Nature versus art

I’ve been meaning to put the debate between Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) metaphysics and “Intelligent Design” (ID) theory aside for a time, but Vincent Torley and Thomas Cudworth have recently raised objections and questions (here, here, and here) to which I would like to respond.  I will have to do so at some length, I’m afraid, because Torley’s first post is itself very long, and because there are many background issues that need to be clarified before Torley’s and Cudworth’s remarks can be addressed.  In this post I will set out the relevant background ideas, and in a second post I will consider Torley’s and Cudworth’s points.  After that I intend to give the subject a rest for a long while – to the chagrin of some readers perhaps, but (I suspect) to the relief of many.

The issues that divide A-T and ID essentially boil down to the question of whether organisms and other natural objects are usefully thought of as “artifacts” of a sort.  So it will be crucial to remind ourselves of what A-T philosophers mean when they distinguish artifacts from natural objects, or “art” from “nature.” 

Let’s illustrate the distinction in terms of a simple example.  A liana vine – the kind of vine Tarzan likes to swing on – is a natural object.  A hammock that Tarzan might construct from living liana vines is an artifact.  The parts of the liana vine have an inherent tendency to function together to allow the liana to exhibit the growth patterns it does, to take in water and nutrients, and so forth.  By contrast, the parts of the hammock – the liana vines themselves – have no inherent tendency to function together as a hammock.  Rather, they must be arranged by Tarzan to do so, and left to their own devices – that is to say, without pruning, occasional rearrangement, and the like – they will tend to grow the way they otherwise would have had Tarzan not interfered with them, including in ways that will impede their performance as a hammock.  Their natural tendency is to be liana-like and not hammock-like; the hammock-like function they perform after Tarzan ties them together is extrinsic or imposed from outside, while the liana-like functions are intrinsic or immanent to them.

To put the point in terms of Aristotelian metaphysical categories, a liana vine is a compound of substantial form and prime matter (i.e. matter devoid of any form at all – something which for A-T is only an abstraction, since matter in the actual world always has some substantial form or other).  The hammock qua hammock is not such a compound.  Its existence involves instead the imposition of an accidental form on components each of which already has a substantial form, namely the substantial form of a liana vine.  The liana-like tendencies of the vines are instances of immanent or “built in” final causality or teleology.  The hammock-like tendencies of the vines are instances of extrinsic final causality or teleology imposed “from outside.”  A liana vine is a true substance.  The hammock is not a true substance, precisely because it does not qua hammock have a substantial form but only an accidental form.  It is a “substance” only in a loose sense.

A group of liana vines which has through chance taken on a hammock-like arrangement also does not count as a true substance either, any more than a pattern made by a trail of ants that looks vaguely like the word “No” is really the word “No.”  For while this arrangement is not an artifact (not having been deliberately constructed, as Tarzan’s hammock was), the resulting object still does not have the substantial form of a hammock (if there were such a thing as the “substantial form of a hammock”), but is a mere accidental arrangement of parts, like a heap of stones that has formed at the bottom of a hill over time.  So though in one sense it obviously occurred “naturally,” it is not a “natural” object in the sense in which nature is contrasted with art, since a tendency to work together in a “hammock-like” way is not inherent to the parts.

Now what’s true of a hammock (or a hammock-like chance object) made of living liana vines is no less true of a hammock made of dead liana vines, even though the difference between art and nature in this case is less dramatic.  For while the dead vines will not exhibit the growth patterns the living vines will (thus constantly threatening to upset the hammock-like function Tarzan has imposed on them) they still have no inherent or built in tendency to function as a hammock.  Being dead, they have lost the substantial form of liana vines, but they have not taken on the substantial form of a hammock (if, again, there were such a thing).  Rather, they have the very same substantial form that other bits of dead liana lying randomly around the forest have – the substantial form of a kind of wood, say.  Perhaps this substantial form gives them enough durability to make them useful to put together into the form of a hammock, but that does not mean that they now have a natural “hammock-like” tendency per se, only that they have a natural tendency toward a certain degree of durability (which might also make them useful for making lots of things other than hammocks). 

