Richard Dawkins, the Neo-Thomist

Of course, the title of this post is kind of a joke. A Thomist is a follower of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose arguments for God Dawkins dismisses as “vacuous” in a couple of pages in The God Delusion (pp. 77-79). This dismissal is—as I’ve pointed out in Is God a Delusion? (pp. 101-105) and elsewhere—based on a mischaracterization of the arguments. He basically attacks straw men. This is not to say that Aquinas’s actual arguments succeed in their aims, but it does say something about the care (or lack thereof) which Dawkins brings to bear on the philosophical arguments for God’s existence.

But in addition to pointing out Dawkins’ exegetical shortcomings with respect to Aquinas in Is God a Delusion?, I also note something else in passing. Speficially, I point out that Dawkins’ mischaracterization of the logical structure of the first two of Aquinas’s Five Ways is particularly egregious because his own argument against theism has the very same logical structure. Here’s how I put it there:

Just as Aquinas did, Dawkins notes that a certain kind of explanation leads to an infinite regress. He insists that an infinite regress explains nothing. And so he concludes that there needs to exist a regress-ending explanation of a different kind (p. 116).

It occurs to me that it might be useful—both for general readers of this blog and for students in my class who are examining Dawkins’ atheological argument—to lay out the parallel between Dawkins’ and Aquinas’s arguments more explicitly. Let’s begin with Dawkins’ argument against the idea that the universe is ultimately explained by an intelligent designer. Here is at least one way to formalize it:

D1. There are instances of “organized complexity” (Dawkins’ term for a complex teleological system, that is, a system comprised of parts whose parts work together to achieve a common end or to make possible a certain kind of coherent activity)

D2. Every instance of organized complexity must be explained either by (a) an intelligent designer or (b) a “self-bootstrapping crane,” that is, an uncomplicated mechanism such as Darwiniain natural selection that builds organized complexity gradually. (Dawkins endorses this because he thinks organized complexity is far too improbable to be explained by chance).

D3. Any intelligence capable of designing a given instance of organized complexity must exhibit at least as much organized complexity as what it designs.

D4. Hence, nothing in category (a) can terminate a regress of explanations—and hence be the ULTIMATE explanation—for organized complexity.

D5. An infinite regress of explanations, without an ultimate explanation, explains nothing.

D6. Hence, to explain organized complexity, we must posit something in category (b) to serve as the ultimate explanation.

Now compare this argument with Aquinas’s “First Way”—the way from motion. Keep in mind that for Aquinas, “motion” is a technical term that means roughly the same as what we mean by “change”—except that the focus seems to be on what might be called “positive changes,” that is, changes in which something comes to acquire a property it had previously lacked, as opposed to losing a property it had previously possessed. While the meaningfulness of this distinction can be challenged under some assumptions about the nature of properties, it at least has some intuitive plausibility (changing from being a non-conscious thing to a conscious one seems to involve coming to possess something, whereas changing from being conscious to non-conscious seems to involve losing something). In any event, with this understanding of “motion” in mind, we can formalize Aquinas’s First Way as follows:

A1. There are things that move from being potentially something (say S) to being actually S (from “potency” to “act” with respect to S).

A2. Everything that moves from potency to act with respect to S must have its movement explained either by (a) something else that is itself moved from potency to act with respect to S or (b) something that always actually possessed S (an eternal S-possessor).

A3. Nothing in category (a) can terminate a regress of explanations—and hence be the ULTIMATE explanation—of movement from potency to act.

A4. An infinite regress of explanations, without an ultimate explanation, explains nothing

A5. Hence, to explain motion, we must posit something in category (b) to serve as the ultimate explanation.

Of course, the two arguments are quite different in terms of the substantive premises they adopt. And Dawkins’ argument requires an additional premise (D3) that, structurally, isn’t required for Aquinas’s argument. But other than the need to insert this additional premise D3 (which, by the way, is probably the primary target of critical responses to Dawkins’ argument), the two arguments share the same logical structure.

And this makes it all the more perplexing that Dawkins would fail to accurately represent Aquinas’s arguments. Because at least when he sets himself to the task of constructing his own positive argument for his own conclusion (as opposed to attacking the arguments of others), Dawkins thinks, more than a little bit, like Aquinas.

And that, by the way, is a compliment. (For other, lengthier compliments of Dawkins, see my 2009 post, “The Misguided Desire to Stifle Dawkins,” which I wrote when members of the Oklahoma Legislature made a stink about the University of Oklahoma’s decision to invite Dawkins to speak on campus as part of its celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species).

Explore Eric’s blog to find out more about The Piety That Lies Between.

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