St. Thomas Aquinas Proofs of God


Aquinas produced a million words of text in his lifetime.  Of those, perhaps one thousand make up his compact proofs for the existence of God.  We examine these proofs and search for what motivated Aquinas in writing them. The process illuminates certain logical problems – which we assume are all well known.  And the work asks questions that might help some see the work in a slightly different light.   The original text can be found here


Aquinas Proofs of God

We have cast his language into propositions for the purpose of discussion. In doing so we have tried to interpret Aquinas' language and intent fairly.  His arguments are rather informal and are clearly allusions to classic arguments. He frequently failed to explain himself.   Instead of actually spelling out what he is thinking, he assumes the reader is already familiar with the form itself. We apologize to those who have found these same arguments other places - they are new to us.


Proof of God # 1  - Prime Mover

Proposition 1) There exist real things that move and change state with time.
Proposition 2) Real things are incapable of change without some external action upon them by some agent.
Proposition 3) The agent of one change might be one or more changes caused by yet another agent ( preceding it in time.)
Proposition 4) There exists a first change caused by an agent that was not itself a change.
Proposition 5)  The first change required an agent.  That agent, we understand, must be  God.

Aquinas, here, when he is talking about change refers to natural processes such as the cooling of hot objects.  But it seems probable that he has in mind also motions of celestial bodies.  Aristotle, many of whose works Aquinas had translated, believed that rest was the natural state of objects.  Thus, when one looked at nature one saw things moving unnaturally without the aid of known agents. 

Aquinas studied Aristotle in great depth and was happy to start with Aristotle’s viewpoint on change, motion and agency.  It was well understood in Aquinas time, from the study of astronomy, that things in the sky moved.  Furthermore it was clear that things change.  We live in a dynamic world. So, all this agency was a ‘clear and indisputable’ proof of some invisible agent of change.

Greek language uses a word for spirit that is quite like its word for wind.  This reflects a mental impression that both are invisible agents of the gods. Frazer in the Golden Bough explains how pervasive superstitions are that assume spirits as motive forces for things. So Aquinas' proof appealed to this inate idea. There is some reason to believe that the animal mind is hard-wired to attribute most motion to some animate agent. [Smith & Smith in Cognitive Neurosciences, Gazzaniga ed. ]    Certain kinds of motion, we posit, all animals perceive as being caused by animal agents. It is not a choice or a rational judgement, it is a physical adaption that can be observed in the common housefly. So when such motions occur without apparent cause, the inevitable natural impression is that the motions are caused by spirits. Aquinas first proof appeals to that natural impression. In other words, it exploits a weakness in human perception.

Now, it turns out that Aristotle’s concept of motion was wrong: Newton proved it so.  It is not motion itself that requires action; but rather, it is changes in motion.  The motion of the heavenly bodies, even though it seems to us, requires intervention by some animate being, simply does not.  It is an artifact that involves inertia, initial motion, and equilibrium between gravitation and centripetal acceleration.  And, in fact, our understanding of physical and biological sciences now suffice to remove most of the mystery from the physical changes we observe in our environment. In other words, there is a wide ranging class of changing things that Aquinas was referring to. The language of the proof deals only with the necessity of an agent for the first change, but many people even today find it more convenient to attribute unexplained phenomena to the spirit world than to the natural one.

Things do change. Aquinas used examples that have more complicated physical explanations than do the (real and apparent) motions of planets and stars.    Furthermore, it is sometimes useful to imagine that one change causes another. 

Frequently, effects are related to causes. And virtually all effects that occur at the macroscopic level can be understood in terms of their causes. But, there is one physical phenomenon that appears not to have a cause that exists in time: radioactivity. Nuclear material spontaneously decomposes into other constituents which, in many cases, will again decompose. This process can be initiated by flying bits of subatomic matter, but there is reason to believe that sometimes it happens spontaneously. If God is the cause of all spontaneous effects, then God is the cause of radioactive decay. And God is then at the heart and soul all nuclear fission processes including the bombs that levelled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for it was spontaneous radioactive decay that started the chain reactions that led to the devastation. If one assigns to God all unexplained, spontaneous physical phenomena , one would have to imagine God chose to cause the triggering radioactive decay events. Or that he was unable to choose otherwise. One view creates a God who really doesn't view the suffering of innocent people as being very much of a problem, the other a God who is slave to his own creation. In any case, radioactivity is a counterexample that disproves the second proposition.

Radioactive decay notwithstanding, it is reasonable to trace time backwards.  Physicists have done the same thing.  And their work suggests, in fact, that time does appear to be bounded at its beginnings.  The universe has a first moment in time. This causes us to ask, “What caused that?”

It seems to us like a reasonable question, but its reasonableness is predicated on a correct understanding of time.  We live in a universe bounded by time and space.  But if the universe did have a beginning, scientists tell us, neither space nor time were meaningful ideas before that first instant.  Not only did something not exist.  But so, too, did nothing. There was no time. There was no space. There was no cause. There was no effect.  There was no there. There was no when.  No artifact of reality existed.

In other words, the question “what caused that?”  is philosophically vacuous; it is meaningless.  Time is an artifact of matter, its motions, and its changes in physical state.  There simply is no before.  This, in and of itself, is enough to deny creation of cause, because cause presupposes temporal arrangement of things.  In the absence of time, cause is not relevant.  This does not cause us to stop wondering. Nor should it.  But it does mean that when we wonder we have to think differently.

We will discuss a more substantial problem with this proof when we discuss proof #2. 


Proof of God # 2 – Cause and Effect

Before we undertake to analyze proof two we wish to reiterate how its form is almost identical to that of proof one. In a rather general way they are the same proof.  Their difference lies in a not terribly meaningful distinction between the notion of change and that of cause and effect.  We need to point out that Aquinas, in both proofs is appealing to our scientific natures.  He is arguing on the basis of things we see, touch, and hear.  He is bringing our senses into the equation.  The instances in his arguments are real things.  He is not arguing on the basis of some theological construct.  So if we are to meet him at the correct starting point we need to define real.