What is true of hammocks is from an A-T point of view true also of watches, cars, computers, houses, airplanes, telephones, cups, coats, beds, doorstops, and countless other things.  Like the hammock, they are artifacts rather than true substances because their specifically watch-like, car-like, computer-like, etc. tendencies are extrinsic rather than immanent, the result of externally imposed accidental forms rather than substantial forms. 

It should be obvious from this why the A-T philosopher has no sympathy for William Paley-style “design arguments” or for “Intelligent Design” theory.  For these approaches begin by comparing natural objects like organisms to such artifacts as watches or outboard motors, and for the A-T philosopher that is precisely not what they are.  To be sure, the A-T philosopher is happy to acknowledge that natural objects are in some respects comparable to artifacts – for example, both natural objects and artifacts exhibit teleology (even if intrinsic teleology in the one case, and mere extrinsic teleology in the other).  But that is by itself of no more interest than the fact that natural objects are also comparable to all sorts of other things – to fictional characters, say (insofar as both real horses and Mr. Ed like to eat apples, insofar as I and James Bond both like to drink martinis, and so forth), or to numbers (insofar as natural objects and numbers are in some sense both real, insofar as we can have knowledge of both of these kinds of thing, and so forth). 

Now it would be silly to say “Let’s suppose that natural objects are fictional objects and that the universe as a whole is a kind of fictional story, and on that basis argue for a divine Author who thought up these fictional objects” or “Let’s suppose that natural objects are numbers, and on that basis argue for a divine Mathematician.”  Natural objects are not fictional objects, and they are not numbers either, and it is a complete waste of time to pretend that they are for such purposes, even if just “for the sake of argument.”  This remains so even if it might for some other purposes be useful (as it is) to compare the world to a work of fiction and God to its Author.  The point is that this is not a good way to begin an argument for the existence of God, because the key premise of the argument is false and because the implications of the comparison it rests on are dangerously misleading if used as a way of developing a conception of God’s relationship to the world.  (For example, if we really thought of ourselves and other natural objects on the model of fictional characters, we might be tempted to an occasionalist view of God’s relationship to the world.)

Similarly, since natural objects are (for the A-T philosopher) simply not artifacts in the relevant sense, it is a waste of time to argue for a divine designer on the basis of the assumption that they are, even if this assumption is made only “for the sake of argument.”  For since the assumption is false, the argument will be completely useless for establishing the existence of anything, much less God.  And to the extent that we let ourselves be guided by this assumption in developing our understanding of God’s relationship to the world, we might be led into theological error.  (For example, we might think of God in crudely anthropomorphic terms as a mere extremely clever engineer, might think of the world as at least in principle capable of operating apart from God’s sustaining causality, as a machine operates in the absence of the machinist, and so forth.  I have discussed the theological problems with the “divine watchmaker” approach to conceiving of God in some of my earlier posts on Paley and ID theory, such as this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one.)

Notice that it would also be silly for someone to allege, in response to my claim that natural objects are not fictional objects: “You are denying that there is a divine Author of nature!  You are putting Thomism in bondage to atheism!”  No, I’m not denying that God is the Author of nature.  I’m denying that natural objects are fictional objects, and I’m denying that thinking of them as fictional objects is a good reason for thinking of God as the Author of nature.  It would also be silly to say, in response to my claim that natural objects are not numbers: “You are denying that God knows mathematics!”  No, I’m not denying that God knows mathematics.  I’m denying that natural objects are numbers, and I’m denying that thinking of natural objects as numbers is a good reason for saying that God knows mathematics. 

