The Amazing Atheist vs. Aquinas: Preliminary

Welcome everyone to Deeper Waters where we are diving into the ocean of truth. We have before gone over the five ways of Thomas Aquinas on this blog. However, on TheologyWeb, I was shown a link to a video on YouTube where The Amazing Atheist chose to take on Aquinas with the title of “Thomas Aquinas Sucks.” Well this was a challenge I could not turn down. Unfortunately, I could not put my own comments on the video, but I do know someone who wants to make a video in response to that and use some of my material. If anyone can let TAA know that I am dealing with what he said here, that would be fine.

To begin with, I just want to give a preliminary and then each day, we’ll look at one of the ways as TAA miserably fails to understand it, and then we’ll wrap it up with a conclusion.

TAA’s position in the video is one that it’s so bad I even hesitate to call it wrong. That would be granting the position some sort of substance which it does not have. In this preliminary, I intend to give some brief definitions of terms in Aristotlean-Thomistic thought and then give some more information on the five ways and how they ought to be approached by atheists today, including the new atheists who do not understand them.

The sad danger with someone like TAA making a video is that his opinion will be taken for granted since for some reason, I suppose he is seen as an authority on The web. Any Thomist watching the video would know that TAA did not have a clue. In fact, my own wife watching me watch this video said at one point, “You don’t have to scream.”

His cluelessness, to be blunt, will be repeatedly shown throughout my review as TAA claims that he is smarter than Thomas Aquinas by an order of magnitude and he can prove it.

So let’s see, Thomas Aquinas wrote around 80 books in his lifetime, was highly educated, knew Aristotle, Scripture, and the church fathers, interacted with the Muslim philosophers of his time, and yet, TAA is smarter than him?

Now keep in mind, you can admit someone is smarter than you and think that they are wrong. For instance, I would not hesitate to say Plato was a far greater thinker than I am. He was just wrong. The audacity of the claim that TAA is making should indicate to us that he has not done his proper study.

When we start looking at the five ways, we need to realize that these are summaries. Aquinas is assuming that you are familiar with the ideas of the time. To treat them as the argument entirely is like saying that William Lane Craig’s entire argument for Kalam can be contained in the syllogism of “Everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe began to exist. The universe has a cause.” That is the argument of course, but it can be unpacked so much more than that. The same follows for Aquinas’s arguments.

Another mistake often made in looking at the Five Ways is to state that they do not lead to the God of Christianity who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, etc. Aquinas would say that they are not meant to. They are based on natural theology, what we can find about God from reason alone unaided by revelation. When you read an atheist or hear one making this argument, you can sit back and laugh some then and be assured this person has not read the Summa. After all, right after this, Aquinas spends hundreds of pages describing the God whose existence has been shown.

Why does he use the term God then? Aquinas is referring to that which is ultimate. He can say that whatever is at the end of the chain in each of his arguments, that is ultimate, and that is what will be called God.

Another mistake is to say that Aquinas assumes an infinite regress. In fact, he does no such thing. Consider what he says in the Prima Pars in answering article 2 of question 46.

I answer that, By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist, as was said above of the mystery of the Trinity (32, 1). The reason of this is that the newness of the world cannot be demonstrated on the part of the world itself. For the principle of demonstration is the essence of a thing. Now everything according to its species is abstracted from “here” and “now”; whence it is said that universals are everywhere and always. Hence it cannot be demonstrated that man, or heaven, or a stone were not always. Likewise neither can it be demonstrated on the part of the efficient cause, which acts by will. For the will of God cannot be investigated by reason, except as regards those things which God must will of necessity; and what He wills about creatures is not among these, as was said above (Question 19, Article 3). But the divine will can be manifested by revelation, on which faith rests. Hence that the world began to exist is an object of faith, but not of demonstration or science. And it is useful to consider this, lest anyone, presuming to demonstrate what is of faith, should bring forward reasons that are not cogent, so as to give occasion to unbelievers to laugh, thinking that on such grounds we believe things that are of faith.

