Richard Dawkins and Saint Thomas Aquinas' First Way to God

Thomas Crean OP FAITH Magazine July-Aug 2007

We can distinguish two paths by which one comes to know that God exists, one ordinary, the other extraordinary. The ordinary path starts from the natural course of events and rises to the knowledge of an unchanging, intelligent cause of the world around us. This path can be pursued philosophically, using learned language, as it was, for example, by Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas. Far more often, however, people pass along this path quite spontaneously. They simply say, in these or similar words, ‘there must be something behind it all’. It is not necessary to be a student of philosophy to reach God by this path. It is enough to have an intellect unhampered by sophistry or prejudice.

The extraordinary path starts with a miracle. An event occurs that could not have been performed by any of the natural agents at work in the world: for example, a man at the point of death is restored in a moment to perfect health. Such an event witnesses to the existence of a supreme being with power over this visible world. This path is called extraordinary in that only a minority of people witness miracles directly. Still, it can lead many people to God. On the testimony of a few trustworthy witnesses, many people may reasonably believe that a miracle has occurred.

Professor Dawkins wishes to close off both these paths to God; or rather, he claims that neither path is worth following. Let us see what his own claims are worth.

The ‘five ways’

As many people know, St Thomas Aquinas stated that one could demonstrate the existence of God in five different ways, starting from five different features of the ordinary world around us. Professor Dawkins examines these ways rather briefly (pp. 77-9). The first three, he tells us, are just three different ways of saying the same thing. While this is not quite true, since they begin from different features of the world, they do have much in common. For the sake of brevity, then, I shall not examine all three separately, but only the first way, as representative of the others. Nor shall I consider the fourth way. This argument has baffled readers of St Thomas far more sympathetic than Professor Dawkins, and to attempt its elucidation would take us more deeply intometaphysics than is suitable here. Instead, we shall pass from the first to the fifth way, showing in each case how the existence of God can be known with certainty by reflecting on ordinary human experience. We shall also show that none of Professor Dawkins’ objections to these arguments is valid.

How can there be change?

St Thomas’ ‘first way’ begins with the fact of change. It is obvious, he writes, that many different kinds of change take place in the world. Things change their place, or their colour, or their size, or their relations with other things, and so on. Any kind of change would do as the starting-point of the first way, but I shall consider just one, namely intellectual change. A man begins to think of something, for example, Shakespeare. The moment before, he was not thinking about anything. Now a thought has come into his mind. In other words, the man has changed. This change, like any change, must have a cause, or otherwise it couldn’t have occurred. So what caused this change?

Whatever it was that caused this change, it must either have changed itself in doing so, or not. Let’s assume that the change in the man’s mind is caused by something within him, for example, his will. He thought about Shakespeare because he willed to. But in that case, his will itself changed in order to cause the thought to arise in his mind. The man had not previously been choosing to think about Shakespeare. He had not been thinking about Shakespeare from the moment of his birth. But at a certain moment he does choose to do this: his will changes and causes the thought to come into existence in his mind.

Now, this change in the man’s will, like the change in his thoughts, requires a cause. No event can occur without a cause, whether the cause can be known by us or not. And once again, the thing that causes the change in the man’s will must either have changed in so doing, or not. If it did change when it caused the will to change, then it in turn requires some cause to explain the change that takes place within it.

But this process cannot go on indefinitely. If the man’s intellect was changed by his will and his will by something else and that something else by something further and so on ad infinitum, there would be no sufficient explanation of the fact that the man has started to think about Shakespeare. There cannot be an indefinite line of intermediary causes with no first cause, just as a nail cannot be knocked into a wall by an unending series of hammers, each knocking against the next. There must be a first hammer wielded by some free agent. There must be a man at the beginning of the line.

Likewise, there has to be a first cause of the man’s thought. This first cause must be something that causes change without changing in itself. If it changed, it would need some cause outside itself, and so it would no longer be first. That’s why the man himself can’t be the first cause of his thought: neither his intellect, nor his will, nor his brain is unchanging. The same is true of all the material things that we see around us. All the things that we see, from acids to ant-eaters, change when they cause other things to change. The first cause cannot be like this: it must be beyond change.

What’s more, the first cause of a thought must itself be something intellectual. Nothing can give what it doesn’t have. A flame that boils water cannot be less than one hundred degrees hot. No teacher can instruct a class of children in maths unless he knows maths himself. A cause and its effect do not always appear very similar: if a man writes a book, the book needn’t look like the man. But there must always be as much reality in the cause as in the effect. No one can write a book, assuming it is his unaided work, unless the knowledge that appears in the pages of the book first existed in his mind. A cause must be at least as perfect as its effect, or else it wouldn’t be able to cause it. That’s why we can say that the first cause of the man’s thought must be something intellectual: itmust have at least the same ‘intellectuality’ as the thought itself.