Similarly, when I say that natural objects are not artifacts, this does not in any way entail (contrary to what Vincent Torley had implied in the original version of a recent post) that I think that natural objects are not designed by God – on the contrary, I hold that they are designed by God.  Nor does it entail (contrary to what Jay Richards seems (perhaps unintentionally) to imply) that I would deny that when God creates them He does so in light of archetypes which pre-exist in the divine intellect – on the contrary, I would say He does create them in this fashion.  If to say that natural objects are artifacts designed by God were merely to say that God creates them and does so in light of archetypes pre-existing in His intellect, then yes, of course natural objects are in that sense artifacts designed by God.  But that is not all that the Paleyan or the ID theorist means when he says that natural objects are artifacts.  He means also that they are not natural objects in the A-T sense of “natural,” or at least that they should not be treated as such for purposes of arguing for a designer.  Rather, the Paleyan or ID theorist thinks that natural objects should be understood on the model of what the A-T philosopher means by an “artifact.”  (Certainly William Dembski has explicitly said that ID does so, and said also that ID operates with a “mechanical” – and thus non-Aristotelian – conception of natural objects at least for the sake of argument.  More on this in the next post in this series.)

From an A-T point of view, this is simply a muddle.  To say that this liana vine is a fictional object would be nonsensical.  To say that this liana vine is a number would also be nonsensical.  And to say that this liana vine is an artifact is nonsensical too.  Hammocks made out of liana vines are artifacts, but liana vines themselves are not and could not be.  The notion of an artifact presupposes the natural substances out of which it is made, so that (from an A-T point of view, anyway) it can hardly make sense to think of natural substances themselves as “artifacts.”  When God creates natural objects, then, He does not do so by virtue of making artifacts – not because there is any limitation on His power, but for the same reason that He does not create circles by drawing crooked lines and does not create a horse by making an animal with gills.  Circles do not have crooked lines, horses do not have gills, and natural objects are not artifacts, and that’s why God doesn’t make crooked circles, horses with gills, or natural objects that are artifacts. 

Nor does any of this entail either that animal species arose through evolutionary processes or that they did not so arise – that is a separate issue.  It might turn out that such-and-such an organism could not have arisen through natural selection.  But if so, this would not be because it is a kind of artifact whose parts are very unlikely to have been arranged except by a divine artificer, because organisms, being natural objects, are not artifacts in the first place, and (therefore) they don’t have parts with substantial forms of their own which may or may not have been brought together – either by a divine artificer or by impersonal evolutionary processes – so as to take on the accidental form of a certain kind of organism (in the way the parts of a watch come together to take on the accidental form of a watch).  That’s just a category mistake, a completely wrongheaded way of thinking of organisms in the first place, and no more promising as a way of understanding them than thinking of them as fictional characters or as numbers would be. 

As I have said, such thinking also has, from an A-T point of view, disastrous theological implications, and disastrous metaphysical and moral implications too.  If natural objects are “artifacts,” then they have no immanent final causality or teleology.  And if they have no immanent final causality or teleology, then they are not compounds of act and potency (since potency presupposes immanent final causality), and there is no basis for arguing from their existence to God as their Purely Actual cause.  If they have no substantial forms, then the soul is not the substantial form of the body, and the interaction problem looms (along with its materialist sequel).  If natural objects have no substantial forms or immanent teleology, then human beings (who are natural objects) have no substantial forms or immanent teleology, and the metaphysical foundations of classical natural law theory are undermined.  (These are large issues, but readers of The Last Superstition and of Aquinas will understand why the A-T philosopher regards the pulling of the thread of Aristotelian formal and final causes to unravel the whole sweater of traditional moral philosophy and theology.)

Given all of this, the mystery is not why so many Thomists are so critical of ID theory.  The mystery is why anyone thinks it mysterious that they are critical of it.  A-T and ID are simply incompatible at the level of fundamental metaphysics.  But Vincent Torley nevertheless demurs, and Thomas Cudworth raises a question of his own about my objections to ID theory.  We’ll turn to them in the next post.


Hunter on TLS

Philosopher Graeme Hunter kindly reviews The Last Superstition in the latest issue of Touchstone.  From the review:

Feser is a talented philosopher who can present Christian thought in broad strokes or in fine detail with equal authority. His book is notable for the clarity with which it reassembles the essential elements of Christian philosophy – showing its debt to ancient Greece, its development in the Middle Ages, and its canonical expression in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Feser then uses his expertise in later philosophy to isolate certain interconnected fallacies of thought, from the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and up to the present, fallacies that have insinuated themselves into our thinking, limiting our ability to think clearly about science, truth, God, and the human condition.

