The Thomism of Richard Dawkins

Dawkins famously and funniously (of course it’s not a word) objected to the Fourth Way by saying that the premises of the proof, if true, would commit us to the ridiculous idea of something maximally stinky. The first few times I heard the idea, I appealed to the standard responses: 1.) the measure of a privation is not a maximal privation; 2.) the proof is about transcendental perfections. But it strikes me now that what Dawkins is taking as a reductio ad absurdum is in fact an instance of exactly the principle Aquinas is appealing to in the Fourth Way.

There actually are very large R+D departments full of people who deal with stinkiness (deodorants, air fresheners, scented detergents, kitty litter, pet scent neutralizers etc. are not made by chance.)  The job is not all abstract theorizing: there is a good deal women in lab coats sticking their noses where they don’t want to go. So suppose you took the tour of such an R+D department and, in the Q&A at the end of the tour, you asked “so, what is the stinkiest thing of them all?” Suppose that the stink-tester said “Oh, there’s nothing that I’d call the stinkiest of all”, and then promptly ended the tour. How would you spontaneously understand what she said? It seems to me you’d think that she meant to tell you that for whatever reason the various smells aren’t comparable. Perhaps stinks are irreducibly distinct and stinky in its own way, perhaps some things smell worse on different days or in different circumstances, etc. But the governing principle at work in all this is something like if there is no maximal, then it’s because the various things are not comparable. (We should clarify that the sort of comparability is in terms of greater and less.) But this is where the whole matter gets very interesting, since it follows from modus tollens that If various things are comparable in terms of greater and less, then there is some maximal – which is exactly the first principle of Aquinas’s proof.


  1. Mike Flynn said,

    August 8, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    This is delicious. Or I should say, in good odor.

  2. David T said,

    August 10, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    The question “What is the stinkiest thing of them all” in the lab means what is the stinkiest thing present in the lab, which certainly has an answer. But that thing isn’t necessarily the stinkiest possible thing in an absolute sense. Maybe there isn’t anything existing that is the stinkiest possible thing.

    If various things are comparable in terms of greater or less, then there is some maximal… yes, that is true, but the existing maximal isn’t necessarily the greatest possible maximal. Men are comparable in height but there is no existing man who is the greatest possible height.

    • Mike Flynn said,

      August 10, 2012 at 1:01 pm

      I’m not sure that maximally tall can be said of a man any more than maximally good. The accident is “tall” or better “linear distance”, not “tall-man.”

    • August 10, 2012 at 1:27 pm

      The question “What is the stinkiest thing of them all” in the lab means what is the stinkiest thing present in the lab, which certainly has an answer

      Not in the context of the story I gave, though. Even if the response the scent tester gave in the story is impossible, the consequence still follows from it.

      the existing maximal isn’t necessarily the greatest possible maximal. Men are comparable in height but there is no existing man who is the greatest possible height.

      This is one of the major concerns of the Fourth Way, but it arises after the first principle of the proof, which is what I was interested in (and which I claim Dawkins is presupposing). But if you want to raise the further question, then I’ve got two responses. First that there is no such thing as a real possibility that is independent of its own proper actuality, though the actuality can be either in power or in reality. But active power is real actuality – real being, if you will – if it weren’t then the more perfect a being was, the less it would be able to accomplish. But I’ve said this before about the Fourth Way – I think you even commented on it the last time I did. So maybe this is all redundant.

      Second, there is always some maximal when there is a greater or less, but with some things this is a relative designation (largeness, conceivable speed) whereas with others it is an absolute one (heat, good, physical speed). Aristotle was right sizes look like qualities but are really relatives, hence “large seed” or “small mountain”. Relative things have only relative maximals, non-relative things have absolute ones.

      If my last commentary on the proof is right, then the class of things STA is dealing with are those things in which “maximal” means per se and primo ( kathalou). This includes heat, dignity, good, and (I think) stinkiness. So this is part of what we have to know in order to see the sort of comparatives that the proof is interested in. It doesn’t include tallness or largeness (or quantitative size in general).

