I Am Who Am: God does not exist…(1)


Yet I Still Want to be a Catholic post 9.  I Am Who Am.   God does not exist…(1)


…or certainly not in the sense in which the term is usually taken.  The supposedly classical arguments for the existence of God are Aquinas’s Five Ways. They are to be found in the third article of Quaestio 2 in Pars Prima of his Summa Theologiae.

Aquinas:  Ways of thinking about God

The arguments he presents are in essence:

  • Everything is caused by something else.  But this chain of causes cannot go back for ever.  Therefore, there must a first cause.   “Therefore, it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God”.
  • In a narrower sense, there is a chain of efficient causes. By this he means that everything is made active mechanically by something else, as a billiard ball is driven towards the pocket by the cue.  A was caused by B and B by C and so on.  But you can’t go back for ever in this sense either.  “Therefore, it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause to which everyone gives the name of God”.
  • The third argument is one from the corruptibility of everything in this world. Even mountains will eventually pass away.  But if it is possible for everything not to exist there must have been a time when nothing existed.  But nothing can come from nothing.  Therefore, somethings would never have begun to exist unless there was something that started them to exist that was itself incorruptible. ‘This all men speak of as God”
  • In the fourth argument Aquinas notes we find gradations in everything. Some things are hotter and some less hot, some more beautiful and some less.  But we would have no standard against which to measure things unless there a maximum in every category, as the hottest thing is fire. Therefore, there must be to all beings a supreme maximum against which their goodness and every other virtue they have is measured “and this we call God”
  • Fifthly, we see things acting purposefully that are not themselves capable of purpose, for purpose belongs only to beings with conscious intelligence. Therefore, their purposes must be supplied to them by a being that is itself purposefully intelligent, as an arrow is guided to its target by an archer.  Therefore, some intelligent being must exist by whom all unintelligent natural beings must be guided to their end; “and this being we call God”.

Whatever happened it wasn’t this

Few accept these arguments today, and usually their objections follow one or more of the following forms”

(1) Kant.  Kant maintains that even if you do accept that a chain of causes cannot go back for ever, this does not prove that there is a God.  It might as well have been something itself in the universe.  It might as well have been the Big Bang, says Dawkins.  And we know the Big Bang happened.

(2) Hume.  Hume pointed out that when you see a billiard ball moving to the pocket when it has been struck by a cue, you assume that the cue has caused the ball to move.  But this is an assumption. You did not actually see the causality, so it is not logically certain that there is causality.  It could be something else.  In the light of Heisenbergian uncertainty objections like this look even more cogent.

(3)  Bertrand Russell.  If God is supposed to have caused the universe, what caused God?

(4) Dawkins.  If God is ominiscient why didn’t he foresee Auschwitz and if he is omnipotent why didn’t he stop it?  If there is a good God why are there such terrible things in the world?


If Aquinas had been trying to prove the existence of God these arguments would be cogent, but he wasn’t trying to prove the existence of God.  To understand what Aquinas was trying to do in the Five Ways we need to appreciate the background against which they were written.  He calls his magnum opus a Summa Theologiae and this is exactly what it is.  He is not interested in philosophical ideas for their own sake.  He makes it clear in the Prologue that he is writing for theological students in the University of Paris and anybody else who might be interested.  He assumes that his readers already believe in God and he certainly is not intent on proving it.  We assume today that Aquinas’s is the very voice of outdated orthodoxy, but in his day he was seen as a tearaway radical who was upsetting orthodox believers to an extreme degree.  This was because Aristotle’s works had recently become available in Western Europe, via their Muslim translators.  Not only was Aquinas applying the work of infidel pagans to Christian theology, he was also recasting it with the ideas of an atheist.  You can see why people were so upset.

Prior to Aquinas most theologians had been heavily influenced by the ideas of St Augustine.  Augustine had taken from Plato the concept that the real world is that of abstract ideas, or ideal forms as Plato called them.  Material things were merely botched copies of these ideal forms.  In his metaphor of the fire in the cave Plato explains that in this life we are like people who can only see the back wall of a cave.  On the wall, we see the flickering shadows cast by a fire of  real things outside our vision, but because we have only ever seen material things, the flickering shadows we habitually see, we take them for the reality. To this idea Augustine brought a specifically Christian and extremely pessimistic twist.  Because of the Fall, we live in a world of temptations and snares.  Material things are not only flickering shadows, they are intrinsically evil, especially sex and women through which and whom original sin is handed on.  Only a minority of true believers who have been baptised will be saved.  On this basis, Augustine approved of burning pagans and heretics alive, it is better to burn for a few hours in this life than to burn for ever in the next.  It was against this theology that Aquinas was reacting.

(to be continued)


Aquinas : Photo byThomas Brueckner courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.  From the Sistine Chapel









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