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In Defense of Classical Theism

Thomas Aquinas

When I first began to study the philosophy of religion, I became acquainted with a certain style of reasoning about God. This style seems to model arguments for and against God after arguments in the natural sciences, and is very much in vogue today. Herman Philipse is representative when he says that "the methodological dilemma for natural theologians in contemporary Western culture is that they either have to opt for methods of factual research that are intellectually respectable in the light of the present state of the sciences and scholarship, or for alternative methods, which are practised in religious investigations only, and which cannot be validated."1

This philosophical Zeitgeist has all but determined the discussions and debates about God for the last 50 years. This is why Richard Swinburne — with his edifice of probabilistic arguments for God — has gained the place of prominence he has. Even Alvin Plantinga, who is perhaps today's most influential philosopher of religion, says "In my opinion, Swinburne's arguments that Christian belief is probable with respect to public evidence are the best on offer."2

But, this ‘scientizing’ trend is a blip on the radar screen of historical theism, whose adherents have traditionally looked to considerations deeper than, and indeed presupposed by, science in order to determine the question of God's existence. Their contemporary successors don't appeal to Big Bang cosmology, to the fine-tuning or specified complexity of anything, in order to infer that God exists. Probability calculations are entirely inappropriate to their way of thinking. It does not much matter whether religious experiences are just effects of temporal lobe seizures, or even whether an all-powerful, all-good demiurge of the sort called 'God' by philosophers nowadays would prevent more evil than is in fact prevented: their cases for God aspire to rest on nothing less than metaphysical demonstrations.

Because of what the classical theist takes God to be, she contends that there is something so fundamentally absurd about God's non-existence that questions of probability calculations and scientific discoveries are superfluous or distracting at best, and circular at worst (as science can hardly explain the material it presupposes in order to explain things).

As Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart puts it: "When I say that atheism is a kind of obliviousness to the obvious, I mean that if one understands what the actual philosophical definition of 'God' is in most of the great religious traditions, and if consequently one understands what is logically entailed in denying that there is any God so defined, then one cannot reject the reality of God tout court without embracing an ultimate absurdity."3

But if the classical and modern traditions so starkly diverge, what accounts for this? In a large way, the divergence arises from a disagreement on whether God participates in existence.

All of nature has being, and it is by virtue of having being that it exists (whether that being is substantial, material, or whatever). Folks working in the modern tradition discuss whether God has being, a topic about which there could obviously be rational disagreement given its assumptions. But, classical theists do not think that God has being, or that he could, even in principle. On classical theism, God is the most fundamental reality, and just is subsistent being itself. Thus, he does not instantiate properties, or participate in forms of being, as if there were anything independent of and prior to him: everything apart from God is subsequent to and dependent upon him. Everything else derives from the fount of being. Is there room to rationally think that derivative being ultimately doesn't derive from anything?

Instead of considering that question, I’d like to look at a way an atheist might respond to classical theism. She might agree that regardless of what shape derivative being takes — whether it extends infinitely into the past, or forms a causal loop in which A causes B, B causes C, and C causes A, etc. — derivative being is still derivative being, and thus there must be something from which it derives, namely a First Cause. But, she might caution, this First Cause needn't be God. Sure, it might be immutable, and even the source of all value4 and so forth, but we needn't say it has intellect or will.

Graham Oppy's recently published The Best Argument Against God represents something like this strategy: maybe we do need to posit an ultimate First Cause of sorts. But whether we do or not, there's nothing to be gained by saying it's a supernatural entity with intellect and will. No hitherto unexplained facts get explained, and no currently explained facts get explained any better. All we end up doing is making explanatorily superfluous claims. This is what LaPlace had in mind when he said, in reference to God, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

This response would have considerable force against modern conceptions of God, under which God might be viewed as a sort of conjunction of essential properties: God is necessary and omnipotent and the source of all value, etc. Here one is entitled to reject the entire conjunction simply by virtue of rejecting one of its conjuncts. So while a non-theist might not think that anything has all of these properties, she might think that something has a couple or more of them.

But, this way of thinking is incoherent on classical theism, since the First Cause is considered to be utterly simple. In other words, the First Cause isn't thought of as having essential properties, or any sort of parts at all: the First Cause and its power, goodness, and even knowledge all refer to the same thing, just in different senses (much like "Clark Kent" and "Superman" do).

Classical theists advance a number of arguments for this simplicity. For example, “every composite is posterior to its components: since the simpler exists in itself before anything is added to it for the composition of a third. But nothing is prior to the first. Therefore, since God is the first principle, He is not composite.”5

Moreover, because composites would not have any power unless their parts coalesced, their power is of a dependent sort. But, the power of the First Cause would not be dependent on anything: that would completely destroy the ultimacy it's supposed to have in the first place. Thus, the First Cause is not, nor could it be, composed of any parts.

But, whether classical theists have good reasons for affirming Divine Simplicity or not, this way of responding to classical theism commits the fallacy of begging the question, since it assumes that the First Cause could be composite, which entails that Divine Simplicity (a central tenant of classical theism) is false.
 
 
(Image credit: Dumb Ox Ministries)

Notes:

  1. Philipse, Herman. God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. p. 85
  2. Plantinga, Alvin (2001). 'Rationality and Public Evidence: a Reply to Richard Swinburne'. Religious Studies 37: 219
  3. Hart, David Bentley. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2013. pp. 16-17
  4. Check out J.L. Schellenberg's Ultimism for a sophisticated version of this.
  5. Thomas Aquinas in Scriptum super libros Sententiarum, 1.8.4.1
Steven Dillon

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Steven Dillon is a nature loving hippy who enthusiastically supports the Philosophy of Religion, and the importance of good-willed dialogue between theists and atheists.

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  • Fr.Sean

    I often think that's why theists and non-theists have trouble understanding each other. if one's concept of God is so mal formed then one may be trying to prove God exists or does not exist and may be somewhat "right" in their opinions of "God's" existence. If their concept has too many negative connotations or too many misrepresentations they may have no way of dialoguing with the other. Classical theism certainly seems to highlight the importance of starting from what seems reasonable philosophically. if God is simple, yet the source of Love, good, rationality, intellect etc. that we all share in than perhaps our dialogues might find more common ground.

    • David Nickol

      One of the problems is that almost everyone (especially here) who tries to "prove" that God (the God of philosophy) exists has a very specific notion of who and what they mean by God (the God of the Catholic Church). They seem to believe that if they can "prove" that God exists, the atheists will be compelled to join the Catholic Church.

      • "One of the problems is that almost everyone (especially here) who tries to "prove" that God (the God of philosophy) exists has a very specific notion of who and what they mean by God (the God of the Catholic Church). They seem to believe that if they can "prove" that God exists, the atheists will be compelled to join the Catholic Church."

        I don't agree. I think this is what our non-Catholic commenters, like yourself, think the Catholics are attempting.

        Can you provide some examples to the contrary? I don't remember anyone here claiming arguments for the "God of the philosophers" compel someone to join the Catholic Church.

        I think that's a straw man.

        • David Nickol

          I think that's a straw man.

          If there were as many straw men on Strange Notions as some people claim, we would all have to take antihistamines before visiting the site. :P

        • David Nickol

          Let me put it slightly differently. I think people who are interested in giving proofs for the existence of God are overwhelmingly Christian (and on this site, Catholic). And I think those who believe the proofs are compelling also believe that the evidence for the God of the Old Testament is compelling, and the evidence that Jesus was God incarnate, rose from the dead, and founded Christianity is also compelling. I think it may have been a little misleading of me to imply that they think an intellectual proof of the existence of God compels belief in Catholicism. But I think the people here, in trying to prove the existence of God, see nowhere else to go but Catholicism (or at least Christianity) once the existence of God is proven.

          I think if an atheist commenter on the site were to say, "I'm convinced by this argument that God exists, and I am converting to Judaism (Islam, etc.)," those who had offered the "proof" would not be entirely gratified. This being basically a Catholic site, I would find nothing remarkable in that reaction.

          Basically, what I am saying is that those here who offer proofs for the existence of God quite obviously have the "Judeo-Christian" God in mind, even though going from the God of Philosophy to the God of Catholicism is a giant leap.

          • Chee Chak

            I think an intellectual proof of the existence of God compels belief in Catholicism. But I think the people here, in trying to prove the existence of God, see nowhere else to go but Catholicism! Agreed!

            How about Deism or some sort of deistic Pantheism?

          • HappyCatholic

            Well, proving the existence of God is just the first step. Proving the nature of this God and then the identity of this God comes after. Sort of like you have to learn the alphabet before you can learn to read, right? Same sort of deal.