We define real as : 1) being composed of matter or of being capable of interacting with matter, as in the case of energy, or 2) being a natural phenomenon intrinsic to matter or to properties expressed by  instances or collections of matter,  3) events in time defined by changes in energy state of matter.
There might be holes in the formal expression of this idea, but the sense must be that matter is anything that can, at least in theory, be detected by some real or hypothetical instrument – not the least of which is man  - and that anything that is real is either matter itself or it relates in a very specific, quantifiable, and reproducibly detectable way to matter.

Thus a rock is real. Gravitational attraction is real.  So, too is the adhesive power of sticky tape.  The event of  an apple falling from a tree is a real event.  I might visualize the apple falling from the tree in my mind.  The phenomenon of visualization might be a real event, but the apple in question is not real.

With such an idea in mind we take on Aquinas most persuasive proof.

Proposition 1)  All real objects and events have a real cause,
Proposition 2)  Many causes are, in turn, effects of some preceding causes.
Proposition 3)  At least one effect, namely the first one,  has a cause which is not an effect,
Proposition 4)  The first effect is creation
Proposition 5)  God is the cause of creation.

Taken at face value, this is the most convincing of Aquinas’ proofs.  It corresponds most closely with our natural reasoning about time and the beginning of things.  Some set of conditions {a} causes event A.  But each of the conditions in {a} may in turn be caused by some other set of conditions {b1}, {b2}, .. {bn}.  We do not have to have a simple-minded or an uninformed notion of cause and effect for this principle to work.  We can be quite sophisticated in thinking about cause and effect.  All sorts of notions of causality are welcome.  All that is required is a string of natural events extending backward in time in a finite manner.

Nor can we refute the argument by going through the propositions one at a time.  We sail through the first two propositions.  We get to the third.  Now, we might imagine that the world ever was, ever is, and evermore shall be.  And if this were the case then proposition three is wrong.  Time might be circular, like the orbit of the earth around the sun, as some of the Greeks believed.  Aquinas had no reason to believe that there actually was a beginning of time, except for the account of creation.  And it is not a logically sound practice to use the authority of an entity in a proof for his existence. In other words, when it comes to proposition 3, Aquinas could only base the idea of a beginning on the account of creation; but the account of creation gains its authority from the God whose existence we are trying to prove! There is no sound logical ground to stand on.  The line of  argument seems reasonable, but it is not strictly true. It is strictly tautological.

Science, here, comes to Aquinas’ rescue and tells us that time has a beginning point. And we are willing to accept that point of view - at least provisionally.  But this poses an altogether new problem.  God’s existence depends on science being correct.  This was a proof that was designed to stand alone without science’s help. 

If we accept proposition 3, proposition 4 follows naturally.  Really, it is just a definition of creation and it exists for the convenience of the last proposition. So, we get to God.  And  we are done.

But not so fast.  There are artifacts in quantum physics that suggest that cause and effect may not be universally and strictly true in certain quantum phenomena.  Cause and effect may be some artifact of the macroscopic world.  In fact, cause and effect, as powerful as they are, might simply be a kind of mental habit that has no basis in reality.  It was a philosophical argument that preceded the quantum physics evidence that suggests it. 

In the quantum world our very notion about the quality of causality is challenged.  It is generally true that effects do not precede causes; but there are some cases in which we are given reason to imagine causes can be simultaneous with their effects.  This does not devastate Aquinas’ argument, but if the temporal relationship between cause and effect that Aquinas assumes is not strictly true, one may never be able to follow a chain of events backwards through time all the way to the beginning.  Perhaps there is no beginning in the sense Aquinas is thinking of. Perhaps even science’s assumption about a beginning of time is wrong if it is derived from an erroneous assumption about cause and effect.

Still worse is the idea that our notions of cause and effect might be artifacts of some special local conditions, perhaps they are even nothing but mental habits. Cause and effect may correspond to no natural phenomena. This would make nonsense of the proof. The notion of cause and effect lies at the foundation of most scientific thinking, and it is too early to throw the idea overboard without having a better notion to replace it. Nor is it necessary to do so; the proof has one flaw that makes the forgoing discussion moot.

Suppose we go back and see how the God invented by this argument relates to the argument’s propositions.  Proposition one says that all real objects and events have a cause. So let us look at creation.  God is the cause of creation.  The effect is quite real.  Proposition one requires that the creation, if it is real, must have a real cause.  That means that the cause of creation must be real.  This, after all is the whole purpose we set out on this journey was to prove that God is real. This would prove that God is real. So far, so good.

But if God is real, then according to Proposition one, he must have a cause.  What is the cause of God? If God must have a cause, then the purpose of the argument fails. Perhaps real things admit of imaginary causes?   This point of view dodges the problem; but it destroys the argument. It admits as a cause of creation any thing we might imagine. We might imagine that creation was caused by a “harmonic convergence” or by a simulation game being run in a computer operating in a higher dimension, or by nothing at all.  If real events and objects have imaginary causes, then none of the rest of the proof is relevant. There need be no first cause:  imaginary cause is the same as no cause at all. Worse than that, if we admit imaginary causes then the universe is not necessarily ordered by universal laws.  Things happen randomly.  Even if this were true, it throws man far back in time to a very dangerously superstitious age.  There is no question that Aquinas was interested in doing the opposite. There is no question that if we were to believe in imaginary causes we would descend into a chaotic and disordered world, as well.

