Posts Tagged ‘thomas aquinas’

It’s easy to see how myths about the “man in the moon” got started, isn’t it?  We look up, pareidolia kicks in, and voilà! insta-myth.  But this tendency isn’t really anything surprising, is it?  Everyone has heard the stories about seeing the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast or Osama bin Laden in the smoke billowing from the twin towers on September 11, 2001.

In a twist on these fantastic stories, I submit to you the following thesis: arguments for the existence of god are no different than arguments for the existence of the man in the moon.

When we look up at the moon on a clear night we see a pattern of craters and mountains that, from 238,855 miles away, can often appear to take the form of a human face.  Of course, we know that the moon does not really have a “face,” but our mind can sometimes trick us into thinking that it does.  Essentially we are taking something aleatoric and incomprehensible, a blurry topography of mountains and craters on the moon, and substituting, in its place, something we can comprehend, a human face: we’re trying to make sense of the data set with which our senses have provided us.  Efforts of this nature are analogous to the argument that (most) people make for the existence of god.

As arguments for god’s existence go, Aquinas’ “teleological argument” is really the only one that still insists on rearing its shriveled head, and will thus be the focus of my criticism.  The so called “ontological argument” fell apart as soon as Anselm realized that believing in unicorns or trolls didn’t make them real, either.  And the “cosmological argument” is so full of bullshit that even a six-year-old can dismantle it.  So, what is it about the teleological argument that has kept it around for so long?

Well, for one thing, it seems to be our natural, human response to take data sets that we do not, or cannot, understand and make sense of them by re-framing them in comprehensible terms.  (On a side note, one unfortunate side effect of this type of “understanding” is that it often allows suppositions about purpose/intention to creep into one’s thinking.)  This is exactly what Thomas was doing when he formulated the teleological argument for the existence of god, and, as the argument is a reflection of mid-13th century thought, we really can’t blame him for lacking the scientific prowess and insight to know better than to use supernatural explanations  to try to account for natural phenomena.  After all, it is only within the last 150-200 years that advances in science and technology have afforded us the opportunity to begin to understand the natural world in natural terms.  That said, another reason behind the staying power of the teleological argument comes to light: the church has been drilling the argument into its subjects for nearly 750 years, and the scientific community has only been able to respond with counter-evidence in the past 200.  However, this persistence does not make the argument tenable: we don’t throw virgins into volcanoes anymore, either.

For those individuals who base their belief in god on the teleological argument, I will grant the following: it almost makes sense.  Before a certain point in history it is very easy to understand why someone, when observing Nature, would ask, “I wonder who created this?”  After all, we can look at a painting and know who painted it.  If we sit down for a home-cooked meal we know who made the food we are about to enjoy.  “Who?” is one of the default questions we learn to ask when searching for (efficient) cause.  But, perhaps most important to our present discussion, “who” implies personhood (or at least intelligent agency).  Thus, the very nature of the question, “Who created Nature?” implies the existence of a sentient being outside of Nature.  (No being within Nature could have created it.)  There are two criticisms of the teleological argument that spin off from this point.

First, and of particular concern for theists, is the anthropomorphic nature of the question, “Who?”  As stated above, the nature of the question implies personhood, and, in most cases, a very human personhood.  This is a problem for theists because it is not at all straightforwardly clear that, if there were a who that created all of Nature, that such a who would be anything like a human being.  To quote Xenophanes,

“Mortals deem that gods are…as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form…yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as (humans) do, horses would paint the forms of gods like horses, and and oxen like oxen…” (1)

There is a second criticism that spins off from the question, “Who created this?”  And it is that the efficient cause is not always a who.  Consider an oak tree.  We know that oak trees grow from acorns, and that acorns come from oak trees.  So, if one were to walk outside and ask, “Who created this?” about an oak tree, they would have already confused themselves.  The proper question to ask is, “What state of affairs came about to bring this oak tree into existence?”  This question allows for the involvement of a who within the state of affairs leading up to the tree, but does not constrain the set of possible answers.  And we know the answer to the latter question about the oak tree: an acorn was buried and, over time, grew into the tree.  (Some philosophers think that the answer to this question must be pushed back another level.  They would say that another oak tree caused the oak tree in question, because the first tree supplied the acorn.  Others think that causation must be pushed back even further than second-level.  This may be the case, but at some point practical considerations must limit the depth of inquiry.)

Taking one very large step up in scope, let us apply this same question to Nature as a whole.  As I stated above, before a certain point in history it is very easy to understand why someone, when observing Nature, would ask, “I wonder who created this?”  What they were actually asking may have been something akin to my restated question, “What state of affairs came about to bring ____ into existence?” but they had already partially answered this question, perhaps unconsciously, by assuming that the causal mechanism involved a who.  At one time this was an understandable and acceptable, even expected, assumption.  Today it is neither.  Science and mathematics have provided us with the technology and methodology necessary to understand that much of Nature can be understood and accounted for without having to invoke a who as a causal mechanism.  (And I can think of no reason, aside from a nuclear war, to suspect that we will not, one day, be able to account for all of Nature in naturalistic terms.)  This being the case, any serious consideration of the teleological argument for the existence of god has met its end.

That said, I suppose that it is still possible to believe in a creative deity of some sort, but, as I like to say, an individual with such beliefs is doing little more than stapling god onto the back of a system that doesn’t need the extra weight.  (Occam’s razor)

Besides, isn’t the idea that it all just happened more fascinating anyway?

Void damn the distance.


(1) From Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy.


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