You need have no prior knowledge of the history of philosophy to follow Feser’s guided tour, but he takes for granted a reader prepared to go slowly and think things through. The reward for doing so is great. Though I have spent a lifetime teaching and writing about the same matters as this book discusses, I was challenged and instructed on almost every page…

It is rather to Feser’s credit that he sometimes allows himself (and his reader) the simple pleasure of scoffing at the other side…

The reader who begins this book prepared to think will end it thinking much more effectively. He will see the new atheism for the stale, unprofitable confusion it is. At the same time he will accumulate some useful ammunition for the culture wars. Few books reward our labor so richly.


Happy Birthday

I am pleased to announce that my wife Rachel gave birth yesterday to our sixth child, Gwendolyn Marie Feser.  Cigars all around.  Posting may be light for a little while.

Update: Many thanks for the very kind wishes of all my readers.  Here is a pic of Gwendolyn doing her best Alfred Hitchcock impression while held by her sister Gemma:


Easter Triduum

Frank Turek of the radio program CrossExamined informs me that they will be rerunning his recent interview with me this Saturday at 10 am ET and again on Easter at 5 pm ET.  You can listen here.  I wish all my readers a holy Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Those who have not seen them might find of interest my posts from last year on “The Meaning of the Passion” and “The Meaning of the Resurrection.”


Uncommon Descent update

My readers should know that Vincent Torley has added a disclaimer to his recent post, apologizing for any misrepresentation of my views contained in the post.  I appreciate this, and I apologize if the tone of my original response to Torley and his fellow ID defenders Jay Richards and Denyse O’Leary (which I have since replaced) was excessively harsh.  Torley has also put up another post, as has Thomas Cudworth.  I will reply to them as soon as I am able.

The God above God

I’m not a big fan of Paul Tillich.  As a philosopher, he was too muddleheaded; as a theologian, too modernist.  But even muddleheaded modernists get a genuine insight now and again.  Tillich arguably did when he spoke of “the God above God,” though he presented it poorly and with an admixture of serious error. 

Let’s look first at the insight, then the error.  Tillich presents the idea in question in his book The Courage to Be, where he contrasts his position with that of what he calls “theological theism.”  And what is that?  Tillich characterizes it as follows:

The God of theological theism is a being beside others and as such a part of the whole of reality.  He certainly is considered its most important part, but as a part and therefore as subjected to the structure of the whole.  He is supposed to be beyond the ontological elements and categories which constitute reality.  But every statement subjects him to them.  He is seen as a self which has a world, as an ego which is related to a thou, as a cause which is separated from its effect, as having a definite space and an endless time.  He is a being, not being-itself… God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity.  He is equated with the recent tyrants who with the help of terror try to transform everything into a mere object, a thing among things, a cog in the machine they control.  He becomes the model of everything against which Existentialism revolted.  This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control.  This is the deepest root of atheism.  (pp. 184-85)

Clearly what Tillich has in mind here is an anthropomorphic conception of God that sees Him as “a being” and “a person” alongside other beings and persons, one who, like us, “has” power, knowledge, goodness, and the like, only to a much higher degree.  This is the conception of God which started to enter the mainstream of Western theology with the the work of William of Ockham, whose nominalism tended to make of God merely one individual among others (as Tillich notes in his A History of Christian Thought and as we discussed in an earlier post).  It is a conception which was further cemented by writers like William Paley, whose conception of God as a kind of cosmic machinist reinforced the anthropomorphic tendency to see God as “one of us” (as Joan Osborne might put it), just smarter and stronger.  (I’ve discussed Paley here, here, here, and here.)  It is the conception taken for granted in the “one god further” objection to theism (which we’ve recently considered here and here).

