The false idea of the discrete theistic proof

For Aristotle, proofs for the existence of God come at the end of two rather long and involved sciences, physics and metaphysics. In both cases, Aristotle starts off very far away from God and then slowly steps towards him. St. Thomas takes Aristotle’s arguments more or less for granted, and takes the proofs as starting points from which he slowly steps through the divine nature, to the divine persons, to creation, the angels, the soul, the goods of the soul, etc.

We have a tendency, however, to treat the proofs for the existence of God as though they are discrete “events” that are supposed to stand on their own. We neither see them as conclusions to a science, nor as principles for another science which gives a fuller articulation of God, then treats of how such a being relates to the mysteries of Christian revelation, then treats of what our knowledge of God tells us about the physical world, how he is relevant to solving epistemological questions and moral science, etc (this is more or less the order of treatises in the Summa theologiae). Regardless of whether we think the proofs are true or not, we tend to treat them as though they were hermetically sealed off from any larger body of discourse. In practice, we are supposed to give the proof (or refute it) more or less from nothing and then forget about it as soon as we discuss revelation, cosmology, epistemology, politics and morals, etc. The upshot of this is that we never quite treat nature, knowledge, the universe, morals or politics as though God existed or not. We pretend that the question is not relevant. There is some truth to this, but at the same time it makes a great difference about what we think about nature, knowledge, morals, etc. if we come to them thinking they were the products of intelligence, benevolence, providence, etc.

Theists, for example, are all-too-prone to say something like “sure, the arguments about natural law in St. Thomas occur in a theology textbook, but one need not understand them in relation to God’s nature”. Why brag that your account of something in the Summa can work just fine apart from the five ways? Is it some kind of virtue to forget that one has reached a conclusion about something?  Theist and atheist epistemologists too easily treat discussions of knowledge as it were of no decisive importance if there were some subsistent truth that determines all nature by his knowledge, or as if it were of no relevance to ones account of knowledge if we regard knowledge as something limited to human beings.  For their own part, skeptics and atheists from Hume to Graham Oppy have argued that since the divine proofs do not explicitly prove every attribute that is ascribed to the divinity, that they are therefore insufficient. As if the proof were supposed to make you stop thinking! It is self-evident that if all you know about something is that it exists, you have the most minimal knowledge you can have of it. To complain that proofs for the divine existence give you a minimal account of the divinity is like complaining that the first course didn’t give you all the food you wanted. It’s not supposed to! There would be something wrong with a first course that did!  The objection only makes sense- and would only be seen as an objection- if both theists and atheists regard theistic proofs as something one were supposed to give (out of little or nothing) and then promptly forget about.

This desire to isolate the argument arises from a certain lukewarmness with respect to the proofs themselves, combined with a desire to speak to everybody, avoid conflicts, and avod the scandalous an difficult claims that classical metaphysicians make. At some point, however, one simply has to take a stand and accept that what he says cannot be accepted by everyone. At some point, the acceptance or rejection of the proof has to become a principle that will divide our arguments off from others. To imagine that there is some sort of neutral, unoffensive and inclusive point of view is itself a metaphysic that is probably, in fact, rejected by everyone- theists, atheists, and agnostics alike.



  1. Dale said,

    May 25, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    Thanks James,
    I enjoyed all of it; felt challenged by bits of it; and will ask about this bit of it:

    Theists, for example, need to accept tht theri science is hard to learn, most scholars will not accept it, and that any popularization of theistic arguments will be substandard and only probable.

    I long (and humbly attempt at my blog sometimes/often?) for good, hard-worked-at ‘popularisations’ of theistic arguments which can at least ‘whet the appetite’ for those (currently) at a popular level of discourse. A way of translating the complex conversations taking place between non-popular level theists/atheists/agnostics on behalf of theists/atheists/agnostics at the popular level.

    ((I note in passing that many atheists would place fellas like Dawkins/Harris/Hitchkens/Dennett at the non-popular level; but –and no offense to Lee Strobel– this is like a theist who thinks that Lee Strobel is a top notch christian apologist.))

    Are you saying (implying?) that we shouldn’t hope for such popularisations? That it’s really “dive in the deep end or stay out of the pool”?

