Aquinas the Great — Part II
God exists! Aquinas gives us five proofs of God’s existence. These proofs are as valid today as they were nine hundred years ago. Truth is truth. It’s always truth no matter what the century.
Aquinas’ first three are proofs from logic. The fourth asks about our knowledge of perfection. From where did it come? The final proof is based on observations of the material world.
Sadly, philosophy and logic are ignored by our modern world. Science and materialism reign. Philosophy and logic require structured thought. Materialism lets a man eat, drink, and be merry. Science helps solve daily problems. Small wonder that materialism and science won.
Our society does not appreciate structured thought. We rarely take time to think. We act thoughtlessly, without considering the consequences. We base decisions on our desires and the need of the moment. We plunge ahead blindly. We make mistakes. Then we justify our errors. We say, “What’s right for me is right for me. Don’t bother me with your moral opinions.”
This is our inheritance from atheism. Atheists believe there is no truth. There is nothing good or bad. The atheist, himself, thinks he is the master of his soul. Atheism renders him blind, foolish, and selfish. He is lost in a jungle of sensual despair. He’s in his own little world—the world according to him. This is his birthright from atheism.
God is light and life and love. So without further ado let’s look at Aquinas’ proof from gradation.
4. The Proof from Gradation
We have the ability to rank things: good, better, best. Where did we get this ability? And how are we able to understand “the best?” Why can we understand the concept of perfection?
Aquinas uses the example of fire. We compare hot things in terms of warm, hot, hotter, hottest, etc. We do this by comparing their heat “according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest.”
Aquinas wants to introduce us to the idea of gradation. At this point an atheist could ask, “But how can this serve as a proof for God? We could learn gradation of heat from physical experiences. We don’t need God for that.”
The atheist would be correct. We could learn this from physical experience. We don’t need to postulate the existence of God to learn about hot and hotter and hotter still.
But wait. How can experiences in the physical world teach us about “hottest?” Science can always find hotter things. First, scientists measure the heat at the center of a volcano. Next, they calculate the heat of the sun. Then, they predict the heat of a nuclear blast. Now, they try to estimate the heat at the moment of the big bang. We have examples of hot, hotter, hotter, and hotter. Where is an example of hottest?
In this world there is no example of “hottest.” Hottest is an absolute. Nothing can be hotter than hottest. Science can show us “hottest known.” But science cannot show us absolutes. Neither can the physical world.
Do we have any example of perfection in the physical world? No. Then how can we understand the concept of “perfection?” If the concept of perfection cannot come from the physical world, from where does it come? How can we understand the concept of “the best?”
That’s what this fourth proof is all about. This concept of perfection comes to us only from a source beyond the physical world. We know about perfection because perfection itself exists. This perfection is perfect truth. This perfection is God. Aquinas wrote,
“Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But ‘more’ and ‘less’ are predicated of different things, . . . so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being. . . . 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.”
Most people have an innate knowledge of perfection. We dream about perfect truth, love, kindness, beauty, peace and other concepts. Perfection adheres to a perfect being. Absolutes are products of an perfect being. We call this being “God.” Somehow we know He is the source of perfection. Our search for absolute qualities begins and ends in God.
How do atheists respond to this? Perfection cannot exist within the tiny confines of their physical world. For example, see how atheist Richard Dawkins responds to this proof. In his book The God Delusion, he criticizes Aquinas’ fourth argument:
That’s an argument? You might as well say, people vary in smelliness but we can make the comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness. Therefore there must exist a pre-eminently peerless stinker, and we call him God.
Really? Ritchie, you really threw a gutter ball on that one. How could you so completely miss the point of Aquinas’ proof?
In his answer, Dawkins betrays his limitations. He talks about “comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness.” Dawkins is limited by his idea of a “perfect maximum conceivable.” God is not the perfect conceivable maximum. God is perfection. He is beyond anything we can conceive.
Dawkins’ attempt to show the weakness of this proof backfired. It only served to prove the point. If limited to the physical world, man cannot conceive of perfection. But for some unknown reason we are able to understand perfection. We call that reason “God.”