          • Tim Dacey

            If that is correct, then we have some serious problems for individuals like my Grandmother who believe in God, but are completely unaware of arguments for the existence of God. God must be known in a direct and immediate way if my Grandmother is justified in believing in a Christian conception of God.

          • Chad Eberhart

            "Well, proving the existence of God is just the first step."

            I'd like to get beyond this first step. There are obviously other things discussed here at SN, but it seems we spend a disproportionate time on this step. I'd like to see some articles on how the God of Christianity, at least the Catholic version, matches up with reality. For instance, how do the marriage metaphors of bride and bridegroom that we find in scripture match up with our actual relationship with God? How do we see the God of Christianity, who is both Father and Husband, and the Church both child and wife, comport with our everyday experiences with God? Does God admit fault when wrong? Does he say he's sorry? Or, does he give us the silent treatment most of the time? Does he truly love us like a shepherd, where he'll always leave the entire flock to find the lost? Is this true when we consider the countless people tortured in basements around the world? Or, the heroin addict that desperately petitions God for help but hears nothing...gets no help. There's seems to be always something we have to do in order to receive God's mercy and help. How is that unconditional love?

            This abstract God we discuss here, that is supported by logical proofs, doesn't seem like a God that really matters or even matches up to the God of Tim Dacey's grandmother. Where do these two concepts of God intersect?

        • David Nickol

          I think this is what our non-Catholic commenters, like yourself, think the Catholics are attempting.

          By the way, I wouldn't exactly call myself a "non-Catholic," although I wouldn't exactly call myself a Catholic, either. I was baptized and educated Catholic. In many ways, I think of myself as a Christian. And I do not see myself ever joining a "non-Catholic" Christian denomination. If anyone went through my book collection, they would probably conclude I was a Christian and guess I was a Catholic. I have somewhat of a tendency to criticize the Church when it is defended and defend it when it is criticized. I don't think I can be easily pigeonholed.

          • Chee Chak

            By the way, I wouldn't exactly call myself a "non-Catholic," although I wouldn't exactly call myself a Catholic, either. I was baptized and educated Catholic. In many ways, I think of myself as a Christian. And I do not see myself ever joining a "non-Catholic" Christian denomination.

            Actually my experience mirrors yours in many ways. I suspect that many "agnostics/atheists" have the same background. What is the reason for this other than the usual scandals and early attempts at indoctrination.?

        • GCBill

          If facts about the God of Catholicism are not logically entailed by facts about the God of classical theism, then I don't think Catholics can claim support from that set of arguments. Here's an example of the type of problem this non-entailment creates:

          1) God is a necessary being
          2) God is three consubstantial persons
          C) Three consubstantial persons exist necessarily

          Nothing within the classical theist's definition of God entails that He should exist as three persons. You're left with something that looks an awful lot like a brute fact. And since classical theists deny brute facts, it follows that they possess strong reason to be skeptical of Catholicism.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            That there can only be one God is something classical theists would posit. Catholicism agrees with this.

            That within this one God there are three persons is a matter of divine revelation that could never be known purely by reason.

            The doctrine of the Trinity is not entailed by classical theism but it is not in contradiction to it.

          • GCBill

            But don't you see how something that can only be known through revelation is epistemically indistinguishable from "brute fact?" And do you realize that undercuts what would otherwise be one of the major selling points of your position?

            One reason I hold out a small amount of hope for classical theism, is its audacious promise to eliminate brute facts. That hope is dashed when we just accept that we'll have to "take God's Word" for things that can't be logically or empirically demonstrated. Such a request seems to make Catholicism unreasonable given classical theism.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            It doesn't bother me, but I'm not much of a philosopher due to lack of mental capacity and learning.

            From the Catholic point of view, reason builds a rational platform, the preambles of faith, which are necessary to make the act of faith. The Catholic faith does not demand anyone believe that God exists. It thinks people can already know that.

          • TomD123

            Actually, the Trinity as understood by Catholics is distinguishable from brute fact. The reason is that Catholics hold the Trinity to be necessary. God exists as Trinity not "just because" or "it just happens to be that way rather than another" or "there is no explanation." Rather, God exists as Trinity because given God's nature, He must.

            It is true however that Catholics would not argue that we can reason to this truth. The fact that God must exist as Trinity is something beyond the scope of human reason and therefore to try to demonstrate it is problematic. If there were no Divine revelation to say that God exists as Trinity would just be a guess and have no rational foundation.

            Epistemically speaking, what a "brute fact" is, is slightly unclear. If what you mean by "brute fact" in this context is "something for which we cannot find an explanation" then the Trinity isn't entirely a brute fact--we know that the explanation lies in the Divine Nature. If what you mean is "something which we could never in principle figure out/prove" then the Trinity would be a brute fact. But Classical Theism, nor any other reasonable system of thought would deny that there are certain things which we can't figure out or demonstrate to be true.

          • GCBill

            God exists as Trinity not "just because" or "it just happens to be that way rather than another" or "there is no explanation." Rather, God exists as Trinity because given God's nature, He must.

            Something tells me that you wouldn't accept a similar kind of answer from a naturalist. If I were to say, "an answer to the Hard Problem of Consciousness is entailed within the laws of physics, we just have no epistemic access to it," you (or anyone) would be rightly unsatisfied. "X explains Y, but we don't know why or how" doesn't constitute an explanation; it's merely a claim.

            If what you mean by "brute fact" in this context is "something for which we cannot find an explanation" then the Trinity isn't entirely a brute fact--we know that the explanation lies in the Divine Nature. If what you mean is "something which we could never in principle figure out/prove" then the Trinity would be a brute fact.

            I mean that it appears to be the latter, although I'll read whatever proof(s) you or other theists provide to suggest otherwise.

            But Classical Theism, nor any other reasonable system of thought would deny that there are certain things which we can't figure out or demonstrate to be true.

            There may be facts about the world that in principle lie beyond our capacity for logical and/or empirical demonstration. But we're not warranted in believing anything with regards to those facts. Furthermore, it's rather bizarre that an essential article of the faith should fall within that class of facts, given the importance that classical theists place on rational demonstration.

          • TomD123

            "Something tells me that you wouldn't accept a similar kind of answer from a naturalist."

            --It depends. Suppose aliens from outer space came down and we had solid grounds for believing they were far more intelligent than we are. For instance, their technology is far greater. If they came down and told us that the hard problem of consciousness could be solved in a naturalistic manner yet we (humans) were unable to solve it because of our own limited cognitive capacity. Let's say that they had textbooks written on the subject and that they were all in agreement as to (1) There is a purely physical mechanism which explains consciousness and (2) It was well beyond anything we had or ever could gain understanding of given our brains. I would say that it is only rational to believe this.

            On the other hand, if you or any other human merely asserted this to be the case-I would not believe it. The difference is that the aliens have access to knowledge beyond what the humans do.

            " I'll read whatever proof(s) you or other theists provide to suggest otherwise." No Christian would hold that you can prove that the Trinity is true. I accept that if we define an epistemic brute fact as "something which we could never in principle figure out/prove" then the Trinity is an epistemic brute fact. What I deny is that this shows much, given that I would expect a number of things to be beyond the scope of human reason regardless of whether or not theism is true.

            "But we're not warranted in believing anything with regards to those facts. Furthermore, it's rather bizarre that an essential article of the faith should fall within that class of facts"

            (1) I deny the first sentence here, as the Alien example shows. We don't believe in the Trinity because there are good arguments for it. We believe in the Trinity because we believe God told us that He is Trinity in revelation. We believe in God, His truthfulness, and that He has revealed such and such based on various arguments. The Trinity itself however we believe on authority.

            (2) Actually, every article of faith falls within that category of facts. That simply is what "article of faith" means to a Catholic. Namely, something which we believe in NOT because we can "see" it (whether by direct sense experience or by rational arguments) but because God has told us it is true. Faith then involves trusting God's revelation. Take another article of faith: the redemption. There is no amount of empirical study of the Crucifixion which would give us grounds to believe that it was redemptive. Christians believe however it is because Christ told us.

            One final point: If there are rational grounds to believe an all-Good God has revealed something to us about Himself, it is entirely reasonable to believe what He says. A rational person could deny that God revealed something (like the Trinity) or deny that an all-truthful God exists, yet to deny that we ought to believe an all-true God when He tells us something is simply not reasonable.

          • GCBill

            --It depends...