Suppose we try to understand this proof in light of the mathematical technique of proof by contraposition.  The technique sets out to prove a proposition A by posing not A. It then procedes to demonstrates that not A produces an inescapable rats-nest of contradictions, forcing one to accept its opposite, A. Aquinas' second proof starts out by asserting that “God exists,” but it ends up in such a way as to cause a contradiction. This is exactly how one would proceed if one were to set out to create a solid mathematical proof that God does not exist.  One would posit that God exists, then one would prove that this gives rise to a contradiction.  And the only possible logical interpretation is that God does not exist. 

Another way to word proposition one is :  All things that exist have a cause.  This is a more natural way of saying the same thing. Now if God exists, he must have a cause.  What is the cause of God?  Aquinas assumes that God has no cause, else the proof would lead nowhere.  It would be a meaningless proof.   The only way to make sense of this is if God does not exist.  But in that case, too, the proof is meaningless. Well, when one has a mathematical formula that states an equality and when -no matter what value one assigns to the variables - one always comes up with an inequality, the equation must be false. An example would be x=x+1. In other words, this proof - in mathematical language - is a proof that God does not exist. It proves that God is not real in the sense that we described real. He cannot have a fundamentally material existence. And if he is capable of interacting with matter or with things that interact with matter, he may have done so only 'before' matter existed.

If I understand the issue correctly, this turns out to be an ancient argument and the Church is happy enough with the consequences of it. It places God in a kind of parallel, immaterial universe that exists out of space and time.   God takes on a kind of being-non-being duality that is resolved on the basis of which sense proves more convenient for the theological point at hand.  This makes all theological propositions that rely on either property more convenient to prove.

It also adds a special kind of mystique to God.  Not only is he three persons; but he is three persons who are very different in almost every quality, none of them is a person but one of them was one once or twice. This triune not-person person has the quality of being real but immaterial, omniscient and omnipotent in a way that has no effect on freedom of choice, ever-present yet non-existent. It certainly is a description capable of drawing in those who cannot resist a good mystery. It allows God to be everything and nothing, ubiquitous and undetectable, loving and all-powerful, but capable of starving most of his is most beloved creatures to death.


Proof of God # 3  Necessary Existence

Contingency is not a concept we use a lot.  But we find that in the study of social behavior pretty much everything is contingent.   In the case of behavior, contingency lies in another’s behavior.  Thus, we behave in ways that are predicated by our expectations of others’ behaviors.  It is expectation that allows one to act in the absence of knowledge about another’s actions.  The subject of contingency can be treated in a pure, mathematical, abstract way; or it can be translated into more tangible ideas. We can think of contingency as an abstraction or a simple variation on the notion of cause and effect.  Or we can think of it in a more abstract, mathematical way.  A requires B.  B requires C.  In the case of cause and effect, we think in terms of real matter.  But contingency is a property of an ideal form.   It can be used to reason about  a pure abstraction that does not require a corresponding material universe.

The form of this argument, again, mimics the form of the first two and the line of reasoning is quite analogous.  In fact, when one interprets the proof along the lines of natural sensibilities it is almost impossible to distinguish it from the first two.

Proposition 1)  Some things are contingent.
Proposition 2)  Not all things that are contingent can arise from other things that are contingent. ( Escher’s Drawing Hands are philosophically unimaginable.)
Proposition 3)  Some things must, therefore, not be contingent.
Proposition 4)  God  is what is not contingent.

Let us  first distinguish the universe of discourse.  As we explained, Aquinas might be talking about real things. But if he were, then this proof would be indistinguishable from the previous one or two. The way it would work would be the same, and the ways it would fail would be the same.   So let us suppose he might be talking about imaginary processes.  If he is talking about imaginary ones, then, in the field of Euclidean geometry, for instance, we start with five propositions that we take as true, and we create the rest of the geometric world out of those five propositions.    Those five first propositions are not contingent. The rest of the world created by those propositions is.  

Similarly, if we are constructing theology, then we need to start with a small set of propositions about the nature of God, and we can then reason about everything religious on the basis of these propositions.    In such a hypothetical universe of discourse, God exists in pretty much the same way a circle or a triangle does.  He is a hypothetical object of the imagination and has no real action in the real world.  Geometry informs us how to interpret lines on paper.  It does not draw them for us.  God plays the same role.

Let us suppose that we have a set of theological propositions that we would like to demonstrate to be true.  Perhaps we assume they are true because we see a profound societal need that attaches to believing they are true.  Assume further that the basis for these propositions is not known.  We believe that the propositions - however good they might be  - need some philosophical basis, some reason for existence, in the same way that a theorem of geometry does.  In order to support them we develop a body of reasoning that traces their roots back to a widely held superstition about the existence of a mystical spiritual existence.  Just as the five propositions about geometry provide the logical basis from which to derive that theory of math, some propositions about God provide the logical basis from which to derive all of religious theory.  

So, if this third proof was meant to live in the world of logic, its real meaning is that if theology is to make any sense as a logically cohesive field it must start with a foundation of propositions about the nature of God. And that those propositions ought to support useful notions in the rest of theology. This is a proof that defines the need for such an organization of ideas.  In other words, a proper conception of God is the needful basis of theology, religious thought, and religious practice. 

This seems like an impossible idea to refute.  In fact, it seems like a pretty good idea to endorse, because it gets us to create a God whose properties are contingent upon the things we value in religion.  We find that a refreshing, if subversive idea. Not since Moses wrote the ten commandments has the Judeo - Christian theoarchy quite so seriously imagined aligning God's properties with the long tern needs of a society. God might be improved materially were he to receive such careful attention. Having not studied theology and its philosophical structure, we wonder how close medieval monks such as Aquinas came to realizing this idea.

In other parts of his works Aquinas uses mathematical ideas as metaphors for God, things -infinity, for instance.  We know that there was a tradition dating back to the Greeks of comparing God to various mathematical constructions.  This, we believe, is because the symbol-processing hardware that we tend to use to interpret language and math and to make meaning of things tends to be the same as that we use to contemplate God.  In other words, it is an artifact of brain physiology and psychology that meaning-making and mystery, symbolic processing, language, science, and religion are so inextricably linked together.