Dawkins is an atheist and a biologist. A true atheist abandons the search for perfection and absolutes. If God does not exist, neither does any absolute or any perfection. For an atheist these virtues are the silly dreams of poets, theologians, philosophers and scholars in other “foolish” areas of study.
Dawkins wants to think of himself as a philosopher. But he is not a philosopher. He really is not. He is limited because his mind is closed.
5. God’s Governance of the World
Aquinas’ final proof is similar to an argument from design. Similar but not the same. Current arguments from design focus on God’s role as a Master Designer. Design arguments are supported by the latest discoveries in modern science.
Scientists today marvel at the complexity of life. Living creatures are extraordinarily complex. In the past, scientists explained this by evolution. But now microbiologists study living cells at the molecular level. A new generation of molecular biologists uncover stunning complexity within a single cell.
It seems one simple, single cell is like a tiny city. There are dozens of different molecules in each cell. Most of these molecules are very complex. They contain hundreds of atoms in precise arrangement and folded in precise patterns. Some of the molecules are interdependent. They work together. Evolution is not able to account for such intricacy. Cells must have been planned and designed. They are the work of an intelligent designer.
Modern science also marvels at the complicated design of our universe. Physicists and astronomers marvel at the fine tuning inherent in our universe. Again this points to a designer.
Obviously, this information was not available to Aquinas. His focus was on another way God participates in nature. Not only did God design the universe, he also maintains it. God governs the movements of nature.
Aquinas wondered about non-living, natural bodies. These bodies lack intelligence. And yet they move in ways designed to achieve an end. Stars and planets move in their courses. They never wander or stray. Rain falls and gathers into rivers. Rivers flow to the ocean.
There are some living bodies that seem to lack intelligence. Plant life – trees, flowers, grass, garden plants – exhibit no signs of intelligence. But they grow toward an end. Flowering plants grow, flower, die, and produce seeds for their next generation. A gardener plants a seed in the ground. That seed brings forth the expected plant. Aquinas notes:
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. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer.
Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause.
Is there a governing and sustaining force in our universe? Consider the orbit of the earth. Sir Isaac Newton used mathematics to describe the orbits of planets. He gave glory to God. The Lord created a universe that is governed by laws. Those laws were instituted by God. They also are maintained by God.
Others used Newton’s discovery in different ways. They said, “These laws show the universe is mechanical. It’s like a big machine. God is not needed.” They said, “Earth’s orbit is a delicate balance. The sun’s gravity pulls against the centrifugal force of Earth in its orbit. Forces of nature maintain this delicate balance. These mindless forces have done so for billions of years.”
Really? We cannot maintain a satellite in orbit for four decades. How can mindless forces keep a whole planet in orbit for four billion years?
What if a massive, traumatic, cosmological event occurred? What if this massive event involved Earth? Would that event knock the Earth out of its delicately balanced orbit?
Consider the formation of the moon. One of the prevailing theories features a massive collision. Science theorizes it happened about four billion years ago. The earth crashed into another large body. Some say the body was a large comet. Others say it was a planetoid as big as the planet Mars. It was big! A large piece of debris separated from earth. According to theory, this debris became the moon.
Just think. This huge explosion took place. And yet the earth was not knocked out of orbit. Earth continued in orbit for another four billion years.
What causes planetary orbits? Is it a careful balance of forces? Our solar system has eight or nine planets (depending on the status of Pluto). Science claims these planets have orbited the sun for several billion years. To our knowledge none of the orbits have decayed. Really? The matchless precision of a perfect orbit took place by chance? Nine (or eight) times? In the debris-filled environment of space?
Or are orbits maintained by God’s governance? According to Psalm 8: 3, “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained.” God created the heavens and the earth. He placed the stars in the sky. He maintains planets in their orbits.
Finally . . .
The five proofs from Aquinas bring us from logic to perfection to science. It’s for good reason the Bible says, “The fool says in his heart there is no God.”