            I'm not sure this example works. The difference between the alien-case and the God-case is that the aliens actually have done logical and/or empirical work. In this case, trusting them is more similar to trusting your brilliant professor who has the intelligence and training to work through a mathematical proof that you don't understand, than it is to divine revelation. You haven't completed it yourself, but you know someone has, so you accept it barring no contradictory evidence. The Trinity is a different case, because it's not clear if our inability to demonstrate it is merely a human limitation, or a limitation on the possibilities of logic itself. If it's the former, then it's not a "brute fact," but it's still problematic (see my final paragraph). If it's the latter, then it's a brute fact and in conflict with classical theism (which insists that reality is fully intelligible to God).

            (1) and (2)

            There are times when we are justified in believing things on authority, but in most cases that authority comes from knowledge and experience with the necessary logical and/or empirical methods of discovery and demonstration. I'm not sure if miracles are capable of taking up the burden left untouched by reason and observation.

            I accept your correction RE: "articles of faith," that was the wrong phrase. I should have said "dogma," as I think that term covers both proveable and unproveable ideas, and merely designates the highest level of certainty at which something can be known.

            One final point: ...

            I deny that there are reasonable grounds for believing an all-Good God would create beings whom He wished to comprehend certain dogmas, yet not imbue them with the faculties necessary for doing so. As it stands, we possess the faculties to assess whether God exists, but other supposedly-essential facts about the nature of God lie out of our reach. If there is a reason for these facts contained within God's nature, it seems absurd that God would want humans to be incapable of discerning these facts independently of His revelation. This is especially true since these epistemic limitations serve as a barricade for some folks' entry into the Catholic Church.

            In other words, revelation seems an exceptionally poor mechanism to willingly rely on for demonstrating truths that are explainable to some intellect(s) in principle.

          • TomD123

            (1) Actually, the main difference between God and the Aliens would be that God would NOT NEED to do the relevant studying to figure out some truth. Rather, given the truth of Classical Theism, He would know all things including that He exists as a Trinity. He would also comprehend fully why the Trinity is necessary rather than contingent or a brute fact. Remember, the reason to believe this lies in the claim of Divine Revelation-it is not as though Christians think that this point is possible to demonstrate using logic.

            (2) Believing based on authority is very reasonable and more so if that authority is God. Although it is reasonable to ask whether or not God has revealed something. Usually it is true that we offer miracle claims as the primary means of determining revelation although not the only means. Further, it is admittedly true that one can reasonably dispute the force of these claims.

            (3) " deny that there are reasonable grounds for believing an all-Good God would create beings whom He wished to comprehend certain dogmas, yet not imbue them with the faculties necessary for doing so."

            This objection has to do with the possibility of revelation itself. I will offer two points in response:

            (4) Even if you are correct in saying that it is not fitting that an all-Good God should reveal anything, that doesn't help your initial point which I was responding to. That is, it doesn't support your claim that the Trinity is a brute fact. The reason is that this claim discounts all of revelation (including the incarnation ,redemption, grace etc.) not because they themselves are inherently unreasonable, inexplicable, or "brute facts" but because a good-God would not create us in such a state as to require knowledge of those things above human reason.

            (5) Still, as a Catholic, I disagree with your premise that a good-God would not rely on revelation. The reason is that there are simply no grounds to know this. There are far too many factors in play. However, given the truth of Classical Theism and the present human condition, revelation of some sort seems fitting. The reason for this is that it seems helpful for clarifying certain things about morality and encouraging our trust in God, etc. Of course you could deny Classical Theism, but that is different than saying that Classical Theism contradicts revelation (specifically the Trinity).

          • Chee Chak

            That there can only be one God is something classical theists would posit.

            Something which I for one can agree with, if indeed such an entity as god does exist.

        • Chee Chak

          I think that's a straw man.

          The age old fallback accusation leveled at those who don't agree in every jot and tittle of one's argument or opinion.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        That the existence of God can be known by the light of reason is only one of the preambles of faith which would lead a person to the Church.

        • David Nickol

          "That the existence of God can be known by reason" is, ironically, purely a matter of faith.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            No. It is a matter of demonstration.

          • David Nickol

            No. It is a matter of demonstration.

            How do you explain the fact that many who have studied the proofs for the existence of God do not find them convincing? Is it the position of the Catholic Church that any particular proof of God's existence is successful? Suppose I consider myself a faithful Catholic, but I do not find Kalam argument convincing. Am I a heretic?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            How do you explain the fact that many who have studied the proofs for the existence of God do not find them convincing?

            a) They don't understand what is meant by "God."
            b) They don't understand what is meant by "proof."
            +++++
            c) An visceral revulsion toward the conclusion.
            d) A weird insistence that the proof must prove everything, such as Jesus drinking wine.
            e) Most people are unconvinced by any logical argument when the matter is emotional.
            f) An inability to grasp the structure of the argument.
            g) A disinclination to abstract reasoning, such as mathematics or metaphysics.
            h) An ignorance of the metaphysical background of the argument.
            i) A conviction that a strawman version they have come across is the actual argument.

            Aquinas rejected the equivalent of the kalam argument. By all accounts, he was not a heretic.

          • David Nickol

            So basically, there is something wrong with anyone who does not accept that the existence of God can be known by reason?

            What exactly is meant by proof. In my mind a proofs should be compelling. A person of intelligence and intellectual honesty should be "swept along" by a proof and find the conclusion irresistible.

            The Kalam argument was just an example. My question still remains: "Is it the position of the Catholic Church that any particular proof of God's existence is successful?"

            Somewhere in the back of my head there is a notion that the justification for claiming God can be known through reason alone is Paul's claim in Romans that God was evident through his creation, and that the Romans "should have known." This seems to me quite a different approach to knowing God through reason than by philosophical argumentation. It is more along the lines of saying people ought to just know God exists, not that they ought to be convinced if the right metaphysical arguments are presented to them. In many ways, I find it a more compelling argument. It is a very strange God, it seems to me, who requires advanced degrees in metaphysics to know of his existence.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            A place to start is what the Church actually says:

            36 “Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.”

            Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God’s revelation. Man has this capacity because he is created “in the image of God.”

            37 In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone: (1960)

            Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.

          • Chee Chak

            Ye olde should stop beating around the bush and simply declare himself as Catholic.....it would be more honest.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Ye olde should stop beating around the bush and simply declare himself as Catholic.....it would be more honest.

            This is what logicians call an argument ad hominem. That is, instead of addressing the premises or the structure of the argument itself, one addresses instead the character of the Other. Whether YOS is a Catholic or an Orthodox or simply an honest agnostic is irrelevant to the quality of the arguments, which either stand or fall on their own merits. The only consequence of any declaration would be to give Chee and excuse to dismiss the arguments on ad hominem prejudicial grounds.

          • Chee Chak

            You are right of course, I sincerely apologize....I should not have made that uncalled for snarky comment. Please forgive me.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            What exactly is meant by proof.

            To "proof" is to "test," as in the proof room of a bakery, White Sands Proving Grounds, the proof of whiskey, or the proof of the pudding. It is related to the word "probe."

            In my mind a proofs should be compelling.

            This holds a discussion hostage to the dimmest participant. We could reproduce here a proof from general topology or from the algebra of rings and see how compelling they would be.

          • David Nickol

            DN: In my mind a proofs should be compelling.

            YOS: This holds a discussion hostage to the dimmest participant.

            First, it seems to me TomD123 is correct when he says,

            The Church does not hold that any particular proof is successful. The Church only teaches broadly that the existence of God can be known with certainty from the created world.

            So I think it would be misguided for someone to present n particular alleged proof of the existence of God (or, indeed, all known "proofs") and insist everyone must assen because the Church teaches God may be known through reason alone.

            We could reproduce here a proof from general topology or from the algebra of rings and see how compelling they would be.

            The difference between a mathematical proof and a "proof" of the existence of God is that there exists a community (mathematicians) upon whom we can rely to determine conclusively (and without personal bias) whether a given proof either succeeds or fails. With alleged proofs of the existence of God, theists who claim such proofs succeed can always argue that those who disagree with them are among "the dimmest participants."

            Granted, with the advent of mathematical "proofs" that rely on computers, we have arrived at a point where certain "proofs" are uncertain and possibly even unverifiable. But up until quite recently, a successful mathematical proof was undeniable.

            Now, if you want to define a proof of the existence of God as something different from an "old fashioned" mathematical proof—say, a powerful argument the understanding of which did not compel agreement with the conclusion—I suppose I don't object. But I have always assumed that those who presented proofs of the existence of God put them forward as arguments that, once understood, compelled belief. And I have always also assumed they put them forward as arguments that were comprehensible to any reasonable intelligent person. I did not consider them to be the equivalent of proofs from higher mathematics which would be comprehensible only to those with highly specialized backgrounds.

          • Greg Schaefer

            Y.O.S.