Perhaps we err if we imagine Aquinas only wished us think of God as a hypothetical object of the imagination. Aquinas’ contingent things might not be propositions or theorems; they might be stones and bread, air and water, flesh and blood.  Aquinas, perhaps, sees the long history of physical processes that give rise to these things and, again, he traces cause and effect backwards through time. This view of the proof, causes it to be essentially the same proof as the first two and it is subject to the same restrictions and problems.


Proof of God # 4 Extremum

This approach seems to borrow heavily from Aristotle.

Proposition 1)  Real  and ideal objects we may order according to how much they possess of some quality.
Proposition 2)  Different  real objects and ideas  may possess a common quality by degrees,
Proposition 3)  For any quality there is some theoretical maximum.
Proposition 4)  God is that maximum.

Aquinas quotes Aristotle in this proof “when many things possess a quality in common, the one most fully possessing it is the cause of the others. Fire, for instance is the hottest of all things and is the cause of heat in all others.”  If one starts with this view of things, Aquinas argument makes sense.    But we know today that Aristotle’s view of science is not the most useful or accurate one.  And that there is simply no way to interpret the qualities of real things in the same sense as Aquinas is doing here.  In fact, we know that some fires are hotter than others. Natural gas burns with a relatively cool flame. Charcoal burns much hotter. The fire of nuclear fusion in the sun is hotter yet.

Consider blue objects.  Is there a bluest object?  Does it possess a maximum measure of blueness?  Can it rightly be said to cause blueness in other objects?  Or is blueness itself the maximum of the category and the cause of the rest? Does the sun create the blueness in things?  Is it blue?  Is it the bluest object? We know that blueness is an artifact of the construction of the eye.  A set of ‘cones’ in the eye is sensitive to blue light.  When an object reflects light of a particular wavelength to the eye it stimulates this sort of cone, but not the cones sensitive to red and green.  So, wherein lies the blueness?  And what is its cause? Light? Blue-sensitive pigment in cones? Blueness?

Consider the quality of depth with reference to a hole. This is certainly a quality of holes.   Some holes are deeper than others. How deep is the deepest hole?  Does it depend on which celestial body one is digging? Or in which direction? Is the deepest hole the cause of the others? Or is the shovel a better explanation for the cause of a hole? Or a drill bit?  Or the hope of striking oil?  Does a very deep hole on earth cause one less deep on the moon?  If God is the ultimate cause of everything, is God the deepest hole?  Does God cause other holes?  Or does he cause their deepness without causing the holes themselves?  It’s a deep subject.

If there is any proof that Aquinas had a fertile sense of humor, this must certainly be it.  There is hardly any absurd trick that this argument fails to enable.   For instance, we know that evil is a quality that religion or religious operatives sometimes ascribe to people, or to things.  Proposition two proposes that some things or people contain more of it than others.  Proposition 4 says God contains the most.  So God is the cause of evil and he is the most evil of all things.  This strikes us as being a curious means of proving his existence .If Aquinas’ argument is correct, then all evil would be caused by God.  Such a doctrine could set a non-believer’s or a skeptic’s head spinning.

Consider any two Platonic opposites and ascribe each to God.    He represents the extreme measure of both simultaneously! The absurdity is sublime. But there is an aditional, delicious irony. Aristotle defines ‘the good’in terms of a balance between things. He appeals to the idea of the Golden Mean. Courage is described as a balance between foolhardiness and cowardice, for instance.  How can Aquinas - who has translated Aristotle and is intimately aquainted with his idea of virtue, good, justice, as a kind of moderation - ascribe to God an infinite amount of immoderation in all qualities? It is a remarkble idea. It is almost as if some mischevious gnome had snuck into the room and scribbled this proof in the margins. Really, it is the epitome of being unthinkable.

Aquinas in the proof compared God to heat and fire.  On a cold day, a fire is what we need.  But on a hot one we wish for shade.  An extreme God does not help us much in a real, physical world.  In approaching him, one would ever grow too hot or too cold. Or too blue or too deep. Aquinas, after translating Aristotle would have been in a much better place than this commentator to give an exact accounting of this idea.

One might argue that Aquinas was only talking about good qualities, not bad qualities.  What about money? Is that a good quality? Is God very rich?  How rich is he?  Probably, he is just a little richer than I am – just enough to help me out when I need money, but not so rich that when his butler answers the door I will be turned away empty-handed without an interview. Aquinas third proof either strips God of all money and all hopes of getting any, or makes him money itself. Of course, in a metaphorical way God can be thought of as providing for all. But in a real world where half of the people are starving, what we mean by "all" is "all he has chosen to provide for." So in terms of money or richness, it is hard to determine whether God is richness itself - the source of all bounty, or just a penniless wretch. This cannot be one of the qualities Aquinas has in mind.

We can continue like this, casting out and refining which qualities, exactly, God may correctly be said to possess a in maximal quantities.  And most of them will be things that actually cannot be quantified: Grace, Goodness, Judgment, Infiniteness, Muchness, and so on. 

So we might conclude that it is only of qualities that cannot be quantified that God possesses the maximal or extreme amount. The redeems the logical structure of the proof but it renders it meaningless. If the qualities cannot be quantified, then how can any person, thing, or logical entity contain more of it than some other entity?  At the risk of visiting old ground, if we can admit any positive quality on the grounds that it cannot be strictly quantified, then we must do the same for negative ones. 

