereby established as a condition for ethics.

Gottfried Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), considered Kant to have had a profound insight with respect to his theory of representations and the necessary structures of the human mind but he mistaken in the conclusions that he drew from this with respect to religion, while himself Hegel expanded the notion of representations to include not just empirically perceived entities but all forms of thought and cognition, that is, all objects of consciousness. Seeing things in such a manner we can and indeed do have representations or conceptions of the divine, is there a country and people without their traditional beliefs about the divine that can be analysed and understood? The human mind is replete with stories and notions about the divine and it is the task of the philosopher to make some kind of sense out of them. Be that as it may, I singled out for special attention Kant’s practical postulate of immortality as necessary for making sense out of ethics because Hegel has a quite brilliant argument to demonstrate that it does just the opposite, that ethics makes no sense on the presupposition of immortality.

We need to know something about Hegel’s own theory of truth that involves an idea or a universal that becomes real or actual, for something that remains merely abstract is an empty conception of truth. Rather, the truth is something that is a dynamic movement containing two elements together, a universal side that is thought, and a particular side that is actualized in the world of sense, and it is a mistaken and vacuous view that allows things to remain abstract and never to be actualized: ‘every action aims at setting aside a subjective conception and making it into something objective. There is no man so foolish as that philosophy [i.e. of Kant]; when a man feels hungry, he does not call up the imagination of food, but sets about satisfying his hunger. All activity is a conception which does not yet exist, but whose subjectivity is abrogated’. Hence it resides in the very nature of thought to be realized and actualized and to insist on merely a one-sided abstraction in the manner of Kant’s philosophy does is a gross error, for the Christian notion for instance is of Christ as God revealed in space and time and not an abstract conception of God that is not actualized in the world. And similarly with Kant’s conception of immortality. Since we can never fully eliminate our sensuous desires and inclinations in this world we must have the opportunity to perfect our moral character indefinitely in the future and from this we can infer that we are immortal. Hegel retorts that this is a highly unsatisfactory conception of ethics because it implies that ethical behaviour can never ultimately be realized in the real world:

‘Perfected morality must remain a beyond; for morality presupposes the difference of the particular and universal will. It is a struggle, the determination of the sensuous by the universal; the struggle can only take place when the sensuous will is not yet in conformity with the universal. The result is, therefore, that the aim of the moral will is to be attained in infinite progress only; on this Kant founds … the postulate of the immortality of the soul, as the endless progress of the subject in his morality, because morality itself is incomplete and must advance into infinitude’.

This conception of a morality that can never be achieved is an absurdity. While the will, as in children, for instance, is initially dominated by drives and inclinations, it is trained through education and upbringing in order to conform to the universal, and to assert that morality has nothing to do with what is sensuous is to claim that there can be no actual morality since in order to exist it must be in the realm of sense, of particularity. To demand moral perfection is to eliminate real morality which requires the sensuous in order to actually exist. Kant has radically and pointlessly separated the universal or thought from the particular, being, and the same problem emerges with Kant’s argument that one must presuppose a highest good, a divine being that ensures that virtuous actions are in the end rewarded, despite all appearances to the contrary in the actual world. This God and this conception of divine justice dwell solely in the abstract beyond, and since they are never known or realized in the real world they remain only a subjective opinion with no objective truth.

This also highlights the absurdity of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, (1821–1881), oft quoted remark, well, a character in his novel ‘The Brother’s Karamazov’ says it: ‘if there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful’, or as it is more frequently put, ‘without immortality (or God) everything is permitted’.

‘Wall Drawing #370: Ten Geometric Figures (including right triangle, cross, X, diamond) with three-inch parallel bands of lines in two directions’, 1982, Sol LeWitt

I do not believe objective moral values exist. I do not even know what an objective value would look like, but I am not a moral relativist. Consider this passage from ‘Culture and the Realm of Actuality’, in Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’:

‘Each of these two ways of judging finds a likeness and a disparity; in the first case consciousness judges the state power to be essentially different from it, and the enjoyment of wealth to accord with its own nature; while in the second case it judges the state power to accord with its nature and the enjoyment of wealth to be essentially different from it. We have before us a twofold finding of likeness and a twofold finding of disparity, an antithetical relation between the two real essentialities. We must ourselves judge these different judgements and apply to them the criterion set up. According to this, the conscious relation which finds likeness is the Good; that which finds disparity is the Bad; and these two forms of the relation we are henceforth to hold fast as diverse shapes of consciousness. By forming diverse relationships, consciousness itself comes to be determined as diverse, as being good or had; not because it had for its principle either being-for-itself or pure being-in-itself, for both are equally essential moments. In the twofold judging considered above, the principles were thought of as separate, and therefore contained merely abstract ways of judging. Actual consciousness has within it both principles, and the distinction between them falls solely within its own essence, viz. in the relation of itself to the actual’.