  2. May 26, 2009 at 4:45 am


    I deleted that paragraph right after I posted yesterday and I don’t know why the delete didn’t take. It didn’t fit with the rest of the post and wasn’t true: the arguments are not substandard for being written on a popular level, any more than first grade math is substandard for not being calculus. I’m going to cut i for good now.

  3. Ryan H said,

    May 26, 2009 at 6:05 am

    Funny, I came to comment on the same bit on the end. I read your blog in a feed reader, and I think that it retains posts once they are published, even if the blog author edits or even deletes a post.

  4. Brandon said,

    May 26, 2009 at 8:22 am

    I do think that people often overlook the fact that good popularizations are often going to be harder to make than the original arguments: the fact that the end product is easier to understand doesn’t mean that the process of creating it will also be easier. In fact, very often it will be the opposite: it takes quite a bit of ingenuity to express in plain, colloquial terms and without distortion what can easily be expressed in technical terms, and, given that we cannot count on perpetually attaining the ideal, this will indeed often mean that demonstrative arguments get transformed into merely probable approximations. But, of course, there’s a place for and a value in merely probable approximations to rigorous arguments; they can be useful even for those who can follow the more technical arguments.

    And we do need some very good popularizing for these arguments.

  5. T. Chan said,

    May 26, 2009 at 9:12 am

    I think existential Thomists partly at fault for spreading the notion that the proofs for the existence of God do not require any laborious intellectual preparation/

  6. May 26, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    cheers James,
    Agreed. 🙂 And I also agree with Brandon that there is definitely a need for hard-worked-at popularisation of these arguments.

    Personally, I find your ‘inner dialogues’ to be quite understandable. I think it may be because when one person’s position is given, the terms/concepts can more easily fail to be fully grasped, whilst if two positions are contrasted, the terms/concepts are more likely to be defined/understood because of the context.

    (just a passing thought… and a not-so-sneaky request for more of those ‘inner dialogues’) 🙂

  7. T. Chan said,

    May 26, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Has anyone here read The Last Superstition by Edward Feser?

  8. Peter said,

    May 26, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    Yeah, I read it when it came out. Overall I was pleased. As Brandon said, it is incredibly hard to boil down complex problems, and I think he did a commendable job. His easy-going and rhetorically charged style is a welcome change from guys like Gilson, who usually bores the hell out of me.

    There is a correspondence between DeKoninck and Mortimer Adler on the possibility of dialogue between Thomists and Moderns. The document is hard to read in many places, but the bits that can be made out (beginning around page 13, again around 35) are very striking. It can be read here.

    I mention it here because — besides its intrinsic worth — there seems to be a seedling of thoughts that indicate the nature and role of popularizations (see pages 23/24).

  9. Ryan H said,

    May 27, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Since it seems like the popularization topic is fair game, a couple of thoughts:

    1. I think popularizations can be divided between those that (attempt to) substitute for the original text versus those that encourage and enable the reader to go back to the original text. Can anybody recommend good examples of the latter type?

    2. Near the end of Fr. Ashley’s The Way Toward Wisdom, he writes: “Piaget and other researchers on child psychology have shown that a baby only gradually comes to distinguish real objects from images of objects, to recognize that objects endure through change, and that they are related as cause and effect. Indeed I believe that from Piaget’s account of childhood learning, one could develop the whole Aristotelian epistemology and Aristotle’s theory of the categories!” I’d love to see that!

    3. I love the diagrams in Fr. Ashley’s book and in Maritain’s An Introduction to Philosophy. Seems that effective popularizations often use visuals and other tools beyond just the printed word. But it seems that there are risks as well as rewards in such an approach.

  10. Peter said,

    May 27, 2009 at 1:28 pm


    As to (1), I think a popularization is to the real thing as a nominal definition is to a real definition. Basically a pointer, to get you started at the right place and going in the right direction.

    I own a bunch of Ashley’s writings, but not The Way Toward Wisdom. Currently on Amazon it is over $90. Pooh.

    His remark there seems to be correct. A similar thought is that a lot of what Aristotle points out are the obvious things we ignore and then forget as we become more and more confused, or educated if you prefer. And since our natural knowledge of these things is most predominant before this state of confusion, it is most easily seen in those who aren’t yet confused, namely, the young.
    Another way of putting it is that our troubles arise when we stop following nature, and the young can’t follow anything else.

    I have more to add, but I am being yelled at to go peel potatoes for dinner. Duty calls!

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