            It is possible, I suspect, even for those commenters at SN not possessing graduate degrees in higher mathematics, to understand the point implicit in your comment how setting the bar for proof at too high a level can hold "a discussion hostage to the dimmest participant." That evinces some rhetorical flair.

            However, the implication of your following sentence seems an unwarranted condescending gibe.

            Wouldn't you concede, for example, that a plausible explanation for why some at this site might not find any hypothetical proof from general topology or the algebra of rings compelling might lie in the fact that they have not been educated or trained in higher mathematics rather than, as you appear to imply, that they are too "dim" to understand such a proof?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Yes. Ignorance was one of the possibilities, along with an emotional rejection, an inability to follow the argument, etc.

          • Chee Chak

            I think the position of the church and its' close adherents would be Romans;1-20

            "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."

          • TomD123

            1. The Church does not hold that any particular proof is successful. The Church only teaches broadly that the existence of God can be known with certainty from the created world.

            2. This does not entail that every person can see this, only that in theory it is possible.

            3. I would explain the fact that many people who study the proofs for God's existence unconvincing in a number of ways. First, the existence of God is one of the most deepest personal issues, very emotional, and life-changing. It is unlikely that pure logic will change many people. Second, many of the reasons people reject the arguments for God are bad reasons (although not all).

            4. Although many reject the arguments, many accept them as well. Throughout history, although there has not been one argument that seems to work, the existence of a transcendent intelligence(s) is almost a universal belief. This is true of philosophers as well.

            5. I think that the Kalam argument fails. I don't think I am a heretic.

      • Fr.Sean

        Hi David,
        Sorry i didn't get back to you sooner. busy day. I think i may have mentioned this before but the Catholic Church doesn't believe every other religion is "wrong" in the sense that their worshiping a God that doesn't exist, it's just that the church teaches various faiths have various amounts of revelation. Naturally as Catholics i think it would be fair to say that all of us would want nothing more than for you to convert to catholicism, but there isn't much sense trying to convince some that the Catholic church's understanding of God is more accurate if one doesn't believe that God exists in the first place. Some of the philosophical conclusions for God's existence could lead one to conclude that there is most likely a God, and then perhaps it would be up to them to examine various faiths, and to pray to determine which one really does seem to be the most accurate expression of what God is like. i tend to think the truth has a way of surfacing and if one follows or examine's the evidence for God's existence, prays and discerns than they would find themselves here. but if one did the same thing, examines the evidence, prays and discerns and finds themselves in another faith than many of us would find joy in such a conversion because our faith teaches us that if one follows their conscience and does what they feel their conscience dictates (as long as it is well formed) than they are following and open to the truth and since we believe Jesus is truth than they are in a sense already home.

  • staircaseghost

    "All of nature has being, and it is by virtue of having being that it exists (whether that being is substantial, material, or whatever). Folks working in the modern tradition discuss whether God has being, a topic about which there could obviously be rational disagreement given its assumptions. But, classical theists do not think that God has being, or that he could, even in principle."

    From the above one may derive the following argument:

    1) For all (x), [x exists -> x "has being"]
    2) ~ "God has being."
    C) God does not exist. (1,2 by Modus Tollens)
    3) If God does not exist, then atheism is true. (by definition)
    C2) Atheism is true. (C,3 by Modus Ponens)

    So you can see, I have clearly presented a valid argument, with a true conclusion.

    If you disagree with the conclusion, then since the argument is valid, which premise would you suggest is false?

    • Fr.Sean

      Hi staircase Ghost
      I would say, it's not that God "has being" but that God "is" being in that he/she is the source of being.

      • staircaseghost

        Which premise, then, is false? (Did you notice the negation in p2?)

        • Peter

          Correct me if I'm wrong but p1 looks false. A correct statement of it (considering the first sentence of the paragraph you quoted) would be:

          "For all (x) in {nature}, [x exists -> x "has being"].

          I'm not exactly sure what is meant by "nature" (I'm no philosopher) but generally I take it to refer to things that exist by contingency. If that is the case than it's pretty clear that God is not an "x".

        • Fr.Sean

          Hi Staircaseghost,
          well, i think i might be a little confused. Steve's article is about defense of classic theism. classic theism posits God is being, or the source of being? thus if he is the source of being instead of just having being than "having" being would be false?

        • BrianKillian

          Your premise 3 is false. What's being negated in premise 2 is that God has existence by participation, rather by essence. But atheism is more than just denying that God has no existence by participation, it also denies that God has existence by himself, by his own essence (or in any way at all).

          So premise 3 is equivocating on 'existence' when it concludes that atheism is true. Otherwise, atheism would be compatible with the existence of the God of classical theism.

          • staircaseghost

            " Otherwise, atheism would be compatible with the existence of the God of classical theism."

            And we can't have that, because that would mean my reductio ad absurdum showed what I intended it to show. The horror!

            There is surely some equivocating going on, but since I faithfully constructed the argument from the OP, the genesis of the confusion can hardly be traced to me.

            To the extent that any atheist has thought about it at all (pick one out of an internet hat and you'll likely be disappointed), atheism denies gods (or carrots or clouds or cotton or anything else) that "exist by their own essence" or are "underived being" or are "pure act" or whatever even less well-defined term is next in the series just to the extent they are noncognitive utterances. Withholding assent from not-even-wrongery is not an epistemic stance confined to atheism.

      • Chee Chak

        I would say, it's not that God "has being" but that God "is" being in that he/she is the source of being.

        If I may speak plainly....are we playing the SN riddle game again?
        Being: : the state of existing. Dictionary. No offense intended.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          It sounds like word play but it is not. In this way of thinking, which I think makes sense, in the material universe, a true distinction can be made between every living being's essence and his act of existence. Because they can be separated, we can die. When we say "my turtle exists" and "God exists" we are using the word exists analogically. God's essence and existence are the same thing. For my turtle and me, they are not.

    • TomD123

      For the classical theist, 1 is false. If x exists, it does not necessarily have being. The exception is God, who IS being.

      Of course, if you use a loser definition of "have" such that "have being" is equivalent to "exist" then the second premise would be false according to the classical theist.

      The key notion here is "have being"

      • staircaseghost

        So Steven Dillon was in error when he said, "[a]ll of nature has being, and it is by virtue of having being that it exists," is that correct?

        • TomD123

          I think he is correct. He is taking God to not be part of nature. At least that is how I read it

          • "I think he is correct. He is taking God to not be part of nature. At least that is how I read it."

            That is correct. All classical theists--and almost all contemporary believers--would agree that God transcends nature.

      • David Nickol

        The exception is God, who IS being.

        What, exactly, does it mean to say that God is being? It is also said that God is love. Does that mean that love is being, or being is love? Does it actually mean anything at all to say "God is being"? Are we wrong to ask the question, "Does God exist?" Should it be, "Is God existence?"

        • TomD123

          To say that God is being, it means basically, God's nature is to exist. Given that nothing of our experience is like this, it is admittedly hard to understand--and probably impossible to precisely define. Yet if the arguments for a being which exists by the necessity of its own nature are cogent, it follows that a being of this sort exists. Another possible way of looking at it is that God is the source of being who has it essentially.

          As for what the correct question is, it depends. "Does God exist?" is necessarily true if (1) we define God as a necessarily existing being and (2) That concept is coherent. In other words, if a necessary being is coherent, this entails that one exists. If we ask "Is God existence?" we are asking a really confusing question because it depends on our starting definition of God.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          To say that God just is being" is analogous to saying that "mean molecular motion just is heat." It makes no more sense to say that God 'has' being than to say that mean molecular motion 'has' mean molecular motion.

          • David Nickol

            Wouldn't it be more nearly correct (though possibly not correct) to say that "mean molecular motion" is temperature, not heat? And I wonder if temperature is a "real" property of anything. For example, if I put a skillet on the stove burner and turn the flame all the way up, it would not make any sense to consider the temperature of the skillet to be the average of every part of the skillet (including the stay-cool handle), even though directions might say to "heat the skillet" to 350 degrees.

            "Mean molecular motion" also is not responsible only for hot temperatures, but also for cold temperatures. (Of course, physicists, depending on the context, might consider a substance with a temperature hovering slightly above absolute zero to have a very small amount of heat.) Nevertheless, it seems to me that it is not very precise to say that mean molecular motion is temperature and molecular motions is heat. Heat is not a thing; it's a concept.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Temperature is the quantitative extension of heat.

            But I love it when "it doesn't really exist" pops up.

    • Steven Dillon

      "which premise would you suggest is false?"

      It's initially tempting to say that premise (1) is false, especially as my last statement before (1) is:

      "But, classical theists do not think that God has being, or that he could, even in principle."