It is true that we judge Aquinas thinking by the light of enlightenment thinking.  We judge it in terms of real people considering real objects, ascribing measurable qualities to those objects, and then measuring those qualities with instruments designed for the purpose.  “This weighs 20% more than that”  or “A is three meters longer then B”  There is a sense in which such propositions were not possible in the exact culture in which Aquinas lived.  Medieval age was known for its implicit notion that the real and sensible world was not to be trusted so much as the one constructed from religious arguments. It may or may not have been a good doctrine for saving souls; but it certainly was not very good at helping people make the most of their natural world.

We can only imagine that Aquinas is talking about God in some hypothetical way that has no connection with reality. When existence is irrelevant, then so too must be the real qualities that accompany it.  The medieval world made the mistake of arguing that the real world was irrelevant. It is a necessary argument in a world bounded by shortages and famines. The enlightenment was a reaction to that.  It argued that the worlds that did not exist – at least the religious sort – were irrelevant.  Yet the enlightenment built on mathematics that drew on the same tools and traditions as philosophy.  It was a body of work that concerned only the hypothetical, the imaginary, the contingent.  Perhaps, we wonder, there might be middle ground.  Perhaps that middle ground is closer to where we want to be.


Proof of God #5  Intelligent Design.

Before we undertake to explicate this proof, we need to draw a distintion between a fact and a judgment. A fact is very closely bound to an observation and it corresponds very closely to what we commonly understand to be possible. A judgment, on the other hand, requires a very conscious weighing of facts. It requires an interpretation. It requires something of the perceiver that is over and above observing simple facts at hand. Quite a bit of judgment is required to draw a good boundary between facts and judgements, but sensible and honest people when confronted with simple facts that lie within the normal bounds of perception and everyday experience will recognize facts as facts and agree unanimously about them. Disagreement occurs when observations fall outside normal bounds of everyday experience or when methods of perception are tricked or exploited, or where judgment is required.

The notions of cause and effect, contingency, and change are fundamental notions that can be quite precisely defined. Thus, if one constructs arguments using them, one incurs little hazard of objection. If, however, one depends on propositions that require complicated judgments, one runs the risk of there being objections that go to the nature of the propositions themselves - not only what they say but how they say it. How does one establish the unconditional truth of a proposition that requires a reasonable amount of judgment? How does one establish the unconditional truth of a proposition about which no two people can completely agree? Such questions apply to Aquinas' fifth proof of God.

Proposition 1) Goal-oriented behavior pervades nature.
Proposition 2) Natural bodies fulfill a goal which we perceive as good.
Proposition 3) It is impossible for objects lacking a will to do good unless they are directed by some external intelligence.
Proposition 4)  God provides this intelligence.

Proposition 1 descends from an age of total ignorance about science.  It can be interpreted as being of the type “Water seeks its own level.”   Such a proposition is a useful way of describing a physical phenomenon so long as we understand that the water has no will. It does not seek anything; though it frequently finds things – holes in buckets, roofs, and raincoats, for instance.    But water has no goal.  It performs these tricks by virtue of its constitution – namely that it is made up of tiny vibrating particles loosely associated with each other, but not too tightly bound together.  Water has no will, no goal.  It goes where it can. If a reasonable person set out to assign a goal to water it might be, to be wet.  That is a goal that – at least in the case of liquid water - requires neither aspiration nor action.

In fact, even Aquinas makes use of the very idea that objects have no will, no aspirations, later in the proof (proposition 3).  If there is a goal to which nature or natural phenomena tend, it is not a goal of internal aspirations, but of external ones.  So Aquinas here is using ‘goal oriented behavior’ in the same sense as one might if one were looking at a movie of a chessboard done with time-lapse photography depicting a game with no chess players.  The pieces move as if goal oriented but we know it is not their own goals that motivate the apparent motion.

Our modern, scientific understanding of the physical world strips goal-oriented behavior from objects.  They simply behave as described by physical laws.  We may not completely understand bits of the most fundamental physical laws, but the descriptive power of physical laws describe our physical world well enough that we can pretty much make sense of what is happening in it.  And we can do so in a way that has no use for the notion of “goal-oriented” behavior in matter.

Finally, we note that ascribing goal-oriented behavior requires making a judgment. The proposition is not about a simple fact. One must be able to understand all natural phenomena quite well, understand all of natural history quite well, and be able to predict the future quite well. And one must be able to make a judgment about the goodness of the future.

The question of the future is relevant here, because if one confronted a person who believes proposition one with an instance in the presence that appears not to be completely exemplary in every way, the response must be " it's part of God's plan." So the ability to see things as being goal-oriented depends on believing them as being "part of God's plan," or it requires being able to see all of history, past, present and future and making a judgment. In other words, to clear the hurdle of proposition one, one must either assume God's existence, his omnipotence, and his benificence - in which case the proof is tautological. Or one must be God, in which case the proof is hardly relevant.

So proposition one requires judgement. And only those who have complete faith that God is creating an ever-better world will be inclined to accept it. The ones who do will likely be inclined to agree also with proposition two.  Such persons we define as optimists.  They are constitutionally capable of experiencing things in a favorable, pleasurable manner. And they are constitutionally handicapped when it comes to seeing unfavorable things or experiencing unpleasurable phenomena. They tend to deny all things negative because such things tend to be inconsistent with the way they experience the world.

There are some people who are inclined to disagree with proposition two.  They are called realists -cynics, being nothing but a pejorative term for realists. Such people are constitutionally handicapped in experiencing the world in a postitive way, but are quite capable of experiencing and identifying its deficiences.

Whether one agrees or disagrees, it is not hard to see that proposition two is a judgment.  It requires that one know two things :
1) what is good,  and
2)  exactly how it is that natural bodies relate in their everyday actions to this quality of goodness.  