  3. sancrucensis said,

    August 10, 2012 at 2:19 pm


  4. David T said,

    August 10, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    I think I’m starting to get what you are talking about. To lack heat, dignity or goodness is to lack a perfection appropriate to being, so it implies the primal existence of that perfection, otherwise it wouldn’t have it at all. I guess I was missing it with stinkiness because I didn’t see it as a perfection of being, but it certainly can be, can’t it? A stinky skunk is a good skunk (for a skunk, maybe not for us).

  5. David T said,

    August 10, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    Which means I saw stinkiness along the lines of a relative, as you pointed out, and it really isn’t.

  6. Remir said,

    August 14, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    “If various things are comparable in terms of greater and less, then there is some maximal.” This is false. The natural numbers are comparable in terms of greater and less, but there is no maximum natural number.

    But fear not, because it can be easily amended to become true: “If various things are comparable in terms of greater and less, and there is a finite number of those things, then there is some maximal.” This can be proven mathematically.

    The only problem is that it does not follow that there is only one maximal; consider the sequence {1, 2, 3, 3}. That would require that no two elements are equal, which seems unlikely in our case; consider identical twins that have just been conceived. But I think Aquinas proves the oneness of God elsewhere, so this probably isn’t a problem.

    • August 15, 2012 at 9:52 pm

      In the same way that there is no greatest number absolutely, so too there is no greater number absolutely. That is, just as there is no number that one can call greatest in itself, so too there is no number that is greater in itself. Said positively, numbers have a greatest in exactly the same way that certain numbers are greater: by a purely relative designation. I said this above in the comment I made about sizes and magnitudes.

      I’ll say it another way. When you say that numbers can be greater and less, but there is no greatest, the “greatness” you are speaking of in the greater and the maximal is either purely relative, in which case there is a maximum number in the same way that there is a greater one (for just as 5 is greater than 2, so also 5 is the greatest of 2,3,5), or this is meant absolutely, in which case there is no greatest, but there is no greater either.

      • Eli said,

        August 27, 2012 at 8:34 pm

        This is hilarious! Of course there’s no greater number absolutely: “greater” BY DEFINITION is a comparative term. It’s a wonder you can tie your shoes in the morning, if that’s how dumb you really are. Seriously: do you think that 5>2 is a fact that depends on which set contains 5 and 2? Or that numbers are only relative in the sense that “tall” is only relative – as if we could get a different perspective on numbers, and make 2 greater than 5?

      • August 27, 2012 at 8:52 pm

        You’re agreeing with me and wondering whether I’m an idiot. Priceless.

  7. David said,

    November 28, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    I’m afraid I don’t understand. Wouldn’t Dawkins reply that of course there are more and less stinky things and of course there is no maximally stinky thing. Isn’t that his point? We can compare more and less stinky without reference to a maximum.

    • November 28, 2012 at 3:22 pm

      The whole point of the post is that more and less are said relative to some most, so What exactly in the argument are you objecting to?

      • DavidM said,

        November 29, 2012 at 7:32 am

        James, you have assumed that “if there is no maximal [as in the case of stinkiness], then it’s because the various things are not comparable.” (~M->~C; or ~(~M&C)) I don’t see why Dawkins would grant that claim (or its contrapositive). He would say, and with good reason it seems to me, in the case of stinkiness, ~M&C.

      • November 29, 2012 at 10:22 am

        you have assumed that “if there is no maximal [as in the case of stinkiness], then it’s because the various things are not comparable.

        It’s an assumption in the sense of something I took up in an argument, but I took it as reasonable and provided a context in which its rationality can be seen. It’s not as though I just wrote down the symbols (~M->~C; or ~(~M&C)) and then put “assumption for proof” after it in parentheses. The rationality of the claim is best seen through a story: it seems to me that if someone who is in a position to know about smells tells me “there is no such thing as the worst smell”, then the most reasonable way to take this is that everything smells bad in its own way, and so far as this is the case they are not comparable. I’m open to the possibility that there might be a more reasonable way of taking such a statement, but I can’t think of one myself. I don’t deny that there are other logical possibilities to understand this claim than the one I give, but I do think that mine is reasonable, and it is the more reasonable than the other options I can think of at the moment.

