On Jerry Coyne’s claim to miss no subtleties in St. Thomas’s arguments

Jerry Coyne, commenting on a post by Jim Manzi:

Faitheist philosophers are always telling us that we don’t grasp the subtleties of theological argument, but that won’t wash here: Manzi’s argument is identical to that made by Aquinas and refuted by Hume and his successors. It ain’t subtle (ht).

So Coyne is claiming that there can be no question of whether he is missing something subtle in a theistic argument, so long as the argument comes from St. Thomas. Maybe or maybe not, but it’s an easy enough claim to verify, since it only involves asking Coyne some basic textual questions about the 1100 word essay in which St. Thomas gives his five very well known arguments for the existence of God. Notice that this is not a question of whether Coyne is missing the subtleties of St. Thomas’s arguments- we are simply asking that he understand the words on the page.  This is not a matter of agreeing with what St. Thomas said, but of understanding what he actually argues- which involves being able to give acceptable answers to these questions, among others:   

1.) The first way is an analysis of motion in terms of potency and act. Give a basic account of “potency” and “act”, and explain what St. Thomas is doing when he gives an account of motion that makes it neither simply an act nor simply a potency.

2.) Explain what “infinite” means in the context of the first and second way.

3.) Explain what St. Thomas means when he says “to take away the first cause, is to take away intermediate causes”. How does this relate to St. Thomas starting his proof by not arguing from efficient causes as such, but from the order of efficient causes? [N.B. The first thing given in the proof is “In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes”.]

4.) In the third way, St. Thomas distinguishes contingent existence, necessary existence, and God. Explain.

5.) In the third way, St. Thomas cites an argument in the second way. What is the argument?

6.) In the fourth way, St. Thomas speaks about “good, true, dignity” and “other such things”. What sort of things is he speaking about? St. Thomas further cites an argument in the second book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Give a brief summary of the argument.


Next, a few things widely agreed to be necessary to St. Thomas’s arguments:

1.) St. Thomas denies the infinite regress of per se causes, not the infinite regress of per accidens causes. Explain the difference between the per se and the per accidens. How does this apply to movers and mobiles? Specifically, explain what it means to say that the first mover is not in motion either per se or per accidens.

2.) St. Thomas recognizes different genera of causality. Which genus (or genera) is (or are) spoken of in the fourth way?

3.) Give a sense of “infinity” that is not being used in the proofs.


  1. Eric said,

    September 8, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Coyne and his ilk baffle me. On the one hand, they claim to understand theistic arguments perfectly, and to know that they’re all hopelessly flawed; on the other hand, when you ask them some basic questions to determine if they’re familiar with the relevant texts, they either accuse you of obfuscation or begin to shout ‘courtier’s reply!’ If you were sitting across a table from Coyne asking him these questions — which would prevent him from doing a quick google search *after* claiming to understand the arguments — I’d wager he’d fail to answer every one of them.

    • September 8, 2009 at 1:47 pm

      Metaphysics is hard. I doubt very much if many thomists could answer these questions, even with an open book. Yet there they are, as basic and obvious claims in the text.

      Metaphysics (and philosophy in general) is harder than calculus or other advanced sciences, and one of the most profound reasons for this is because people very easily think they understand things that they do not. People are far less able to look at difficult equations and think they understand what is going on than they are able to look at the words of the first way and think they know exactly what is going on after a first read.

      • Michael said,

        September 10, 2009 at 2:15 pm

        “Metaphysics (and philosophy in general) is harder than calculus or other advanced sciences…”

        I don’t know if it is “harder.” It is different, and certainly, for those not inclined to mathematical understanding, it can be difficult. Be that as it may, one should understand one’s limitations. I’m reminded of an essay on Heidegger, written by Leo Strauss. Now, many call Strauss a philosopher, however Strauss wrote that he was, at best, a scholar, i.e,, one who could more or less understood the true philosophers and could, therefore, offer commentary with some degree of insight. For those not accustomed to the intricacies of philosophical thinking, but are well versed in other disciplines, a little humility is always a good tact when crossing over..

  2. Mike said,

    September 8, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Heck, I wouldn’t mind hearing the answers to some of those. I’m pretty sure I know the difference between per se and per accidens, and between potency and act; but some of the other questions…

  3. Brandon said,

    September 8, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    What gets me is that this is that Coyne doesn’t even get Hume right. I’m debating on writing a post about that after I finish spluttering.

    • Joseph A. said,

      September 9, 2009 at 5:09 pm

      If commenter encouragement helps, I would say: Please do this. That Coyne is in over his head when it comes to these (philosophical) subjects strikes me as obvious, but another direct critique of him would make for an interesting read. And I’ve enjoyed your past criticisms (such as of the Courtier’s Reply, etc.)

  4. Jim Manzi said,

    September 11, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    I have a post up that addresses some of these points, FWIW:


    • Joseph A. said,

      September 11, 2009 at 5:09 pm


      You did a great job of addressing those points too. Thanks for writing on this topic.

  5. Martin T. said,

    January 1, 2011 at 10:51 am

    This would make the basis of an important and valuable book. I’ll buy a copy when you publish.

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