      But, on classical theism, "God" cannot be an instance of "x". Why? Because, then God would belong to a genus. But, on account of God's Divine Simplicity, classical theists have denied that God belongs to any genus for a millennium.

      Thus, the argument is question-begging, as it assumes -- contrary to classical theism -- that God could belong to a genus. Since "God" could not be an instance of "x", the classical theist will say, (2) is not a negation of (1), and thus (3) is an invalid deduction.

      You may very well disagree with the doctrine of Divine Simplicity, but that won't save this argument begging the question against it.

      • staircaseghost

        "But, on classical theism, "God" cannot be an instance of 'x'. Why? Because, then God would belong to a genus. But, on account of God's Divine Simplicity, classical theists have denied that God belongs to any genus for a millennium."

        Well, now we have two more problems. Three if you can spot the latent No True Scotsman, but we should table that for now.

        First, since we are now apparently allowing existence to things which have no being, it is no longer clear what actual theoretical work the concept "has being" is doing for us. It surely looked as though it is a synonym for existential quantification, but this alleged new use does not fit cleanly into any logical apparatus that has been spelled out in any detail.

        When we speak loosely of X existing, our brains fall back on one of a handful of temporo-spatial metaphors -- X "has" being like I "have" a phone in my pocket, or X "comes into being" as though "being" were some room in a house where all us existing things are sitting, and there was some "other room" the nonexistant things were waiting for someone to open the door to. But philosophy is the defense of the intellect against bewitchment by means of words, and as we learn to think clearly the metaphors drop away. The opposite of philosophy is planting your flag in gut intuitions based on these unexamined metaphors, and insisting that there really literally is some drawing room full of unactualized possibles and any architect logically must include it in his blueprint! So the question remains just what X's "having" existence or "being in" existence is supposed to add to its description over and above "X exists".

        And second, and fatally: do you see how any answer you give to the first question will necessarily take the form "there are two kinds of things that exist, things that 'have' being and things that 'are' being"?

        Say, who's that familiar-looking second member of the genus "things that exist" over there?

        • Steven Dillon

          As Ye Olde Statistician (and the link provided) explained, saying that God is being is like saying that what heats is mean mollecular motion.

          To expand a little in my own words (so no mistake on my part can fairly be attributed to them): Things that have mean mollecular motion are one thing and their mean mollecular motion another. Unless the two conjoin, the former has no power to heat. Such things only heat in a secondary way since their power to heat depends on their having mean mollecular motion. Likewise, the essences of things that have being are one thing and their being another. Unless the two conjoin, the former has no existence: it's just an idea or abstraction. Such things only exist in a secondary way since their existence depends on their having being. This is all that is meant by "derivative being".

          But, mean mollecular motion is not one thing and its heat another. The two do not need to be conjoined in order for mean mollecular motion to heat: it just is what heats. Note: this isn't to say it exists in a primary way, since it has being, only that when it does have being, it heats in a primary way. All the classical theist is saying is that God exists in a primary way. It's not that the essence of God is one thing and his being another, such that the two need to be conjoined in order for God to exist. Instead, God's essence simply is his being. Just as things can only have heat because there is mean mollecular motion, so too things can only have being because there is a primary existent, which classical theists call "God".

          • staircaseghost

            1) One thing I've noticed is that Thomists seem inordinately fond of responding to requests for clarity and precision by presenting metaphors and analogies, and then blurring the dialectical distinction between illustrative analogies and arguments from analogy. Feser does this constantly.

            The problem with YOS's (illustrative) metaphor is that I already have a pretty good handle on the operational relationships between variables, functions, and quantifiers. Since we've eliminated the existential quantifer as being relevant to whatever on earth you mean to indicate by "has being", I'm left trying to understand whether the distinction is a matter of two different functions, or the value of two different bound variables, or the difference between one of each.

            So coming up with an analogy where fire is a thing, and heat is a thing, where fire "has" the property of molecular motion and heat "is" the property of molecular motion, just tells me that God "is" a predicate. Is that what both of you meant? This would actually make a lot of sense out of the "exists in a different sense" talk: I can reinterpret that as saying you're doing 2nd-order quantifying over the domain of symbols instead of over the domain of objects in the world, which is a perfectly fine thing to do. This of course immediately raises issues (like what all that talk of "derivative being" was supposed to represent, or how a predicate can "cause" something) but before we go on we need to make sure I'm getting your thesis right.

            Fire has heat or "participates in hot-ness", but molecular kinetic energy is heat. So:

            "An x 'has F-ness' or 'participates in F-ness', but Yahweh is F-ness."

            2) It looks like you're still working on how the "Exists" Genus can have the species "Has Existence" and "Is Existence", and yet God does not belong to a genus. No rush, just keep us updated from time to time.

          • Steven Dillon

            You should work on your sarcasm, it tends to spoil otherwise enjoyable comments.

            We need to back up, I think. The Thomistic theory of existence is unintelligible apart from its theory of essence. I'll see if I can summarize:

            On Thomism, the principles of specification are called 'forms'. Thus, whatever specifies a thing as red (whether it's a certain configuration of its matter or some such), is the form of redness. Likewise, whatever specifies a thing as human is the form of humanity. My computer screen is rectangular and red because its parts instantiate the forms of rectangularity and redness.

            Some forms are more essential to a thing than others. Thus, the form of humanity is obviously more essential to me as a human being than of being caucasian. Let's call the form which specifies a thing to be what it essentially is it's essential form.

            Now, considered in the abstract, our essential forms are just ideas in the mind, concepts. But, these forms which exist in our mind can be translated into reality, they can instantiate. When they do, they're thought to be conjoined with something that makes them to be, called their act of existence. The resulting substance is composed of the essential form and the act of existence.

            This "act of existence" is what we mean by their "being". They "have" being in so far as it is a part of them.

            But, God would not 'have' being in this sense: he would not be a composition of an essential form with an act of existence. Instead, his essential form would be identical with his act of existence.

            Does this mean that God and creatures belong to a common genus of 'existence'? Thomists would prefer to word things differently, since this implies there is something over and above God (namely a genus that he belongs to).

            They'd want to say something like that the being of creatures only counts as existence because it resembles God's being in the relevant ways, instead of that it counts as existence because it resembles some sort of 'feature' that God equally resembles (albeit to a greater degree).

          • Michael Murray

            I guess I'm not a Thomist because I see no reason to believe in forms as anything other than labels attached to collections of things. Saying something is red does not have to mean there is a thing called redness it "has". Just as saying a set has two elements doesn't mean it possesses a thing called twoness it just means it can be put in bijective correspondence with the set {1, 2}.

            I also see no reason to believe that the notion of an essential form is anything other than subjective. For Hitler the essential form of humanity was Caucasian or Aryan. In any case how do you get from "one form is more essential than another" to "there is a unique essential form" for something. Even if I admit there is an ordering on forms, which is hard because of the subjectivity, why are there unique maximal elements?

            I also don't see any reason to think that instantiation and conjoining happen anywhere than in my mind. Take away humans from the real world and all these ideas just evaporate because they are just ideas.

          • Steven Dillon

            Forms are just principles of specificity, so to deny forms is to say nothing has specificity. But, the claim "nothing has specificity" has specificity.

            Perhaps we don't mean that something has redness to it by saying it is red. But, that would only be a fact about our language, not about whether there really are forms.

            Moreover, if forms are just collections of things, and collections of things exist outside of our minds, how can they be 'subjective'? If things have specificity independent of our minds, forms are objective. Keep in mind that we're dealing with the ontology of forms, not our epistemology of them.

            My summary could be greatly expanded on, especially with respect to why substances have substantial forms, or what I call essential forms. For now, I'll just say it's the commonsensical view: we ordinarily think about things as 'substances' like dogs, people, flowers, trees, buffalo, etc. not collections of stuff in dog-configuration, people-configuration, and so forth.

            That is to say dogs, people and other substances are thought of as 'wholes', unities of all there many, many parts.

          • Michael Murray

            Forms are just principles of specificity, so to deny forms is to say nothing has specificity. But, the claim "nothing has specificity" has specificity.

            I'm not denying them. I'm denying they have any reality beyond a useful construct of the human mind.

            Moreover, if forms are just collections of things, and collections of things exist outside of our minds, how can they be 'subjective'?

            Because which collection of things depends on the person. My collection of great rap songs of 2014 will be different to yours.

            For now, I'll just say it's the commonsensical view:

            The last 100 odd years of science suggests this is a mistake. The real precise description of reality is often a long way from our common sense view. The common sense view is limited by the

          • Michael Murray

            I think you also haven't commented on the question of ordering of forms and your claim that there is a most essential form. I'm not even clear that there is a well-defined ordering. But even if I suspend disbelief and agree there is an ordering why does it have a unique maximum ?