Hegel refers here to two distinct ways of making judgements, that is to say, bringing particular objects under concepts, and here we see traditional logic unfolding into dialectical logic for up to this point consciousness has been making judgements about the good and about the bad in terms of a polarity between wealth and state power. The question arises as to which criteria or measure do we employ, being in itself, (things considered separately from other things), or being for itself, (things more than simply the opposite of the things they are contrasted with, they transcend otherness)? Whatever our choice we will find ourselves with different answers about which is the good or the bad because of it. In one case consciousness judges state power to be different from it, or not in accord with, its nature, it experiences it as oppressive with no room for individuality and it is designated bad because it is essentially different. Bad is difference, good is something that is in accordance with us. Many substantive moral theories such as those of Thomas, as we have seen, talk in this manner. So the enjoyment of wealth accords with the nature of consciousness, and then in the second stage consciousness changes its ordering of judgements here and judges the state to accord with its nature, we find it has some room in it for individuality after all, it may indeed be the locus in which we can express individuality in the first place and wealth finishes up being essentially different from us:

If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;

For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,

Thou bear’s thy heavy riches but a journey,

And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;

For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,

The mere effusion of thy proper loins,

Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,

For ending thee no sooner.

- William Shakespeare, (1564–1616), ‘Measure for Measure, Act 3 Scene 1.

So in one way of judging we have one thing being good and the other being bad, in another way of judging we reverse them and the thing that was good becomes bad and what was bad becomes good. This most certainly does not suggest moral relativism, (moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint, for instance, that of a culture or a historical period, and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others), that it is all a matter of perspective, that we don’t know what to apply good and bad to. This is not something we do in practice in any case and those who claim to be moral relativists make such a claim because they see it as something they ought to be (a moral ought?), they are afraid of taking a stand, of making a judgement, so they engage in this game of who’s to say what is right or wrong? But are they thereby content? Not in the least. We all deeply want to be able to say what is right, what is wrong. But the putative moral relativist has been shamed (morally shamed?) or conditioned into believing that is how you have to talk to fit into modern society. And of course others will resort to moral relativism for the purpose of pulling a fast one, of getting something over on you, that, well, good and bad, it is such a grey area. Hegel on the other hand wants to figure out what is good, what is bad, and consciousness is endeavouring to ascertain where its moral judgements ought (moral ought?) to be directed, likeness, or difference? For it is presented with a two-fold finding of likeness and a two-fold finding of disparity, an antithetical relation between two real essentialities whereby it realises it is in this predicament in virtue of conflicting judgements and it needs to think its way through them using the criteria that it develops and consciousness asserts its own power and avoids the paralysis of relativism.

We judge our judgements and the good is no longer in the object but in consciousness and the judgement it is making, what is good becomes bad, bad becomes good, and it is consciousness itself which is good or bad depending upon how it is judging things. Does consciousness find within itself in relation to those things, state power and wealth for instance, a likeness? If it does so is it thereby good or does it find instead unlikeness? If it emphasises the unlikeness it is a bad consciousness and the good and the bad no longer lie with the object but within ourselves, the observer, the judger orienting him or herself in relation to these things, being the moral being that does this is implied in the act of making moral judgements and we ourselves become good or bad by so doing, there is a good and a bad way of making moral judgements. Doing things on such a higher level is precisely what the Hegelian dialectic does, it takes something from a lower level and raises it up and it integrates it into a higher level. That is sublation, that is how the dialectic advances, this is how moral consciousness develops in time, in history, seeing things from multiple perspectives while at the same time seeing the objects, the essentialities of wealth and state power for instance, we thereby attempt to make sense of it but we do it in relation to our own being as moral agents, as judgers, as evaluators. Moral judgements are difficult to do, but here we can makes some sense of Thomas’ notion of gradation though not what he had in mind, it is consciousnesses in terms of their goodness that are to be graded, not goodness itself for that is just an abstraction in any case. it is through dialectic that moral consciousness achieves a higher level of goodness. Hence bottom of the pile in terms of performance are the moral busybodies of which Lewis spoke, and those incapable of thinking deeply or at all sophisticatedly upon moral matters like Dawkins and Christian apologists like Craig or Feser who see everything one-sidedly. Good and bad consciousness is that which makes morality all so real, (and thereby we are all moral realists and hence we can make sense in this context of the notion of grades of reality, never mind shadows and all that hokum), and not merely abstract, a genuine moral consciousness will contain both sides within it, the good and the bad in consciousness while itself aware of these likeness and unlikenesses, aware that it is engaged in judgement judging its own judgement thereby judging itself.

There shall never be one lost good! What was shall live as before;

The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sound;

What was good shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more;

On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven a perfect round.

- Robert Browning (1812–1889)

To be continued …

‘Three Spheres’, 1945, M. C. Escher



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