We start by noticing that no two students or professors of philosophy have settled on a definition for good.  Aristotle’s notion appealed to balance, as we explained in the previous proof.  Any person who has studied optimization theory realizes that one way to optimize an objective that involves two competing functions is to approach a point where each contributes equally. So Aristotle’s approach is a sensible way to proceed once one has determined what one really wants: namely, what is good! Ultimately, Aristotle relates goodness to the experience of pleasure - not just sensual pleasure but intellectual and spiritual pleasure. It is the pleasure that comes from the exercise of the virtues. It is a kind of internal satisfaction that comes from living rightly and doing the best one can.

Aristotle's notion of good is an internal one. It has only the most tenuous connection with the physical world Aquinas is talking about. What we take to be goodness in nature always relates to fitness for some physical purpose and how that fitness strikes our fancy in some real or metaphorical way. Fertile land by a stream at the edge of a forest is an example of natural beauty and goodness. The sleek motions of a hunting lion might be an example of a more metaphorical beauty- one we admire and covet as our own.

Whether we might be able to judge for certain that a thing or an act might reasonably be represented by this speculative quality, good, is a subject not resolved.  Frequently, for instance, a thing judged to be bad in one light is judged good in another.  The black plague killed about a third of the population of Europe in the 14th century.  It would be perverse to argue that this was particularly good for the people who died. Nor is it easy to imagine that their close relatives believed it good either. But the survivors, a generation later, found that food production was much easier, and civilization flourished as a result.  So it was good for the survivors.  Was the Black Plague good, or bad? Was it bad while it was happening but good thereafter?

What about the discovery of America? For Europeans it seems to have been remarkably good. The number of benefits accruing to Europeans from the discovery are so many as to be almost uncountable, and each is so large as to be almost unquantifiable. The new food sources alone revolutionized life across the old world. But when judged from the point of view of the indigenous people it was a disaster. Whole tribes were wiped out by disease, loss of land, violence. Many descendents of indigenous people live in squalor, in a kind of hybrid life combining all the material poverty of their pre-Columbian existence with a kind of spritual poverty unique to western man. There still exist a few isolated tribes who look at western civilization, see it as unsustainable, shake their heads in sadness, and go about their primitive ways of life. They judge western civilization itself as being bad for its effects on the quality of life and for its unsustainability. So, is the discovery of America by Europeans good? Does it not depend to a significant degree on one's point of view - one's place in society, in geography, in history?

We do not know how much of this speculative quality of goodness an event would have to possess to be judged good: something less than the maximum amount, we must presume; but more than what?  A bad hair day? The black death? Mutually Assured Destruction? Total annhilation of the cosmos?   

Now that we have done such a thorough job defining good we turn to the matter of ascribing it to inanimate objects and natural events.  We have a few choices. 

  1. We can argue that so long as we completely fail to define a quality, we can attach the quality to anything we like.  It’s a fun argument but it turns Aquinas proof into nonsense. 
  2.  Or we can give up, which really is the most reasonable thing to do at this point. 
  3. Or we can say “well, it just seems to me that this is so.” 

At the end of the day, people who agree with proposition two agree with it.  And people who don’t don’t.  And it is all because of how God created us to perceive the world.  Some he created to perceive the world blind to its pains and insensate to its problems.  Some he created to perceive nothing but these same problems and be troubled by them.  A society absent the first kind of people lacks a kind of social cohesion, vitality and hopefulness.  A society lacking the second kind has a habit of committing a lot of serious societal mistakes without learning from them. And then going extinct. We hesitate to describe either outcome as good.

To the extent that one might be able to define good we might agree with proposition three.  We might look at a rock and judge it good.  Normally such a judgment would be a utilitarian one, not a moral one. 

If a large rock lies in the middle of a fertile field and it breaks my plow every time I go over it, perhaps I will be disinclined to recognize the goodness God intended me to see in this rock, especially if it is resistant to all my efforts to move it.   One might make similar arguments for other inconveniences such as parasites, crippling diseases, plagues, mudslides, crop failures, mass starvations, tornadoes and hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, floods, religious sects that permit family members to beat other family members on authoritarian grounds, or mass murderers.  All of these things might be part of God's plan. But it is bad logic to assume as much as a premise in a proof for God.

In other words, one has to judge the goodness on the basis of some objective quality that is untainted by religious faith or precepts. It is impossible to objectively see the natural world as being uniformly or even primarily good or right or beautiful. Existence through most of the inhabited world is severely limited by lack of resources. And in places where this is not true, one observes that civilization is consuming resources nature has spent three billion years developing to the current levels at such an alarming rate that hardly any resource upon which civilization depends has a supply reaching more than a century into the future. So, if such resources are good, then surely squandering them in a way that makes them and any assets they might have provided unavailable to future generations is not, by any reasonable judgment good. And the hand of God is not directing human progress so carefully as it did nature's progress. This cast's man's special and unique relationship with God in a rather bad light. Man squanders the legacy God has prepared for him and he does so by the very virtue of his own especially close relationship with God. This would be a most curious way of seeing God's purposeful work in the history of man.

Perhaps man can only become a good steward of God's creation after he has squandered most of the riches God provided. To believe this one has to look at history not in years or centuries, but in millennia. One has to see our millennium as being western man's 'terrible two's' and if we are very lucky, forty eight millennia from now we will be wiser and happier. Not all of us believe that this will necessarily be the case. Not all of us judge man's progress to be primarily or even generally good.

One can dodge several of these problems by rendering the same argument in different language. Sometimes it is rendered as:

Proposition 1)  Nature is beautiful
Proposition 2)  This could not happen by accident
Proposition 3) It happened because of God

What people mean when they talk of nature as being beautiful, is that there exist aspects of nature that strike us in a particular way. We wish to argue that beauty is a kind of relationship between an observer and an observed thing.  To ask “does beauty lie in the beholder or in the thing being observed?”  is like looking at a laundry line loaded with laundry, held in the air at two ends by posts, and asking “  Which post holds up the laundry, the left post or the right one?"  No matter how fine the filament is between them, and no matter how bad our vision might be, it is that filament that holds up the laundry.  It could not do so in the absence of either pole. Beauty is that filament, the relationship that binds observer to observed. Beauty is not a quality exclusive to the thing observed or to the observer. It is a quality relating the observed to the observer. The observed had properties that evoke the particular sense in the observer. And if an observed work of art or of nature inspires the same sense in many people, it does so because of a common relationship it has to people

Realization of beauty is a mental impression.  What is the cause of this impression?  There are several ways to think about this one is think about the mental process itself.

