Thomas Aquinas` famous five proofs for the existence of God are among the most heavily debated and woefully misunderstood philosophical concepts in our modern age. In recent decades, they have formed a consistent basis for countless non-sequiturs and straw-man arguments against Christianity. The most notable of these arguments come from a variety of big-name atheists including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Lawrence Krauss. These arguments, which are often flawed in of themselves, are then assimilated and disseminated by their less eloquent followers, to a point where both atheists and Christians begin arguing over a premise or concept entirely distinct from the original arguments put forth by Aquinas. One cannot reasonably expect a rational conclusion to be achieved in a discussion where people are not clear as to what they themselves are defending.
The purpose of this discussion therefore, is not to argue either side from a pre-conceived bias in favor of one direction, as I believe Dawkins does. It is rather to examine the five proofs of Aquinas in their proper context so as to determine their level of viability as an argument for the existence of God. It will take the proofs of Aquinas and explain them in clear terms that both Christians and atheists can properly understand and practically apply. Lastly, it will shed light on the flaws contained within Dawkins’ treatment of the proofs as well as Dennett’ misconceptions about the universe and its possible origins.
St. Anselm’s Proof
Before we proceed in this direction however, it is helpful to address one argument for the existence of God, posited by St. Anselm, which was generally accepted until Aquinas responded to it in his Summa Theologica. Many atheists, including Richard Dawkins, are quick to point out the notable flaws of Anselm’s proof while conveniently neglecting the fact that even St. Thomas Aquinas noted these flaws and corrected them. The argument of Anselm, states that:
"As soon as the signification of the word ‘God’ is understood, it is at once seen that God exists. For by this word is signified that thing than which nothing greater can be conceived. But that which exists actually and mentally is greater than that which exists only mentally. Therefore, as soon as the word ‘God’ is understood it exists mentally, it follows that it exists actually."
Thus, Anselm argues that the greatest thing we can think of is God, and since a thing that exists in reality is greater than a thing which only exists in the mind, it follows that God must exist in reality, by virtue of that fact that we cannot think of anything greater than God. Aquinas rejects this argument on the basis that not everyone thinks of God in the same way:
"Perhaps not everyone who hears this word ‘God’ understands it to signify something than which nothing greater can be thought, seeing that some have believed God to be a body … nevertheless it does not therefore follow that he understands that which the word signifies exists actually, but only that it exists mentally."
In other words, Aquinas rejects the idea that God must exist in reality simply because nothing greater than God can be conceived in the intellect, for there are many different conceptions of God that have arisen throughout history and not all of them must necessarily exist because many of them are contradictory.
Aquinas` First Proof: From Motion
Part of Aquinas` response to Anselm involves the positing of his own five proofs for the existence of God. He asserts that these proofs are those which can be arrived at through the exclusive exercise of reason without the aid of theology. It is also critical in his mind that these proofs be understood as building blocks, which rest upon one another and work together to form a complete structure. As such, they must be understood in context of each other if they are to be understood at all. Thus, using the first proof as the foundation of this philosophical structure, Aquinas states that:
"The first and most manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain and evident to our senses that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion … But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover."
Aquinas is here stating an observable fact; namely, that nothing in the universe moves unless it is first moved by something else that is already moving. If we follow this logic to its inevitable conclusion, we note that there must be a first mover to explain the existence of motion at all, for if there is no first mover, then there can be no second mover, no third, and thus nothing would be currently in motion.
Dawkins hardly even addresses this first proof in his popular book, The God Delusion, opting instead to do the one thing that no serious thinker should ever do: fail to make distinctions between arguments and premises. He does not even allow Aquinas to speak for himself as there is no quotation of the Summa to be found here. He simply lumps the first three of Aquinas` proofs together and brushes them aside as if they are unworthy of a deeper reflection than the following:
"All three of these arguments [motion, causality, and necessity] rely upon the idea of a regress and invoke God to terminate it. They make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress. Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name … there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, good attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins, and reading inmost thoughts."
