Friday, November 16, 2007

The Fourth Way

Recently Marian Valley's Prior gave me loan of one of his philosophy books from seminary days to read. It's called "Christian Philosophy" by Joseph M de Torre. Needless to say it is a solid book.

The unique characteristic of this book that most stood out to me was its presentation of Aquinas' "fourth way" for arguing for the existence of God. It is quite simply and without qualification the best presentation of this particular argument I have ever read and something I have been searching for quite some time.

After reading it one can see what a complete travesty Richard Dawkins makes of it in his book "The God Delusion" covered in some earlier posts. Unfortunately for a person without much training in philosophy Dawkins argument can leave one stumped. It's the kind of objection where you know he's messed things up and that it's just "weird" as they say, but to try to explicate exactly why his objection is wrong can leave one tongue tied especially with the amount of ignorance around (I've tried it on people). Unfortunately this is the only source I have read (it was published in 1980) which anticipates and obliterates Dawkin's specific objection. That includes Thomas Aquinas who more or less assumes that his reader is cognizant of the relevant distinctions.

For those not familiar with the argument, the fourth way is taken from the gradation of perfections in beings, of truth beauty and goodness and argues that this implies a maximally good, beautiful etc being which we call God.

Dawkin's juvenile counterpunch is that if Thomas' logic holds good then because there are beings in the world with degrees of smelliness there must a preeminently peerless stinker. Essentially it is an attempt to make a mockery of the argument.

Where the argument goes wrong, and what the book "Christian Philosophy" does so well to point out is that there are two types of perfection of being. The first is called "predicamental perfections" the other "transcendental perfections". The argument is based upon the latter while Dawkin's example (assuming that smelliness can be called a perfection) is of the former type. Hence Dawkin's whole argument falls due to an equivocal use of terms in the premise (he is not using perfection in the sense meant by the argument). Of course I will now explain why the distinction is important and why it works for (or is only applicable to) one set of perfections and not the other type. But what one can know is that the argument has not been answered (or even interacted with) in the "God Delusion" as its author has found a straw man version of it to shoot down.

But perhaps we can have some sympathy for Dawkin's weak attempt. The first line that de Torre writes is "This is the most difficult of the five [ways]."

Here I will present a slightly simplified version of what de Torre says that will hopefully flesh it out.

So firstly there are predicamental perfections. What is a predicamental perfection? It is a perfection of the essence of something which is founded on what's called the "formal act" (form is is what determines the essence to be what it is). So it is a perfection of essence as essence not a perfection of essence as being. So in the example de Torre gives it is the perfection "of dogs as dogs not as this actually existing dog (with the act of being), but of dog as an essence, in the abstract." He then covers what perfections such an essence has. He says formal perfections such as, and he lists, "materiality, substantiality, life, sensitivity. All of these are are perfections of the dog as essence "without considering the act of being."

He then comes to a crucial question that people are probably asking "Do these perfections have a 'more' and a 'less.' Yes. But do they imply a subsistent maximum? Can a maximum, say, of sensitive life exist by itself. No, sensitive life exists in the dog, but not by itself. In predicamental perfections there is no subsistent maximum. Their maximum would only be in the field of ideas: we can conceive a maximum life and a maximum of dogness, but that is just a pure idea, which does not imply actuality of being." (de Torre p 141).

So why are transcendental or pure perfections different? Because says de Torre they are "founded directly on the act of being, and therefore to be found only in actually existing substances, not in ideas, or abstractions or essences."

To follow the argument further one must understand the interrelationship of goodness beauty and truth. A being is more perfect as a being the more actual it is and the more something is the better it is, the truer it is and the more beautiful it is. The are all different sides of the same coin.

Now beings have these perfections in varying degrees. They have these perfections by participation. And these perfections do imply a subsistent maximum.

They participate in these perfections and so must have them from another. Why can't they have these perfections by themselves? Because if they did then they would have to have them in their fullness because being as such implies no limitation. They must have a cause for those perfections which is those perfections in their fullness. Or as de Torre puts it "being itself, unity itself, truth itself, goodness itself, and cause of all these perfections as well as of the predicamental perfections, in all participated beings."

And this what we call God.

1 comment:

Fr Reginald Wilson said...

Torre presents sound perennial Catholic philosophy and is well worth reading. I have been told that a certain Archbishop of a northern See, when asked if the perennial Catholic philosophy was taught at a certain QLD seminary studiously replied, "I cannot guarantee that your son will not lose the faith." If he had said that Torre was on the reading list it would have been a much better answer.