Normally, the sensation of beauty occurs somewhere on the cusp between the ordinary, expected, mundane, and the thrilling, dangerous, extraordinary or rare.   Rarely is the common judged beautiful, for beauty is a quality held as exemplary. The common, we take for granted. The common, we ignore as given. Beauty, however, evokes a response that is different from our response to the common.

On the other hand, Aristotle’s sense of the “Golden Mean” suggested normalcy and balance held beauty. When we think of 'classic beauty' we think of a kind of spare elegance characterized by perfect proportion. Studies of what men find to be beautiful in women agree to a significant degree with the golden mean idea. Furthermore, many people do find some comfort in familiarity. Many find comfort in predictability.

In electronic photography, dim lighting conditions can cause electronic noise. This, the eye senses as a distraction because the mind has a tendency to try to simplify images by filling areas with blocks of uniform color or predictable texture. Noise tends to defy this process. It is a case where lack of predictability creates a visual nuisance. One judges a noisy picture to be less beautiful than one without noise. Similarly, blemishes of the skin - even benign or beneficial ones such as freckles - are percieved as diminutions of beauty. They make perception of features more difficult. The higher mental effort diminishes the pleasure of perception.

Something like this occurs for people of regular daily habits. When events conspire to interrupt the regular flow of events, the interruptions are judged a nuisance. Similarly in music, a 'wrong note' is one that fails to make sense in the musical idiom in question. The mind creates relationships that distill the essence of the music and musical events that fail to conform to this model create internal dissonance. Thus, it is frequently true that one of the qualities of beauty is that it conforms to our expectations of form based on internal models our minds build of the outside world or the form in question. Frequently, too, an item is judged beautiful if it is an uncommon instance consistent with the form. Thus, the exotic becomes a hitherto unexpressed instantiation of an accepted form. This explains how art forms expand at their boundaries.

The study of aesthetics tends to push the bounds of aesthetic judgment farther from the mean, from the normal, from the understood.  So there is occasionally a temptation to push the boundaries of orthodox beauty far from the bounds of normal intuitive judgement. And when this happens, bifurcations of taste will frequently occur - as in the development of Jazz music from Classical and Folk traditions.

Rarely is a thing too exotic judged beautiful, for the very exotic represents categories about which we are typically unprepared to make any sort of judgment at all. More frequently, things too exotic violate some formal language and are judged 'ugly' for this reason.   Once we have rejected all that is too common and all that is too exotic, there remains precious little that can be said to be beautiful.  And when we find some rare thing to be so, we treasure it.

In visual arts, we might find beautiful some painting that communicates to us that the pain of a particular sort of existence is one we share with another – as in Van Gogh’s Irises.  Or we might find beautiful a building that we covet for the quality of its design and workmanship and how it might therefore stand as an enviable metaphor for our own lives., Its beauty lies not in its function pre se, but in its representation of function. The fact that people share common reactions to entities with common qualities lies in common physical and social needs and how the entity relates us to those needs. 

The specific qualities of the entity that evoke our reaction might evoke no reaction whatsoever in intelligent beings having disjoint physical and social needs.  Imagine a silicone based space alien who exists only in a bath of concentrated cyanide solution, reproduces asexually, and experiences extreme pain in bright light. The being, normally lives a completely solitary existence, has no sense of hearing but has a remarkably sensative quadra-polar electrostatic pulse sensor that works like the sonar of a bat except that it sends out electromagnetic pulses - sort of like radar. In what ways could we imagine its aesthetic sensibilities would parallel ours?

It is impossible to imagine how we might share any aesthetic sensibilities. We would react to almost every aspect of each others' physical environments by being repulsed.   And if this is the case, there is no quality of beauty intrinsic to an entity.  Nature cannot be intrinsically beautiful.  We see it as such in light of our own projections. It stimulates our imagination and conjures up within our senses a pleasurable (or other emotive) sensation .  Things that all people perceive as beautiful are  so because of the relationship they have to them.  Scandinavians go to the Mediterranean for holiday.  Peoples of  the desert choose green as a favorite color. A woman might be beautiful to a man, or a baby to a young woman. A mouse is not beautiful to an elephant.

We argue also that finding order is not just a cause but a precondition of language in humans.  That great mystery we encounter at a prelingual state is the magic of language.  And for playwrites, poets, novelists, salesmen, mathematicians, and so on, the magic of language is never lost. But in order to acquire language, a person must see the beauty in a thing about which he knows nothing.  Humans enter the world credulous and curious.  And it is only with these qualities that we learn anything at all. A sense of expectation about language drives us to learn it in much the same way that a sense of expectation drove settlers into the fertile new lands of the New World.

As meaning-seeking animals, we find an inherent mystery lurking just beyond our grasp.  People lured by this become students and keep on studying. Then they become professors and  keep on studying.  It is no mistake that the points at which we experience a sense of beauty are when we are on safe and familiar ground and we contemplate less safe, less well explored ground.  The well known and understood we see as mundane;  the truly different as threatening and incomprehensible.

So, at every level, our very sense of beauty is easily explained as a natural phenomenon.  It is an accident of our creation.  What we naturally perceive as beauty lies on the cusp of stasis and chaos, of safe and threatening, of mundane and frightening.  This is where nature offers comparatively richer opportunities than those in other, known places. And it is simultaneously where the risks are manageable.  Nature possesses the phenomenon of beauty to the extent that it places us in exactly such a condition. 