          • staircaseghost

            "The Thomistic theory of existence is unintelligible apart from its theory of essence."

            This should be a huge worry for you. It should bother you that time and again, Thomists open a conversation with an assertion so simple-sounding they think even a child who denies it must be daft or dishonest, but within only a few rounds the Thomist is telling people they're wrong to deny it because they couldn't possibly understand it without several semesters of graduate-level philosophy reading.

            And there should be an even huger worry on top of this: to the skeptical eye, you've all but conceded Thomists can present no independent motivation to believe any of their claims are true. In fact, one has to buy in to Thomistic vocabulary whole hog, across multiple topics, just to make the claims intelligible.

            I contrast this to things I believe that require some modest technical background -- say, Quasi-realist Expressivism in metaethics, or the principles of digital circuit design -- and it's never like this. In those cases, I can start with someone who is a blank slate and systematically build their understanding up from simple, shared observations that they can recognize and appreciate indepently of their having already bought in to the system whole-hog.

            "Some forms are more essential to a thing than others."

            I would think instead that some specifications are more essential to our descriptions of things than to things, since things don't have specifications, descriptions do. This is classic Map/Territory stuff. A thing just is what it is, and no one of its properties is more essential in and of itself, independently of our subjective interest in modeling it. They are only more or less essential to what it is we are trying to accomplish when we model a thing as that sort of thing. Hence: "the form of humanity is obviously more essential to me as a human being than of being caucasian." (emphasis added)

            Relativism seems to be the rule here.

            "When they [abstract forms] do [instantiate], they're thought to be conjoined with something that makes them to be, called their act of existence."

            Thought by whom? This seems confused, a textbook example of the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. Just because 'lego brick' is a noun that refers to a thing that can be conjoined to other legos doesn't mean you can say that since 'form' is a noun you can unproblematically talk about forms "conjoining" with the things other nouns refer to.

            I hypothesize that the Thomist has no clear picture of what this "conjoining" looks like when it's occuring or about to occur, like some metaphysical gamete just about to merge with the ovum. The doctrine seems like a list of rules for manipulating words in a certain order given certain prompts, without any notion of checking to see whether these manipulations line up with anything in reality in any meaningful or useful way.

            "This 'act of existence' is what we mean by their 'being'. They 'have' being in so far as it is a part of them."

            So x is a substance S when a form y is conjoined with an act z (Ax)(xS) (Ey,z)[yF^zA^(yCz)]. So, all eyes on the predicate here.

            "Instead, his essential form would be identical with his act of existence."

            So we tack on the conjunct for God (Ax)(xS) (Ey,z)[yF^zA^(yCz)^(z=y)]

            ...and we've preserved at least the syntactic meaningfulness of the "Has Being/Is Being" distinction. But it looks like we're still quantifying over x in a first-order predicate calculus in both cases. So it looks like God exists in a univocal sense as candy bars exist, at least according to this interpretation of what the Thomist is trying to say. And this is all granting for the sake of argument that a) talk of "acts of existence" and "conjoining" is meaningful at all, and b) asserting an identity relation even given this framework is meaningful.

            "Does this mean that God and creatures belong to a common genus of 'existence'? Thomists would prefer to word things differently, since this implies there is something over and above God (namely a genus that he belongs to)."

            (Note in passing that this preference has all the hallmarks of motivated reasoning: "this implies our desired conclusion is wrong, so let's find a way to avoid it".)

            Even though I think I've clearly shown you haven't escaped the conclusion, I would be remiss not to underline how deeply weird and unshared I find this intuition that describing something as a kind of thing means there's something "over and above" it, as though ontological ranks in a mental model were the same thing as ranks of moral value. It's a weird vestige of Great Chain of Being thinking that has deities on top and demigods underneath them and priests and the nobility under them and farmers and the Irish under them etc.

            Whereas it would simply never occur to me that, say, Obama is not the Chief Executive, because he belongs to the genus "male", and so "maleness" has greater legal authority over our armed forces. I'm not just gently suggesting the Thomist is wasting his time tilting at windmills. I'm also trying to explain that I see no windmill there.

    • Ye Olde Statistician
  • TomD123

    An analogy I find incredibly helpful is to consider God like the author of a story and the story His creation. What happens in the story, how it began, what characters are in the story, etc. are irrelevant to whether or not the story has an author.

    Similarly, the questions "what god do you believe in?" "why not go one god further?" etc. are blocked once we understand the difference between classical theism and these pagan conceptions of god. In these pagan conceptions, gods are just characters in the story which would still need an author.

  • staircaseghost

    " Is there room to rationally think that derivative being ultimately doesn't derive from anything?"

    I would push the question back a step, and ask whether "derivative being" signifies anything meaningful at all.

    My understanding of the operation of the existential quantifier is that it does not allow for any such distinctions. It is univocal within a domain, and bivalent.

    • TomD123

      I think that derivative being does signify something meaningful, namely, being as dependent on something else.

      The existential quantifier makes sense and using it, we can write out certain existential statements. It does not follow however that writing it out as such explains existence. Using the existential quantifier, I don't know if we could describe derivative being, however that doesn't really mean that derivative being is incoherent.

      Finally, the existential quantifier is univocal and bivalent. In one sense, so is existence. Something either does exist or it does not. However, in explaining why something exists, or in what manner, there are many possibilities. Hence existence can either be derivative or not. If it is derivative as in the case of creatures, or underived in the case of God, we still end up using the existential quantifier because both things truly exist. Yet at the same time, this quantifier doesn't capture everything because it does not explain why or how each thing exists--because it is bivalent and univocal whereas the modes of existence are not necessarily.

  • Chee Chak

    Even Alvin Plantinga, who is perhaps today's most influential philosopher of religion, says "In my opinion, Swinburne's arguments that Christian belief is probable with respect to public evidence are the best on offer

    One would expect nothing else from a Christian philosopher such as Planting.

    Planting seems to see the desire for autonomy as a selfish motive for atheism.
    Plantinga says this desire "can reach very substantial proportions, as with the German philosopher Heidegger, who, according to Richard Rorty, felt guilty for living in a universe he had not himself created. Now there’s a tender conscience! But even a less monumental desire for autonomy can perhaps also motivate atheism.

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/is-atheism-irrational/

    Another of his opinions:

    Those whom one calls the "New Atheists" today -- Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and (the late) Christopher Hitchens -- are more properly described as anti-theists: they are militantly against the belief that there is a God. They have no positive belief of their own to uphold."

    I have to kind of agree with his assessment here.

    http://accurmudgeon.blogspot.ca/2014/02/atheism-is-irrational-alvin-plantinga.html

  • staircaseghost

    " [T]he First Cause and its power, goodness, and even knowledge all refer to the same thing, just in different senses (much like 'Clark Kent' and 'Superman' do)."

    I don't know what this means, and neither does anyone else.

    Additionally, here are some things theists believe, or claim to believe, about God:
    - flooded the world
    - dictated or otherwise inspired the OT law
    - has an opinion on the Hobby Lobby case
    - is identical to Jesus, who, among other things, attended a wedding once, rode a donkey, and drew pictures in dirt.

    By the principle of The Identity of Indiscernibles, it follows that the property of being all-powerful refers to the same thing as the property of having ridden a donkey, which in turn refers to the same thing as the property of having flooded the earth, which in turn refers to the same thing as God's knowledge of e.g. my current Disqus password.-- exactly like how 'Clark Kent' and 'Superman' refer to the same thing.

    • Steven Dillon

      Question begging predications of "properties" to God aside, that 'God's knowledge' and 'God's goodness' (etc.) refer to the same thing but in different senses is like how 'Clark Kent' and 'Superman' refer to the same thing but in different senses. :P

      • staircaseghost

        Precisely what question is it that I am supposed to have "begged"? That God has these properties? That some people believe in one who does? Since I do not believe God exists, and since literally billions of people claim he has at least some of them, that cannot be it.

        Accusations of fallacies are not like button-mashing in a 2d street-fighting game, where pretty much anything is guaranteed to do damage as long as you're on the same side of the screen. They have to be deployed in such a manner as to actually line up in some plausible way with what the interlocutor has actually argued. (Speaking of begging the question, what would one call simply repeating an assertion, without elaborating, but merely italicizing the word "is" in an "is too!" retort?)

        It seems you have a prima facie burden to explain why, although my knowledge of my Disqus password and my knowledge of my phone number are different properties, and my power to digest carbohydrates and my power to hear Middle C are different properties, somehow if we just followed Clark into the phone booth we would see him changing his clothes, and understand we've had a Masked Man[*] phenomenon with illicit substitution in opaque contexts, and God's knowledge of both the above, and his power to do both the above, and all four of them one and the same thing.