      • DavidM said,

        November 29, 2012 at 10:34 am

        I can read, James, and I did read your story the first time. I just don’t think it is at all cogent. I think that any reasonable person would reject your claim that bad smells are all simply sui generis and imcomparable. I simply cannot imagine the smell-scientists telling you that smells cannot be compared, which would seem to imply that a phrase like “The odour got stronger” is necessarily false. In any case, if you want to claim that “everything smells bad in its own way”, then I think your claim is false (or trivial, since compatible with comparability), but even if it were true Dawkins could just say that the same applies to the good, the noble, etc.

      • theofloinn said,

        November 29, 2012 at 12:15 pm

        Then it the strength that is comparable in terms of more or less, not stinkiness as such. Fragrance science recognizes several different kinds of fragrance: pungent, putrid, musky, etc. Each may vary not only in concentration, but in intensity, quality, and FIDOL tone. Is something intensely pungent more stinky than concentrated musk?

      • DavidM said,

        November 29, 2012 at 1:09 pm

        Hmmm… Interesting rejoinder. Yes, it is the strength that is comparable, but not the strength *as such*; rather the strength *of the stinkiness* as such. So yes, it is a comparison of stinkiness as such, in point of its strength.

      • DavidM said,

        November 29, 2012 at 1:12 pm

        And please note: If there are cases where a comparison is not possible, that is a perfectly happy result as far as Dawkins and his argument are concerned – isn’t it?

      • theofloinn said,

        November 29, 2012 at 2:13 pm

        So yes, it is a comparison of stinkiness as such, in point of its strength.
        How do you compare the strength of a pungency to the strength of a putridity?

      • DavidM said,

        November 29, 2012 at 2:28 pm

        You do your best. You do your best. (And if you don’t succeed, what does it matter? You can still compare pungent to pungent and Chastek’s argument fails.)

    • theofloinn said,

      November 28, 2012 at 3:26 pm

      But if so, Dawkins is a fragrance science denier. Or has not yet revealed his Secret Stink-o-meter that measures stench along a single continuum. Odors are multi-dimensional and what is “stinkier” than which will depend on which criteria you apply. Some things really do smell more strongly in one environment than in another; and one odor may be more pungent while another is more musky or putrid. A highly pungent odor may be less stinky than a moderately putrid odor depending on the concentration, whether it is indoors or outdoors, etc. IOW, two odors cannot be automatically compared to each other, any more than two complex numbers. (Which is larger: 3+4i or 4+3i?)

      • DavidM said,

        November 29, 2012 at 8:03 am

        Sure, but Dawkins would surely just reply, plausibly enough, that good and true and noble and the like are multi-dimensional (etc.) too.

      • November 29, 2012 at 12:15 pm

        But this is irrelevant; the point of the post is not a demonstration of the Fourth Way but an argument that the force of Dawkins’s objection does not depend on the principle he claims it does.

      • DavidM said,

        November 29, 2012 at 1:05 pm

        Brandon, the Fourth Way *is* a demonstration, so I’m not sure what sense it makes to talk of a demonstration of a demonstration. In any case, I don’t see what your argument is. What I wrote seems relevant to me! Could you explain yourself more clearly?

      • November 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm

        I’m not really sure what’s baffling about ‘demonstration of a demonstration’, any more than there’s anything baffling about an argument for an argument, or the proof of a proof.

        But nothing hinges on it; the basic point is that whether the good, true, noble, etc. is the right sort of thing to appeal to in arguments like the Fourth Way is irrelevant to the argument at hand, which is about a particular objection to an entirely different part of the argument, the one about maxima which is explicitly addressed in the post. Both James Chastek and TheOFloinn are discussing only what Dawkins’s particular example actually requires us to say about this. What Dawkins would say about a completely different premise is not really relevant to the question.

  8. DavidM said,

    November 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Brandon: It seems to me that when someone demonstrates something, you shouldn’t then call for a demonstration that he demonstrated it (nor should he subsequently have to demonstrate that he demonstrated that he demonstrated it, and so on). A great deal hinges on this, although it is not germane here.

    Dawkins’ argument is an argument by analogy leading to a reductio ad absurdum. He wants to claim an analogy between the kind of evidence Aquinas adduces to support the principle about the existence of a maximally good, noble, etc. thing and the kind of evidence we have regarding stinky things, which would then be applied to argue for the existence of a maximally stinky thing. I don’t see what you’re talking about with this talk of an “entirely different part of the argument.” What part is that and how do you manage to isolate it from its purpose in terms of Dawkins overall argument?