Beauty, then, is a relationship that exists between an observer and an observed phenomenon; a thing in nature, an artistic depiction, an architectural work, a person. To the extent that a person might find beauty in nature such a finding is about the person's relationship to nature and how they naturally percieve nature; not about some quality intrinsic to nature.

There is nothing true or false about proposition one.  It is  not a statement of fact.  It is a representation of an impression.  Some people will find  nature to be beautiful under certain conditions.  Others will experience it as cruel. Only by death, for instance, can nature make any progress.  Many find life to be misery punctuated with pain. Whole bodies of religious and philosophical thought are based on this idea - though few have much currency in frontier societies. To the people living on the cusp, life is sometimes beautiful: life is the flower in bloom, not the rotting, fallen log full of worm holes.

In short, beauty is a mental perception that can easily be explained in terms of natural selection. Our minds invent the impression of beauty as a response to conditions that express certain (favorable) qualities. There is nothing in nature that is necessarily beautiful apart from our relationship to it which has been refined by nature for some three billion years of trial and error. If natural process prove incapable of imbuing us with the proper sense of beauty in this period of time, there is no hope for the emergence of intelligent life on planet earth. Some of us consider the question still open.

Proposition two suggests one of two things.  Either
1) that the way things are could not happen by accident or
2) that our response to them could not happen by accident. 

The simple fact is that all the phenomena of nature we observe in real time are completely explicable with existing scientific models. And all of these models operate well enough in the absence of the hand of God.    None of those models requires action on the part of God.   All physical, chemical, and biological processes that shape every aspect of the world we inhabit are explained to a remarkable degree by predictive scientific models. The understanding we can get from science is so profound that it is almost impossible to imagine that anything other than the very physical forces shaping the world we now live in were responsible for all of past history. And the more closely we examine the physical world using scientific tools, the more convinced we become that, in fact, accident is precisely the best means of explication.

As for our response to the physical world; we have asserted that there are two general responses - one positive and one negative. We have not made a detailed argument to demonstrate that both responses are useful to a population - but we dare assert as much without providing of proof. Populations succeed by having a goodly mix of optimists and realists. A society lacking the first lacks social cohesion; one lacking the second lacks the ability to properly account for serious physical constraints like shortages and outside threats. In other words, being happy with the way things are is a necessary kind of social adaptation. And it is therefore easily explicable in terms of natural selection. Social animals must percieve beauty in their surroundings. When they fail to do so they fail as social animals.

The fact that every aspect of physical existence is explicable by physical laws does not prove that God does not exist.  It proves that he does not necessarily exist.  That is, God is not necessary, in order to explain these events.  They can all be explained in his absence.  Even our responses can easily be explained as natural phenomena much more naturally than they can be explained by creation. It is easy both to derive that cooperative behavior can arise naturally in social groups and that certain kinds of cheating can as well. It is not hard to construct simulations of natural environments that prove that natural systems can evolve primarily cooperative societies that admit some small number of psychopaths. Attributing the same kind of process to God is more problemmatic.

We argue separately that assigning to God the responsibility for any physical manifestation in nature is, by definition, an abolition of science.  Nor is it helpful to religion to do so. Religion's life is to tend to the spirit, the soul of man. Man possesses an inner life that requires vitalization. In a world where most social experience is in the workplace, and where most efforts are utilitarian, man's spirit has need of support. Men of towering intellect may sometimes be able to find their place exploring the fringes of the known. Men of towering artistic talent may sometimes be able to find their place exploring the fringes of beauty. But men of ordinary talents and skills may find such exploits to be out of their grasp. If religion can serve to cause humans to live more happily with each other, if it can serve to cause devotion to some cause both noble and harmless, if it can serve to unite people in harmony, if it can serve to diminish suffering and give hope in societies wracked by social injustices and material shortages, then it may have a place in society. And if the requirement is an invented God, then it might be worth the price, assuming the invention had the right results.



The counter-arguments to Aquinas' proofs of God are so profoundly easy to make and hard to refute that we have to imagine that Aquinas

  1. was a simpleton, or that he
  2. really did not create the proofs

We doubt the former. We imagine the latter to be true. It is easiest to believe that the proofs were scribbled in the margins of one of his manuscripts after he wrote it by a mischevious monk who wanted to discredit Aquinas. Or it is some legacy argument Aquinas was expected to weave into his other work and he did so dutifully if not convincingly.

As we consider all of Aquinas' proofs together we might bear in mind that what religion has to offer man has nothing to do with facts. Religion never can be about facts. None of what is meaningful in religion has any certain connection with fact.   Religion is about internal motivations. It is a collection of myths that inform behavior, regardless of their provenance or their verity.   Religion is about one's relationship with one's God.

When a religion ceases to be about internal life it fails its creator and those it is designed to serve to equal degrees.  Religion’s creator(s)  - if we are to believe texts from the Buddhist, Moslem, and Judeo-Christian traditions - cared primarily that men inhabited a society of fairness, justice, respect, and love. They saw suffering that resulted from greed and cruelty and sought to mitigate its effects.   To the extent that religious efforts go beyond these internal bounds, its practitioners stop paying attention to the core issues.  They stop honoring the Gods they espouse.  And the qualities their religion would promote lose traction in people’s lives.  If we are to believe these same texts, such a process makes the practitioners less well off among themselves and before their God.  And this would leave any concerned God less well off by equal degree.

Proof of God lies not in the logic of proof.  It lies in the logic of virtue, of good intent and the justice that flows from a life of quiet discipline and virtue.  When God is treasured as a force of justice and peace rather than wielded as a justification for opportunism and oppression, men will see his beauty and arrive at his feet. Aquinas' proofs will be superfluous.


Copyright: Stephen R. Brubaker, 2006. All Rights Reserved