        [*]OK, the metaphor breaks down here, since Kal doesn't wear a mask. Bespectacled man, perhaps?

      • Vicq_Ruiz

        'God's knowledge' and 'God's goodness' (etc.) refer to the same thing but in different senses

        That seems pretty obvious Steven, because otherwise it would not be possible for a good God to wipe out all of humanity except for one family, unless it could also be good for Vicq Ruiz to do the same.

    • Peter

      Regarding properties of God, perhaps it would be worthwhile to consider:

      (1) It's important to distinguish between properties of God, as such, and effects which God produces. For example, the sun, in effect, both hardens clay and melts wax, but if neither clay nor wax were ever invented, the sun, as such, would be the same sun as actually exists today.

      (2) Jesus attended a wedding, rode a donkey, and drew pictures in dirt by virtue of his human nature, not his divine nature.

      • staircaseghost

        "It's important to distinguish between properties of God, as such, and effects which God produces."

        Not with respect to God especially, and not in any way that addresses the force of the objection. Yes, there is a general distinction between the initial conditions inputted to a model and the behavior of the model when fed counterfactual data e.g. "my model of this piece of copper outputs conduction observations when you input electricity observations" is a different claim from "I've inputted electricity observations to my this-copper-model". But how on earth does this make it more plausible that "God knows my password" and "God knows the capital of Belgium" refer to the same thing?

        "Jesus attended a wedding, rode a donkey, and drew pictures in dirt by virtue of his human nature, not his divine nature."

        This "by virtue of" talk is nonresponsive. Either he did or he didn't. If he did, it's one of his properties, and if he's identical to "the ground of all being" then by just the absolutely atomic principles of logic it follows that "the ground of all being" has those properties.

        • Peter

          To the first point, thank you for making me read up (being the Catholic and the non-philosopher I am) on what the church has said on the topic. Here's my attempt to explain: God by his essence is being -- which has already been said. But according to Aquinas, of all other terms that may be predicated of God, only terms that we know by what they are not (e.g. simple = not composite, eternal = not temporal) may be univocally predicated of God. All other terms are predicated anologically, in the sense of the one being the cause of the other, e.g. if "medicine is the cause of health in the animal body" then both are called "healthy". In summary, his reasoning is that humans know directly only limited (imperfect) things, but God is perfect. [Source: Question 13, Article 5, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1013.htm#article5%5D

          So to return to your example, taking the above as given, the statements "God knows my password" or "God knows the capital of Belgium" do indeed refer to the same thing, but only under the analogical sense of God being the cause of all knowledge.

          To your second point,

          "if he's identical to "the ground of all being" then by just the
          absolutely atomic principles of logic it follows that "the ground of all being" has those properties"

          If by "identical" you mean that the one is always substitutable for the other, then I believe Jesus could not be considered identical to the "ground of all being". I am not, by any means, an expert on this topic, but if you want further clarification on the distinction between the two, you might try the Catholic Encyclopedia, the section titled "The Nature of the Incarnation": http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07706b.htm#II.

          • staircaseghost

            I'll take it from the "what the church has said on the topic" and "according to Aquinas" verbiage that this is an attempt to explicate, not necessarily defend. Which is perfectly fine, although it's never bad advice to remember that appeal to authority is no substitute for evidence. So in the spirit of understanding:

            "[O]f all other terms that may be predicated of God, only terms that we know by what they are not (e.g. simple = not composite, eternal = not temporal) may be univocally predicated of God."

            First, it seems just obviously false that these examples are concepts we "only know by what they are not". You could just as easily say you "only know" that composite means not simple, or temporal means not eternal. Do we only know what the smaller numbers towards the left of the number line are in terms of their being "not those bigger numbers to the right?"

            And second, fatally: as I pointed out in my very first comment, all Catholics predicate things of God, all the time, a nonexhaustive list of which can be found by cracking the Bible open to any random page. Only one reply to my first comment even pretended to address this, and it was... creative... but clearly unorthodox.

            "All other terms are predicated anologically, in the sense of the one being the cause of the other, e.g. if 'medicine is the cause of health in the animal body' then both are called 'healthy'."

            You have to see that in English, this makes no sense. We would say they are both "health-related", but when was the last time you heard you heard your doctor call an antiseptic wipe or a neck brace "healthy"?

            "So to return to your example, taking the above as given, the statements 'God knows my password' or "God knows the capital of Belgium' do indeed refer to the same thing, but only under the analogical sense of God being the cause of all knowledge."

            Does this ring true to you? Does it ring true that people who believe in an omniscient god never really mean to say that he knows e.g. what's in my heart, the exact date the sun will expand, they only ever mean he's "the cause of knowledge"? That it is literally false that god knows my password? Come to think about it, that would explain a lot of things, like why he couldn't find Adam & Eve when they were hiding in the bushes, or why he doesn't answer prayers (he doesn't know we're crying out for him!)

            "If by 'identical' you mean that the one is always substitutable for the other, then I believe Jesus could not be considered identical to the 'ground of all being'."

            Well, I don't know much about you, but according to this, you are definitely not Catholic, or even any variety of Trinitarian. The doctrine is, Jesus is God, full stop. Just read any number of passages from the link you gave me, e.g. "[O]ne and the same Person, Jesus Christ, was God and man. We speak here of no moral union, no union in a figurative sense of the word; but a union that is physical, a union of two substances or natures so as to make One Person, a union which means that God is Man and Man is God in the Person of Jesus Christ." There are plenty of other obscurities and inconsistencies in the doctrine that I refuse to get sucked into right now, but this one point is something they go to great lengths to make crystal clear.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Steven Dillon, you wrote:

    Because of what the classical theist takes God to be, she contends that there is something so fundamentally absurd about God's non-existence that questions of probability calculations and scientific discoveries are superfluous or distracting
    at best, and circular at worst (as science can hardly explain the material it presupposes in order to explain things).

    Could you explain the final statement in parenthesis a little more? What are some things that science presupposes so that it can explain things scientifically?

    • Steven Dillon

      Sure Kevin, my thinking is just that the natural sciences presuppose a great many things such as that stuff exists, and that the mind can know true things about it. If either of these presuppositions were false, there'd be nothing for science to explain, or no way for science to explain it. Thus, science would need to presuppose both in order to explain either.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        Mariano Artigas argues in "The Mind of the Universe" that natural science rests on three presuppositions: that there is a natural order, that we can know it, and that it is good to know it. Would you say these kinds of assumptions are metaphysical?

        • Steven Dillon

          Yeah, I suppose I would. Good point, is that how you'd classify them?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            They seem too obvious and commonsensical for metaphysics, which I mistakenly assume must contain only concepts that appear to be indecipherable!

            On the other hand, there is probably nothing naturally obvious about them. They were discovered and have been become so commonplace in our culture that they appear like "duh" statements. Artigas' argument is that these presuppositions were bequeathed to natural science through Christian philosophy and theology. A scientist never has to think about them when doing his scientific work, but if he did not assume them he would not bother with science.

            I'm still not sure what kind of statements they are.

  • David Nickol

    The Notion of a "Straw Man"

    The Merriam-Webster Unabridged online dictionary gives the definition of straw man (actually, man of straw) as follows:

    an imaginary argument of no substance advanced in order to be easily confuted or an imaginary adversary advancing such an argument

    Am I overly sensitive, or does it seem like accusations of introducing a straw man are actually accusations of arguing in bad faith? It seems to me like an accusation of introducing a straw man is an uncharitable way of saying, "I think what you have said is not relevant."

    Just a thought.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I have said before that I think the man of straw should not be out of bounds at SN because, if we assume good faith, no one presents a view of the other side he deliberately thinks is wrong. We don't know it's wrong till someone corrects us.

      • David Nickol

        I am not sure I understand you. Are you saying you can't debate without accusing those who disagree with you of bad faith? It seems to me that an argument is an argument. You respond to it in the same way whether or not it is made in good faith or in bad faith. Wikipedia says:

        The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern of argument:

        Person 1 asserts proposition X.

        Person 2 argues against a false but superficially similar proposition Y, as if that were an argument against Person 1's position.

        This reasoning is a fallacy of relevance: it fails to address the proposition in question by misrepresenting the opposing position.

        It seems to me that the response of Person 1 is, "But you are arguing against Proposition Y, which was not what I asserted. I asserted Proposition X. Here is how Proposition X and Proposition Y differ." It is not at all necessary to say, "Proposition Y is a straw man!"

        • Kevin Aldrich

          I mean most "straw man" arguments arise from the fact that one party really doesn't understand the other person's argument. So I think we agree.