Aquinas’s statement is that reason cannot demonstrate if the universe had a beginning or not. The reason he believes it did is because of Scripture. Aquinas makes a distinction between what can be proven by reason and what cannot be. Therefore, an infinite regress as often spoken of does not concern him and he thinks it is possible. (For the record, I do disagree here with Aquinas even. However, my position is irrelevant as it is not mine called into question but Aquinas’s.)

That’s because there are two kinds of regresses. The first which is found in traditional arguments to show the universe had a beginning is the per accidens chain. For instance, my wife and I both exist in this world because of sexual activity between each set of our parents that produced us. We love our parents, but if somehow, they all died suddenly, that would not mean that my wife and I could not produce children together. Our being able to bring children into the world does not depend on our parents. Once we are brought into existence and are on our own, then we are not dependent on them for that function.

On the other hand, there’s a per se chain. Consider a rock next to a leaf. A stick moves the rock. A hand moves the stick. The rock because of this movement moves the leaf. If you take out any part of the chain, the leaf cannot move. The movement of the leaf is dependent on the chain as a whole and the chain as a whole is dependent on a fundamental movement. Why? All agents in movement in the chain are dependent on something else for their power to move. You can’t have a chain of instruments without someone playing them.

Speaking of movement, let’s talk about that. Before we can however, we need to be clear on the idea of actuality and potentiality. Actuality is simply put, that which is. In actuality, I am sitting down right now. Potential is capacity for change. I have the potential to stand. If I stand, I am standing in actuality and have the potential to sit. There is nothing in Thomism that is pure potential as it would not then “be.” There must be something actual about it for it to be.

Motion then is the actualizing of a potential. This does not just apply to physical motion, although it does include physical motion. Thus, those who reduce the argument of the First Way to physics are simply mistaken. Aquinas has motion with the angels as an example and he does not believe angels are material. Now the atheist can say “There are no angels!” Very well. That may be said. However, if you argue against Aquinas’s view, understand that he allows for angels and if they have any change in any way, then motion is not purely material.

One must also understand causality in Aquinas which comes from Aristotle. Aristotle had four causes in his system. The first cause is the material cause. What is the object made of? The second is the formal cause. What is the form of the object? (A cat has the form of a cat.) The next is the efficient cause. What caused it to be as it is? The last is the final cause. Why is it the way it is? The medievals added two more. The instrumental cause is that through which something is. The exemplar cause is that after which something is, say a house is based on blueprints.

What about the transcendentals? These are aspects that all things have insofar as they have existence. Edward Feser in his excellent book Aquinas, which I recommend to everyone wanting to learn Aquinas, lists five transcendentals. They are thing, one, something, true, and good. Some Thomists add beauty to the list. Some include beauty under goodness. Each of these are convertible with being insofar as they cover some aspect of being.

For instance, something is true if it is real. God is the most real of all since He is being supreme and thus in turn the most knowable, as one can only know that which is true. Something is good if it is that at which all things aim. All things aim at perfection in accordance with their mode of being. Therefore, perfection is good and the most perfect is God who lacks nothing.

Being is of course the most important aspect of Aquinas’s thought. It is that which we have the most examples of and that which we know the least about. For Aquinas, all forms that exist in the real world are those forms that are conjoined with existence. Clark Kent can exist in the comics and TV shows and movies, etc. and in our minds, but does not in reality.

Also, keep in mind that in each of these, I am giving a brief synopsis. I encourage the reader to go out and do fuller study. I will be recommending books shortly.

Another statement I wish to make first however is that Aristotle and Aquinas did believe some things that were wrong scientifically. While this is true, for our purposes, it is also irrelevant. The metaphysics of Aristotle and Aquinas do not depend on the physics. The physics can be wrong entirely and the metaphysics sound. However, the physics does depend on the metaphysics. Those who wish to attack Aquinas should not attack his physics but his metaphysics.

I have already recommended the work by Edward Feser. In fact, if I could recommend just one work, this would be it. I also recommend works by Joseph Owens such as “An Elementary Christian Metaphysics,” and “An Interpretation of Existence,” There’s also Father John Wippel’s “The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas,” “An Introduction To The Metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas,” translated and edited by James Anderson, and G.K. Chesterton’s excellent biography of Thomas Aquinas to know the man better.

Tomorrow, we will try to keep these ideas in mind and see how badly TAA botches the arguments.

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