    • theofloinn said,

      November 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm

      “What part is it?”
      The minor premise of the syllogism.

      • DavidM said,

        November 29, 2012 at 2:25 pm

        Well obviously. But how do you manage to pretend that that minor premise is irrelevant to the broader point of Dawkins’ argument? He’s not actually trying to prove that God is maximally stinky!

    • November 29, 2012 at 11:39 pm

      It seems to me that when someone demonstrates something, you shouldn’t then call for a demonstration that he demonstrated it

      That was the whole point, that there isn’t any attempt to demonstrate that the argument is demonstrative here, and that any line of argument which would require doing so is not appropriate to the context. Requiring full answers to all objections that someone like Dawkins could make to the argument would in fact require precisely this.

      As for the rest, it is elementary logic — in fact, so elementary that I’m not really sure what game you’re playing here. Arguments are constructed of premises. Arguments like the Fourth Way are constructed of multiple different premises, not of a single premise or premises that are all the same. Arguments that affect one premise will not necessarily be relevant to any other premise, because they are different premises. So, for instance, an objection against the “Whatever is moved is moved by another” premise of the First Way will not necessarily affect the premise that there can be no infinite regress of movers, and vice versa. Likewise, responding to an argument against a premise would not require addressing objections that might be made against another premise. Likewise, if someone responds to such an objection and someone else responds to the response by saying how someone might reject one of the other responses, that is irrelevant.This is all very basic.

      Now, the Fourth Way has several premises: We find in things something more and less good, true, noble, etc. is a different premise from the premise that more and less are said of different things insofar as they approach some maximum. Thus the general question of whether more and less is relative to a maximum is a distinct question from what sorts of things would be more and less in the right way even if so. Dawkins’s argument, as you say, is a reductio. Nothing can be a reductio unless it is a reductio of the structure of the argument or of at least one premise; it has none of the properties that would be required for a reductio concerning the logical structure of the argument (e.g., it is not a reductio resulting in a logical contradiction). Thus it is a reductio that, if legitimate, draws the absurdity from a problem with at least one premise. The reductio does not address questions of goodness, truth, nobility, or the like at all; it deals only with stinkiness. Therefore it does not affect the premise that brings in good, true, noble, etc. What premise does it affect, if it succeeds? The premise that indicates that more and less are relative to a maximum. And this is, in fact, obvious from the structure of the argument, which takes the more-and-less principle and applies it to stinkiness to get the conclusion.

      Even if this were not the case, however, nothing would be changed. For, whatever may be true of Dawkins’s argument, James in the post was explicitly addressing only how it relates to the more-and-less premise, and this is in fact the only subject under discussion here, whatever other issues might be raised. So there’s a second way we reach the conclusion that your response was irrelevant.

      Again, this is all so basic that I’m not really sure what you’re trying to do in pretending that it’s not obvious. There is no mystery in the fact that arguments have distinct parts: it is pretty much universally recognized. There is no mystery in the fact that reductio arguments cannot be assumed to affect all those parts in the same way: it follows from the structure of reductio arguments. There is no mystery about whether the particular premise Dawkins is explicitly considering is the more-and-less premise: Dawkins is sometimes slippery about arguments, but he’s not at all unclear about what he’s doing, and even if he weren’t, that’s the premise that the reductio has to rely on if it’s to generalize and not be merely about stinkiness. There is no mystery about the fact that Dawkins’s reductio does not involve the metaphysics of goodness, truth, nobility, or being: it is about stinkiness.

      • DavidM said,

        November 30, 2012 at 8:23 am

        “That was the whole point…”?? Er, no; but never mind.

        What you’re missing seems rather simple: The minor premise in question is supported by appeal to facts of experience. Dawkins assumes we know that *smells* can be compared as more-and-less. The whole point of appealing to such facts of experience is to make the analogy back to things in respect of their *goodness*, *nobility*, etc. If someone objects to D by pointing out a supposed shortcoming in D’s understanding of *smells*, then you have to ask yourself how this supposed shortcoming would apply in the analogue cases of *goodness*, etc., in order to understand the force of the objection raised. It’s that simple.