The fact that Dawkins does not quote Aquinas when speaking of the first proof suggests that he is not sufficiently equipped to grapple with the subject matter. If he were so, then I suspect he would have noted his own woeful misrepresentation of his opponents` argument. Aquinas does not assume the necessity of a terminator to a regress; he asserts the necessity of an originator to a series of dependent relationships, whether of motion, of cause, or of necessity. This series of dependent relationships cannot go on forever because if it did we would never be able to explain why these relationships exist at all. I believe this is the reason that Dawkins brushes Aquinas` proofs aside so easily; namely, because Dawkins has no answer to the question of why, nor does he care to suggest one.
This characteristic is typical of new atheists and is a reflection on how divorced philosophy and science have become from one another in modern times. Dawkins himself hates philosophy and views it as entirely irrelevant to the discussion of where the universe originated from. Even Daniel Dennett recognizes this characteristic as he explains that:
"Today’s cosmologists, like many of their predecessors throughout history, tell a diverting story, but prefer to sidestep the ‘why’ question of teleology. Does the universe exist for any reason? Do reasons play any intelligible role in explanations for the cosmos? Could something exist for a reason without it being somebody’s reason?"
In spite of Dennett’s recognition of the why question, he nonetheless believes that the why can be sufficiently answered in terms of how. For Dennett, the process of evolution explains everything, thus eliminating the need for deeper philosophical questions such as those he himself describes. As we will soon discover however, what Dennett, Dawkins, and even Krauss all end up doing is either ignoring the why question altogether or pushing it back a few steps by introducing greater and greater levels of complexity into the debate, hoping that their audience will be so captivated by the complexity that they forget the simple question it must all boil down to in the end, or rather, at the beginning.
Dawkins even fails to understand the purpose of Aquinas` five proofs, in saying that even if a first mover exists; it does not prove that this mover is anything like the God of Christianity or contains any of the attributes we associate with a Christian God. That is precisely correct. Aquinas never intended the five proofs to be a comprehensive defense of Christianity. He simply posits them as five ways we can discern the existence of a First Mover, an Uncaused Cause, a Necessary Being, a Perfect Being, and a Universal Governor. Whether or not this Being possesses any of the attributes we ascribe to a Christian God has yet to be determined. That is why Aquinas continues his argument in the Summa, wherein he builds upon the existence of God as a foundation for determining the simplicity of God, the perfection of God, the goodness of God, and so on. Taking a single aspect of Aquinas` work and brushing it aside without actually presenting any of it is hardly a trust worthy presentation.
Aquinas` Second Proof: From Causality
The second proof of Aquinas builds upon the first while bearing many similarities to it. As with the first proof, we are able to observe a series of events within nature that flow from one to another, in this case, cause and effect. Aquinas describes the relationship between cause and effect as follows:
"There is no case known (neither is it indeed possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several or only one … Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause to which everyone gives the name of God."
What is stated here is yet another observable fact. We know that nothing in the universe is the cause of its own existence, but has its existence imparted to it by another thing that already exists. Thus, if we follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion, while remembering our conclusions from the first proof, we can determine that a first cause must exist which is also the cause of itself. If there were no First, Uncaused Case, then there would be no way to explain the existence of cause and effect at all.
In this sense, the arguments of Aquinas are among the strongest against the ancient, Aristotelian belief of an eternal universe. This coupled with the fact that modern scientific observations have demonstrated the universe to be expanding, suggests that the universe did in fact have a beginning. A beginning that for decades cosmologists have been trying to explain in purely materialistic terms without success. The Big Bang Theory was for many years the accepted theory for the origin of the universe until people started pointing out the obvious: if the Big Bang caused everything else, then what caused the Big Bang?
Rather than answer this question in terms of a First, Uncaused Cause, which the Big Bang theory itself implies is the correct answer, modern thinkers such as Krauss opted simply to push the question back by introducing more complexity into the discussion. Thus, such theories as the multiverse quickly arose to displace the Big Bang, and some have even opted for a return to the ancient belief of an eternal universe; a theory which relies more heavily on abstract speculation than observable, scientific evidence.
Here, the new atheists would argue that the same obvious question of the Big Bang could be applied to God: if God caused the Big Bang, then what caused God? As we have seen in our discussion however, this question misses the point entirely, for the Big Bang is part of the material universe in which nothing that is caused can cause itself, whereas God is outside of the universe and thus able to act upon it as a First, Uncaused Cause. The principles of a material universe do not necessarily apply to a thing which exists apart from it. This is why philosophy and even theology to a degree play an important and crucial role in scientific study, for they help us to form a more complete picture of the world in which we live as well as its origins.