What conception of God would Tillich advocate in place of this faulty one?  The answer is implicit in this passage from Ultimate Concern: Tillich in Dialogue, in which Tillich responds to a student who had asked whether “existence” would be a better term than “being” for Tillich to use in expressing his position:

“Existence” is a most unrefined alternative to the word “being,” because it omits the potentialities of existence which we usually call the essences of things.  And they have being, too; they are the power of being, which may become beings.  For instance, even if suddenly a scourge should cause all trees to disappear, the tree, or the power of becoming a tree, would still be there; and given the right conditions, living trees might come into existence again.  Here you have a clear differentiation between essence and existence, which are two types of being.  And then there is of course that being which is beyond essence and existence, which, in the tradition of the classical theology of all centuries, we call God – or, if you prefer, “being itself” or “ground of being.”  And this “being” does not merely exist and is not merely essential but transcends that differentiation, which otherwise belongs to everything finite. (p. 45)

Fans of Scholasticism will recognize in this response an allusion to the doctrine that while everything in the created order is a compound of an essence with an act of existing, God is not composite in any way but just is being itself – His essence is His existence – and the source (or “ground”) of the limited being of things which are composed of essence and existence (though I would want at least to qualify Tillich’s description of essence as a “power of being”).  In other words, Tillich is here affirming the core of the Thomistic conception of God, and of the conception endorsed by many classical theists more generally – a conception which, when fully worked out, entails that God does not “have” power, knowledge, goodness, etc. but just is His power, knowledge, goodness, etc. (the doctrine of divine simplicity).

Tillich’s view is that the objections of atheists are primarily directed at the crude conception of God enshrined in what he calls “theological theism,” as well as in what he takes to be other deficient conceptions of God (such as those entailed by certain poetical or political uses of the concept of God).  But they have nothing to do with the correct conception of God, with what he calls “the God above the God of theism.”  The existential crisis of the modern world has arisen in part because we have, rightly in Tillich’s view, lost faith in the anthropomorphic God of “theological theism.”  But the answer to that crisis – the source of a renewed “courage to be” (to use Tillich’s brand of existentialist jargon) and an answer to atheism – lay in a rediscovery of the correct understanding of God: “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.” (The Courage to Be, p. 190)

In that much there is much truth (though I’d happily lose the Tillichian lingo in which it is embedded).  The anthropomorphic “machinist” God of Newton and Paley was indeed a step on the way to deism, which was in turn a step on the way to the atheistic conception of the world as a “machine” which might be said always to have been running, without any machinist.  Many skeptics do recoil at the idea of God precisely because they falsely suppose it to be the idea of an all-powerful egomaniac, Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il writ large – a supposition that only makes sense if one conceives of God as “a being” among other beings.  Tillich is also right to see in the Scholastic doctrine of essence and existence the key to a sound understanding of God.  And he is at least to some extent right when he suggests that when philosophers and theologians have debated the classical arguments for God’s existence, “the one group did not attack what the other group defended.  They were not divided by a conflict over the same matter.  They fought over different matters which they expressed in the same terms” (Systematic Theology, Volume 1, p. 204).  As I have argued in The Last Superstition and Aquinas, the usual objections to the classical arguments for God’s existence rest on a number of misunderstandings, including misconceptions about the nature of the God of classical theism, whose existence the (main) arguments aim to establish.  Atheist criticisms often presuppose an anthropomorphic conception of God that has nothing to do with the arguments of writers like Aristotle, Plotinus, Anselm, Maimonides, or Aquinas.