In other words, the first cause must itself be a thought. But it must not be a thought that comes into existence at a certain moment. If it did, it would need a cause, and so would no longer be first. The first cause must be a thought that is always in existence, always ‘actual’. Unlike our thoughts, it must not exist in a mind distinct from itself. If it did, something must have caused it to exist in that mind, and so, again, it would no longer be first. The first cause must be a subsistent thought. It must be a thought that exists of itself, eternally.

Such is St Thomas’ ‘first way’. Fifteen centuries before him, Aristotle had followed it to the same conclusion. It doesn’t reach an absentee ‘god’, who is supposed to have given an initial fillip to the universe, and then left things to take their own course. It reaches the First Cause on whom everything now depends. Without such an unchanging First Cause, nothing could happen.

Professor Dawkins’ objections

Although our author subjects St Thomas’ first way to a critical scrutiny, I cannot be confident that he has understood it. His remark that a ‘big bang singularity’ (p.8) would be more likely as a first cause for the universe than God suggests that he is thinking of a cause that is first in time. This is not the first cause of which Aristotle and St Thomas speak. While it is a point of Catholic faith that the universe had a beginning in time, this cannot be proved by philosophy. The first way would still be valid if the universe had always existed, as the following example shows. Consider someone who is peeling potatoes. It’s not selfcontradictory to suppose that he has been peeling potatoes forever, and has by now amassed an infinitely large heap of them. From time to time, his potatopeeler becomes rusty, and so he throws it aside and takes up a new one. It’s not selfcontradictory to suppose that he has by now amassed an infinitely large pile of rusty potato peelers. What would be impossible is that, to peel any given potato, an infinite multitude of implements should have to be used together, each one acting on the next. If, in order to peel any given potato, the potato peeler in contact with it had to be turned by another peeler, and this other by a third and so on without end, then one would never reach the man himself. If each instrument had to be put into action by another instrument, one would never reach the principal cause. But in that case, the potato would never be peeled.

In the same way, it’s not obviously absurd to imagine, as Aristotle did, that the universe has existed forever in much the same way as it exists now. In that case, no cause would be first in time. Whatever man you chose, he would always have a father and a grandfather. Yet each individual change within that universe, for example, each new act of begetting, would still need a first cause. It would depend on something that didn’t change when it caused other things to change. Without such an unchanging cause, it could not happen.

In other words, we do not deny the possibility of an infinite series of causes stretching back in time. What is impossible is an infinite series of causes at work here-and-now, in such a way that every cause, in its very action, would be dependent on another cause. Just as no potato could be peeled if every peeler had to turn another one, no change could take place unless something can cause changes without being changed. And this, St Thomas remarks, is what all men call God.

Yet this last point is precisely what Professor Dawkins is disposed to deny. Even though he seems willing to concede, rather grudgingly, that there may in some sense be a first cause of the universe, he remarks:

“There is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator [i.e. of the first way] with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins and reading innermost thoughts.” (pp. 77-8)

This list of attributes is somewhat puzzling. Why is goodness not a human quality when the power to read other people’s innermost thoughts apparently is? Surely this cannot be a reflection of Oxford academic life? More seriously, the first cause of a human thought, as we have just seen, must itself be something intellectual. It must be a subsistent thought, that is, an intellect ‘in action’ of itself. But such an intellect could have no limits, for, being the first cause, from where could it have received them? Nothing limited can be the first cause, because everything that has limits must have received them from somewhere. The first cause is an unlimited intellect. That is why omniscience is indeed a necessary attribute of the first cause.

In the same way, it is because God’s nature is unlimited that philosophy must ascribe goodness to Him. Evil is not a positive reality, but a lack of some good quality that should be present, rather as blindness is not something positive, but the privation of the power of sight. Since God’s being is unlimited, it can have no lack. There can therefore be no evil in God, but only in finite creatures.

We can also note that it is because God’s nature is unlimited that there can be only one God. ‘Another’ god would have to lack something or other, for else he would not be distinct from the first God. But then, lacking something, his nature would be limited and he would not be God. Hence, there cannot be a great number of unchanging first causes, each responsible for different events in the universe. There can be only one First Cause because there can be only one being who is unlimited.

As for omnipotence, a being that is the first cause of any change that takes place in the universe, and which causes such a change effortlessly because without changing in itself, can hardly be denied this attribute.

The other attributes that Professor Dawkins mentions in his list are all consequences of the divine intelligence; though we can add that God’s readiness to forgive sins is not something that can be deduced with certainty by philosophy alone. It is made known to us by revelation and remains in this life an object of faith.

This is an extract from the Cambridge Dominican’s book A Catholic Replies to Professor Dawkins just published by Family Publications.

Fr Crean goes on to discuss the “argument from design”, and, in the following chapter, Miracles.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2007