Aquinas’ Third Proof: From Necessity
The third proof of Aquinas builds upon the previous two and pertains to a series of dependent relationships between things. Contrary to Dawkins’ criticism of the first three proofs, they are similar yet distinct from each other, for the first deals with relationships of motion, and the second with relationships of cause and effect, while the third deals with relationships of necessity. Aquinas describes the third proof as follows:
"That which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence – which is absurd. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing has its necessity caused by another … Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things … Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity."
Here, Aquinas is essentially saying that nothing in the universe exists by its own power. We can observe this scientifically as well as through reason. Anything that exists in the universe exists only insofar as it was given the ability to do by another thing that already exists. Thus, there are some things in the universe which are necessary for the existence of other things, yet even these necessary things are themselves dependent on other necessary things which preceded them. This series of dependent relationships cannot continue indefinitely for the same reason that relationships of motion and causality cannot continue indefinitely. Thus, our logical conclusion is that there must exist a totally Necessary Being which is the source of its own existence and is thus able to impart existence to everything else. Otherwise, there would be no way to explain how this series of dependent relationships began in the first place.
Richard Dawkins further criticizes the first three proofs of Aquinas by using a comparative analogy which once again entirely misses the point, when he says that:
"Scientists used to wonder what would happen if you could dissect, say; gold into the smallest possible particles … The regress in this case is decisively terminated by the atom. The smallest possible piece of gold is a nucleus consisting of exactly seventy-nine electrons. If you cut gold any further than the level of the single atom, whatever else you get is not gold … It is by no means clear that God provides a natural terminator to the regresses of Aquinas."
Why exactly is this not clear? Dawkins never states his reasoning, but rather continues to gloss-over Aquinas’ next proofs. Furthermore, Dawkins is attempting to compare apples to oranges, meaning the philosophical proofs of Aquinas as they relate to a material scientific demonstration. Aquinas would respond to Dawkins by pointing out that all subatomic particles, whether atoms, electrons, or quarks, are themselves material elements and are thus subject to the same principles of motion, casualty, and necessity. The fact that gold terminates with the atom is completely irrelevant in this context. All material elements, regardless of their subatomic size or structure are still put in motion by another, caused by another, and dependent on another for existence. Hence the need for an Unmoved Mover, an Uncaused Cause, and a Necessary Being.
Aquinas’ Fourth Proof: From Perfection
The next two proofs of Aquinas differ from the first three and are thus less convincing in of themselves. They can only be properly understood in context of the previous three, which is perhaps the reason that so many new atheists speak of them individually; a possible cheap-shot at the credibility of Christianity as a whole. Aquinas describes his fourth proof thus:
"The fourth way is taken from the gradation found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble, and the like. But ‘more’ and ‘less’ are predicated of different things according as they resemble … something which is the maximum. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum of heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God."
In of itself, we can understand why this argument is so frequently attacked by new atheists, for of all five proofs, it is the easiest to misunderstand. Upon first reading of it, we could easily argue against it by ascribing the maximum of any attribute to God as its source and maximum. This is precisely the approach that Dawkins takes in his criticism of the fourth proof when he says that:
"You might as well say, people vary in smelliness but we can make the comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum of smelliness. Therefore there must exist a pre-eminently peerless stinker, and we call him God. Or substitute any dimension of comparison you like and derive an equivalently fatuous conclusion."
What this tongue-in-cheek rebuttal fails to recognize is the fact that such attributes cannot be arbitrarily assigned to God, for many of these attributes would contradict His nature, which Aquinas determines later in the Summa as good, simple, beautiful, immutable, and so on. God cannot be the source of all smelliness because this is an undesirable attribute, and for Aquinas a thing is considered good insofar as it is desirable. Thus, since all people desire love, goodness, truth, and beauty above all other attributes, it follows that the source of these attributes must also be their maximum, and that the opposing attributes are really more of a privation, which cannot exist in a Being of maximum perfection.
Aquinas’ Fifth Proof: From Design
By far, the fifth proof of Aquinas is the one that gets the most attention, from both Christian and atheistic circles. For that reason, it is also the most heavily misconstrued of all the five arguments. On the one hand, Christians often take this argument to suggest a Watchmaker God (which is more deistic than Christian), while atheists use it to deride Christians who reject Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. In the words of Aquinas however, the fifth proof suggests something entirely different:
"The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result ... Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move toward an end unless it is directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God."