But don’t get too excited, because Tillich also says some very strange and wrong-headed things.  The remark of his I just quoted was not made in the context of a defense of the traditional arguments for God’s existence; on the contrary, he disapproved of the very idea of presenting such arguments, holding that “the method of arguing through a conclusion… contradicts the idea of God” (Ibid., p. 205).  Or consider this mixture of insight and oddity from the same work (Systematic Theology, Volume 1):

The ground of being cannot be found within the totality of beings, nor can the ground of essence and existence participate in the tensions and disruptions characteristic of the transition from essence to existence.  The scholastics were right when they asserted that in God there is no difference between essence and existence.  But they perverted their insight when in spite of this assertion they spoke of the existence of God and tried to argue in favor of it.  Actually, they did not mean “existence.”  They meant the reality, the validity, the truth of the idea of God, an idea which did not carry the connotation of something or someone who might or might not exist.  Yet this is the way in which the idea of God is understood today in scholarly as well as in popular discussions about the “existence of God.”  It would be a very great victory for Christian apologetics if the words “God” and “existence” were very definitely separated except in the paradox of God becoming manifest under the conditions of existence, that is, in the christological paradox.  God does not exist.  He is being-itself beyond essence and existence.  Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him. (p. 205)

How could a theologian possibly object to speaking of God’s “existence” – even to the point of saying that “God does not exist”?  Is Tillich really a kind of atheist?  And what could it possibly mean to say that to argue for God’s existence is really to “deny” God and “contradicts the idea of God”? 

The answer has to do, in part, with an eccentric use of language on Tillich’s part to express an entirely innocent point.  (See Robert R. N. Ross’s 1975 article “The Non-Existence of God: Tillich, Aquinas, and the Pseudo-Dionysius,” from The Harvard Theological Review, for a useful discussion of these issues, though Ross doesn’t put things exactly the way I will.)  I said above that on the doctrine of divine simplicity, God does not “have” power, knowledge, and goodness, but is His power, knowledge, and goodness.  Part of the point of this doctrine is to emphasize that God does not “participate in” or instantiate such attributes, as if He shared them in common with other things, and merely had them to a higher degree.  Rather, He is Himself the standard by reference to which other things have whatever power, knowledge, and goodness they have.  In the same way, one might say that God does not “have” existence, as if He “participated in” existence or were merely one instance of an existing thing among others, as created things are.  Rather, He just is Being Itself or Pure Actuality.  When Tillich says that “God does not exist,” it seems evident that that is what he is getting at – that God does not “have” existence the way other things do, i.e. by virtue of their essences being conjoined to an act of existing.  God’s reality is higher than that, since His essence and existence are identical.  A Thomist would say that there is in God something analogous to what we call existence in us – that God’s existence is not the same as ours, not because God is less real than we are but precisely because He is more real than we are.  And given the Thomistic doctrine of analogy, there is no difficulty at all in saying that God exists, any more than there is in saying that He has power, knowledge, or goodness.  Tillich, it seems, prefers to reserve the term “existence” for created things – which leads to needless confusion (but also allows him to say familiar things in a provocative way, which seems to be common shtick with 20th century continental thinkers).  Even so, Tillich allows that “if existence in God is thought of as united with his essence, I could apply this concept to the divine life” (Charles Kegley and Robert Bretall, eds., The Theology of Paul Tillich, p. 339).

Naturally, this objection to the word “existence” as applied to God is part of the reason Tillich objects to arguments for God’s existence.  But even if one speaks instead of the reality or being of God, Tillich does not think arguments can get us to Him.  Why not?  The answer seems to be that, precisely because God is “being itself” and the “ground” of the being of other things, His reality is in Tillich’s view presupposed in everything we do, including the giving of arguments.  Tillich says in an early article that:

It is meaningless to ask… whether the Unconditional “exists,”… For the question whether the Unconditional exists presupposes already… that which exists unconditionally.  The certainty of the Unconditional is the grounding certainty from which all doubt can proceed, but it can never itself be the object of doubt.  Therefore the object of religion is not only real, but is also the presupposition of every affirmation of reality. (“The Philosophy of Religion,” p. 71, quoted at p. 164 of Ross)

But if God is presupposed in the very asking of questions and in the giving of arguments in answer to them, then (Tillich, as I read him, seems to conclude) God cannot intelligibly be arrived at via argument.  Thus, far from entailing atheism, Tillich’s view (if I understand him correctly – the view is not expressed very clearly) seems to be that God’s reality is not less certain than the sort of thing we can arrive at via argument, but more certain. 