      • December 1, 2012 at 10:10 am

        Err, yes, that was the only reason I brought the demonstration point up — and it was I, not you, who brought it up, so it is I, not you, who actually know what the original point was — to make clear that the discussion wasn’t geared toward trying to rigorously show that the Fourth Way could stand against Dawkins’s objections on all fronts, but only to address one particular issue; you then tried to make the big deal about it.

        Your response shows a failure to grasp the structure of both reductio arguments in general and of Dawkins’s in particular, and merely compounds your original error; it also shows that you haven’t understood James’s argument. Reductio arguments are not mere arguments by analogy; they are arguments by isomorphism. Arguments by analogy are weak and can fail to be cogent due to missing information, namely, where there is a real and relevant divergence not accounted for by the similarity. Reductio arguments draw only on the information in the target argument (or position) and therefore do not depend on such outside information for their cogency. There are many other differences, but what a reductio requires is exact similarity: no argument is a successful reductio if it changes what it is supposed to be reducing to absurdity; and any changes have to be motivated by being able to serve the precise function, and only the precise function, required by the argument.

        By trying to make Dawkins’s argument into an argument by analogy, you are weakening it and misunderstading its basic structure. Dawkins’s reductio is not based on any vague analogies between stinkiness and goodness, etc.; by the structure of the reductio, the only similarity that has to exist between them is that they are in some way capable of more and less (and on that point it does not even strictly require that they are capable of it in the same way, as long as it is in a way that does not contradict the rest of the argument). But precisely the fact this point is changed shows that any flaws shown by the reductio are not in the claims that goodness, etc., are capable of more and less; the reductio stands whether they are or are not. Any flaws indicated by the reduction to absurdity must be in something that wholly survives this change, and thus whether goodness, etc., are more and less in the right way is not relevant to the reductio.

        In the same way, your bringing in the empirical element is irrelevant; it does not matter whether Dawkins’s premise is empirical or not, since the reductio would stand either way. As noted in the post, you can run a very similar reductio argument with mathematics. It does not even strictly require that stinkiness itself actually be capable of more and less, as long as it is intelligible to suppose that it could be. Dawkins’s argument cannot be refuted merely by gathering contrary empirical claims about stinkiness, although one could show that stinkiness was not the appropriate example to use for a reductio. (It is also quite clear that James’s response — and likewise TheOFloinn’s discussion — is not an attempt to refute Dawkins by gathering contrary empirical claims; he accepts the claims Dawkins actually presupposes in the argument, and is arguing that the absurdity arrived at in reality is seen as an absurdity at all due to the principle Dawkins is trying to reduce to absurdity.)

        And even if someone did make such an attempt at refutation, responding to such an objection in the way you are claiming that one should respond to it would miss the point even more than the objection itself. Dawkins’s argument is a reductio of an argument he himself did not make, and therefore he must accept the original argument in its original interpretation; reductio arguments are by their very nature arguments that grant the original claims in their original sense for the sake of argument, and only then, on the basis of the materials actually supplied by the original argument, adding only what can be generally agreed. Dawkins’s view of goodness, etc., is not relevant to the reductio because Dawkins cannot be replacing the account of goodness, etc., presupposed by the original argument. He has to accept it for the sake of running the reductio, and any implications his argument has for those accounts has to fall out of the argument itself. But it replaces precisely this premise and so nothing about this premise can be implied by the reductio argument. The reductio, in other words, stands or falls regardless of how and in what ways stinkiness and a goodness are alike.

        And as I said before, Dawkins is not at all unclear about what he thinks the cause of the absurdity here is, and it is the premise that what admits of more and less requires a maximum.

        So your response (1) doesn’t seem to get Dawkins right even in his own terms; (2) weakens Dawkins’s genuine reductio argument by making it depend on a substantive analogy between stinkiness and goodness, etc., rather than simply making use of one purely structural similarity, which does not itself depend on any substantive claims about either stinkiness or goodness, in order to generate an absurdity about stinkiness; (3) misunderstands James’s argument as an empirical argument against Dawkins’s empirical claims about stinkiness; (4) and yet, at the same time, provides a response to that supposed objection that makes no sense in terms of the structure of the original reductio.