Here Aquinas explains that natural things do not have the ability to order themselves toward a particular end, nor can they determine what that end should even be. As such, we must posit the existence of an intelligent being who is able to order natural things toward a specific end that he himself devised.
This is where atheists and Christians both get the argument wrong. On the one hand, Christians often use the design argument to suggest that all natural processes in the universe happen only because God is acting directly upon them. As such, these Christians often reject the theory of evolution, suggesting that the creation of the material universe was entirely a miraculous occurrence. However, according to Genesis and Aquinas, this appears not to have been the case, for Genesis states that, “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
Here, the Bible itself implies that the natural process of evolution produced man’s body while God directly created and infused his soul. Applying this implication to the larger creation narrative, we infer that God directly created the material necessary for the Big Bang to occur (presuming that this is the correct scientific theory) while the Big Bang itself began the natural processes from which the universe and man himself would eventually arise.
One the other hand, atheists are quite adept at tearing Christianity apart on the very basis that many Christians reject the theory of evolution and rely solely on miraculous events to explain the origin of the universe. This is certainly not how Aquinas envisioned the creation of the universe, as he perceived no conflict between God and nature, for God acts precisely through the things that He creates. As such, there is no need for the universe to have been created by a miraculous occurrence for God to exist. Richard Dawkins’ “God of the Gaps” might be an enjoyable concept to deride and discredit, but it is not the God of Aquinas nor is it the God of Christianity.
A defining characteristic of new atheism is its inherent aversion to simplicity, an aversion which inevitably hinders its ability to understand and properly represent the God of Aquinas and of Christianity. Modern thinkers like Dawkins, Dennett, and Krauss collectively ignore or downplay the significance of the why question; of whether the universe exists for any reason. They ignore this question precisely because if there is a reason, there must be an intelligence, and if there is intelligence, there must be a mind operating outside of our universe. If such a mind exists, then we have already tread uncomfortably close to a concept that we normally refer to as God. Tellingly, whenever a new atheist is approached with this question, he responds by pushing it back. When people asked what caused the Big Bang, they invented the multiverse. When people ask what caused the multiverse, they posit an eternal universe. When people reject an eternal universe based on contradictory data, they simply deny that the universe exists for any reason without giving a reason for why it does not.
"They continually invent more and more complicated ways of explaining the material origins of the universe without ever answering the simple question of what started it all and why. This aversion to simple answers is unwillingly attested to by Dennett, who quotes Dawkins as saying, “But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as the machine itself.”
Ironically, just a few lines later, Dennett quotes Dawkins again, this time saying that, “The one thing that makes evolution such a neat theory is that it explains how organized complexity can arise out of primeval simplicity.” Dawkins is quite correct here. So why does he not apply this same principle to the origin of the universe? Why can he not see that the universe becomes simpler the closer you get to the beginning? Would this not be the product of an utterly simple First Cause? Why does this very concept awaken such contempt within him? One can only speculate.
What is most needed in this debate is for a rejoining of science and philosophy, so that we no longer have Christians denying reason for the sake of faith, nor atheists denying faith for the sake of reason. Rather, future generations of thinkers should strive to develop a more Thomistic approach to questions of our existence and origin. An approach which views God not as operating independently of nature, but by means of it; not as a magical fairy in the sky, but as the First Principle from which all other principles are derived. In some ways, evolution points more effectively to the existence of God than miraculous creation ever could. This combined with the fact that the universe becomes simpler the closer we get to the First Cause, strongly suggests that Aquinas was more correct about the existence and nature of God than even he could have imagined.
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 137
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.2-4
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 101
 Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 25
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.2-4
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 101
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.2-4
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 102
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.2-4
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 102
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.2-4
 Genesis 2:7
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 151
 Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 153
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Leicester: W.F. Howes, 2007. 101, 102, 137, 151
Aquinas, Thomas St. Summa Theologica, I.2-4, Philosophy of God Course Reader, ed. Fr. Younan. 185-88
Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea Evolution and the Meaning of Life. Paw Prints, 2010. 25, 153
The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version (San Francisco CA: Ignatius Press, 1966), Genesis 2:7