          • Michael Murray

            Also I think the size of the comment box. It's sometimes difficult to put in all the provisos and hedges necessary to protect a comment from a less than charitable reading.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_charity

          • David Nickol

            So I think we agree.

            Yes, we agree. Strictly speaking, labeling something a straw-man argument amounts to an accusation that it was deliberately concocted to mislead. It may be intended as shorthand for "The argument you claim I made and that you are responding to is actually not the argument I made." But it actually goes farther than that. It's somewhat like the difference between, "You're incorrect," and, "You're lying!"

      • Chee Chak

        For some reason the word condescending in regards to your replies and comments flashes into my mind.
        Condescending: definition: showing that you believe you are more intelligent or better than other people. Sorry if I have offended you.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          No offense taken. I messed up my comment above. I am trying to say that at SN, nobody should be accused of making a straw man argument, because that assumes the person making it understands the other side but deliberately misrepresents it so he can demolish it.

          Most of the time I think we misrepresent the other side because we don't understand the other side. Like when theists assume things about atheists beyond a disbelief in God.

    • Chee Chak

      Hi David.

      On all facets of this topic one needs to grow thick skin;-)

      • David Nickol

        I guess I'm just a lonely little petunia in an onion patch.

        • Chee Chak

          I see you have not lost your sense or humor....another necessity here;-)

          • Michael Murray

            I sometimes think a sense of humour is the atheists replacement for faith. There is no justification for it but you can't live without it.

    • I think you would need evidence of intent to get you to bad faith. I have through my own ignorance argued against Catholic straw men in the past.

  • Tim Dacey

    Steven,

    I might consider myself somewhat critical of "Classical Theism." Classical theist views may find their origins in St. Augustine, Aquinas, and Anslem, as well as some non-Christian theists like Averroes and Maimonides. These individuals all have in common an argumentative/discursive knowledge of God; that is to say, they (generally speaking) all think knowledge of God is acquired via knowledge by description. But this knowledge of God is not robust in the sense that is does not epistemically justify one in believing in a personal, loving God. If you think it does, I'd invite you to demonstrate that argument. If this is the case, then any argument for the existence of God which does not conclude with a personal and loving God is unworthy of a *Christian* argument for the existence of God. Therefore, it might be the case that Classical Theism is not good enough for Christian Theism.

    In Orthodox Christian Theism a distinction is made between 'nous' and 'dianoia', where the latter deals with the sort of reasoning mentioned above. However, 'nous' is a special faculty of the mind which is necessary to acquire knowledge of God. This knowledge is one of acquaintance, not description. That is, this knowledge of God is acquired directly (not necessarily sensory though) through prayer and grace (see Isaac of Syria Homilies which I can email to you if you'd like). If this distinction is understood properly, then there is no problem with arguments like the ones found in Classical Theism because they are understood in an appropriate context. But as I mentioned before, why bother arguing of the existence of God (from a Christian perspective), if it doesn't get you to a Christian conception of God?

    In other words, why bother arguing for the existence of God, if it doesn't get you to a God *worthy* of worship?

    • Steven Dillon

      Good questions Tim. I can only answer from my non-Christian perspective.

      Classical theism has very much been attached to and developed by those within monotheistic religious traditions. So, I can appreciate the tension felt by classical theists working within such traditions of bridging classical natural theology with their respective revealed theologies.

      However, I'm of the mind that classical theism is best left in the tradition of its intellectual founders, who were Pagans like Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. As a Pagan I'm not one who identifies the Abrahamic deity with God.

      This isn't to say that I think the Abrahamic deity doesn't exist. On the contrary, I believe he does, along with many other deities encountered by humans throughout history such as those traditionally categorized as Indo-European.

      Now, is God as classical theists conceive of him personal? I think more so than non-classical theists may realize! Obviously, classical theists claim to deduce certain personal attributes of God like intellect, will, and love. But, it's not that God 'has' these powers...it's that God is these powers! He could not be more personal than being intellect, will, and love itself.

      As goodness itself, God is intrinsically worthy of our love and worship. But, there are also other reasons to worship God. On classical theism, we could not exist for an instant unless God sustained us in being. So, we owe God everything. And whatever God does for us is purely for our sakes. On classical theism, it is good and right to worship God.

      • Tim Dacey

        Thank you for the reply Steven.

        Some thoughts.

        It is no so much that I think natural theology fails to give us rational rational Theistic beliefs, rather I think it fails to give us any 'robust' Theistic beliefs about God's perfectly loving and authoritative nature (see The Elusive God by Paul Moser which has been very influential for me personally, for further description). Furthermore, Western Catholic (cf: Eastern Catholic) and Protestant Theology has kind of insisted on this abstract reasoning about God to the point where it seems that knowledge of God *can only be* acquired via discursive, argumentative reasoning.

        Now, in the East Christian Churches (e.g., Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox) there is a distinction between 'nous' and 'dianoia' where the latter is similar to a Western conception of 'intellect'.** 'Nous' is a separate faculty of the mind that is necessary for knowledge of God; it isn't necessarily a sensory faculty, but it certainly is not a faculty we utilize for abstract reasoning (that faculty is 'dianoia'). So my point in explaining all this is that if this distinction is understood, then the kind of arguments found in natural theology can be understood in the appropriate context, i.e., it is specialized theoretical exercises for certain individuals, and not for individuals like my Grandmother. And furthermore, it does not supercede the kind of direct acquisitional knowledge we have of God.

        To be fair, I know there are Wester Catholics and Protestants who definitely seem to be aware of the points highlighted above, and I don't think this is one of the major issues keeping the Churches in schism, but I do readily recognize the difference in emphasis that each Christian tradition teaches.

        I'd highly recommend a book called "Aristotle: East and West" by David Bradshaw to get a far better description of what I am trying to lay out. I think the book will make you reconsider your statement that Aristotle, Plato, and Plotinus are the founders of Classical Theism :) and a better understanding of the 'essence-energies distinction' vs. God as Actus purus that you seem to sympathize with.

        **the Eastern notion of Theosis is the best resource for a good understanding of 'Nous'

  • I don't think the god Catholics believe in should need such erudite distinctions to demonstrate its existence.

    Christians should be able to define what they mean by God and explain why they believe without using phrases like "every composite is posterior to its components".

    • There are many ways to arrive at God. Metaphysics is just one of them. You can look at the world religions. You can examine look for God in human history. What do the holiest people have in common? You can look at love as the highest good and ask where do we find the most profound teaching on love. There are a lot of ways to approach the question. They all arrive at Catholicism. Some people just prefer phrases like "every composite is posterior to its components."

  • Hey Steven,

    Thanks again for a great article. It sounds like you are getting some interesting criticism. I think I asked this before, but can't remember the answer. What do you think of pantheism as a sort of interpretation of classical theism's "being itself"? It would avoid @staircaseghost:disqus's criticism, because God would be "all x", or the universal set (which my understanding is you can't formally talk about anyway).

    • Steven Dillon

      Thanks Paul, Pantheism has an interesting relation here. Often times classical theists say that God is being itself, which sounds pretty pantheistic. But, they distinguish between the being common to created things (what they call ens commune), and God's. The ens commune is supposed to be created out of nothing, and on that basis to fundamentally differ from God's.

      If it could be shown that the ens commune was not created out of nothing, then it would seem that God would be pantheistically present in all of being, just as mean mollecular motion is present in all of heat.

      • But, they distinguish between the being common to created things (what they call ens commune), and God's.

        This part doesn't make sense to me. If God is being, then any instance of being would be an instance of God, or so it would seem. So if I have being then I "have God", because God is being. If some being isn't God, then it would seem that God has being just like we have being, it's just that he has a different being than we do.

        Also, this sort of language seems painfully clunky.

  • Hans-Georg Lundahl

    Atheism is actually nearly consistent about the Five Ways - including the Third way which you most outlined.

    Matter and Energy (or Energy sometimes in form of Matter) is their answer to ways 1 to 3.

    Most evolved is their answer to "highest value".

    Chance plus elimination of any unfit solution by its failure is their answer to wisdom of the Creator.

    Which means one has two fronts to work on. One is reading St Thomas. Was atheism as understood by these modern really denied in I Q 2 A 3? Or is the fact that God is simple and therefore a person perhaps a subsequent part of the argument (read on past Q 2)?

    The other front is seeing what part of the sciences have been used in making matter and energy and failure of whatever is unfit seem a plausible explanation. And refuting it. Evolution, Big Bang Cosmology, Heliocentric cosmology even without Big Bang, denial of Genesis stoary as "myth", Old Earth Geology ... you name it.