      • DavidM said,

        December 1, 2012 at 10:34 am

        Er, no; I never made a big deal out of it and your reference to “that” was the whole point was to my comment, not to yours, so you’re wrong again.

        I just pointed out that your statement didn’t make sense. You can defend a demonstration or clarify it; you can’t demonstrate it – that simply doesn’t make sense. (No big deal! Just try not to make that mistake again.)

      • DavidM said,

        December 1, 2012 at 10:47 am

        Apart from your say-so, why does a reductio argument require ‘exact similarity’ (as opposed to ‘similar similarity’??)? A reductio is any argument that seeks to show that some claim is true (or false) by showing that the consequences of denying (or accepting) it are untenable. Where are you getting all this other ‘very basic’ BS from??

        The rest of what you say seems like nonsense to me, but why don’t you start of with telling me in a nice short reply just what you think Dawkins’ argument actually is. Then I’ll see if I can make sense of your analysis of it.

  9. Black Luster said,

    November 29, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Hang on, is there really anything absurd in postulating that there exists a molecule capable of producing an unparalleled stinky sensation in the human species? So what if there is a maximally bad smell?

    • theofloinn said,

      November 29, 2012 at 6:09 pm

      Actually, no; but as I understand it, Dawkins managed to establish Thomas’ minor premise: that which is comparable in terms of greater or less is with respect to a maximum.
      There are other matters: greater or less is said with respect to things like truth, nobility, and “huiusmodo” (similar things). And that these things are convertible to “uttermost being.” It remains to be seen whether “stinkiness” (whatever that is) is convertible to uttermost being.
      It is also to be shown that the gradations in stinkiness are not merely numerical or quantitative, but rather gradations of actualizing power, i.e., of forms. IIUC, this is what establishes the “maximum” as the formal cause of the genus; but I will take instruction on this.
      Dawkins did not seem to catch on that it was not merely that the maximum of some category was called God, but that that which was equivalent to uttermost being was called God.
      The ultimate stinkiness is supposed to be something in the thing (Invenitur enim in rebus aliquid magis et minus…) Not in the human mind.

      • DavidM said,

        November 30, 2012 at 8:36 am

        form = actualizing power? No; form = act (intrinsic actively actualizing principle). Efficient cause = actualizing power (power to bring something into being). Stinkiness = accident = accidental form. I see no reason to think that accidental forms cannot be compared quantitatively. (I would greatly appreciate it if you could point out where St. Thomas teaches this.) Quantity is a funny category. Quantity can be considered as an accident. But quantity is based on *one*, on unity; unity is the measure of all quantity. And unity is a transcendental, not just an accident.

  10. thenyssan said,

    November 30, 2012 at 9:10 am

    In the interest of bringing this back on track…

    “If there is no maximal, then it’s because…”

    Perhaps your apodosis is not correct? I’m not sure what else to put there, though I’ve only been thinking about it on-and-off for a day since this combox re-ignited. I agree that the “comparability” apodosis fits most naturally, but perhaps there are other candidates.

    All I can come up with so far is a prior commitment to the impossibility of maximals. That’s not a great help to the immediate discussion, since it (I think) would require a massive amount of work to establish. Or perhaps a variation, that your maximals-comparables connection is correct but there are in fact no comparables.

    CAN anything else fit here?

    • DavidM said,

      November 30, 2012 at 9:27 pm

      “More and less are said of different things according as they approach in their different ways to something that is the most.”
      Is that even equivalent to Chastek’s if-then statement? I’m not sure.

      Anyway, Dawkins’ point is surely just that if things are comparable as more and less, then they are comparable in relation to each other. So if there is no (identifiable) maximal, then this is no obstacle to making comparisons. He’s really not interested in the massive amount of work required to address why there either is or is not a maximal. He’s just trying to show that Aquinas’ fourth way is crrrap. (I’m not agreeing with him, just pointing out what his argument seems to be.)

  11. DavidM said,

    December 1, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Brandon, can I also request that you try to avoid comments like, “Again, this is all so basic that I’m not really sure what you’re trying to do in pretending that it’s not obvious”? They make you look like a pedantic a-hole, and I’m sure you’re not, but for the sake of appearances…

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