Still, this is, from a Thomistic point of view, a muddle.  The Thomist will certainly agree that we could do nothing at all, including argue for (or against) God’s existence, unless God were sustaining us in being at every instant.  But it simply doesn’t follow from this that we cannot or need not argue for God’s existence.  On the contrary, that there is and must be such a thing as that which is “being itself” and the “ground of being” – something apart from which we could not persist in existence even for a moment – is something we do know and can know only as a result of the metaphysical analysis enshrined in arguments like the Five Ways.  Even Tillich, insofar as he argues that God qua “being itself” and the “ground of being” is presupposed in the very act of raising the question of God’s reality, is really giving an argument for God’s existence (even if he does not see that this is what he is doing, and even though he does so in only the sketchiest way).  We might compare the situation here with the Thomistic view of Anselm’s ontological argument: Aquinas agrees with Anselm that God’s essence is such that His existence necessary follows from it (naturally, given that His essence just is His existence).  But that God exists – that there really is something whose essence is such that His existence follows from it – is still something we cannot know a priori, but have to reason to.  Similarly, that there is a “ground of being” whose existence is presupposed in the very act of asking or arguing about Him – and Aquinas would agree with Tillich that there is – is nevertheless something which must itself be established by argument.

It also doesn’t help that Tillich in at least one place puts the point by saying that “the question of God is possible because an awareness of God is present in the question of God.  This awareness precedes the question.  It is not the result of the argument but its presupposition” (Systematic Theology, Volume 1, p. 206, emphasis added).  On any straightforward reading, this is simply false: A sincere doubter would say that it is precisely because he is not “aware” of God that he is raising the question of whether God exists.  But I suspect that Tillich does not in fact intend a straightforward reading.  In speaking of an “awareness of God,” I suspect that Tillich either means an “awareness” of God as rightly understood (as opposed to understood in light of an erroneous conception of God, such as that enshrined in what Tillich calls “theological theism”), or intends the expression as a roundabout way of referring to the reality of God, of which we would be “aware” if only we reflected carefully.  Or perhaps he intends to make a phenomenological claim of some sort – though in this case his position wouldn’t have the metaphysical significance it seemed at first glance to have.

As all of this indicates, Tillich is not the most lucid or rigorous of thinkers.  He sometimes speaks in needlessly provocative ways, gives vague arguments, and makes sweeping claims.  (For example, Tillich seems too ready to regard atheism as philosophically serious – which it sometimes is, but a glance at the work of the New Atheists reveals that atheists can also be pretty shallow and intellectually dishonest.)  He also makes claims of dubious orthodoxy; for instance, he says in The Courage to Be that even aspects of “biblical religion and historical Christianity” must, like “theological theism,” be “transcended” – though he says that this is because they are “one-sided” whereas “theological theism” is “wrong.”  (In fact, and as I have argued here before, there is no conflict between the classical theist conception of God and the biblical and Christian conception of God.)  His views on other theological matters – such as Christ’s resurrection, or on Christian morality – are no less dubious.

As I said, too muddleheaded, too modernist.  A broken watch is right twice a day, but you’re better off with one that works reliably.

State Cows

I recently got an email from Daniel Andersson of the Swedish band State Cows about their new eponymous album.  It’s terrific – I’ve been playing it for days now.  “State Cows” is an anagram of “West Coast,” and if you dig the Westcoast sound – think Steely Dan, Michael McDonald, Michael Franks, or Toto – you’ll dig these guys.  Some samples, courtesy of YouTube: “Lost in a Mind Game,” “New York Town,” “Painting a Picture,” and “Looney Gunman.”  Break out the Cuervo Gold – leave aside the fine Colombian – and give a listen.

(No pretentious pop music analysis this time, sorry – for that, see my earlier posts on Steely Dan, Lady Gaga, Thelonious Monk, and jazz and modern culture more generally.)


Uncommonly careless

Some recent remarks made by contributors to the Uncommon Descent blog seriously misrepresent my criticisms of “Intelligent Design” theoryOne of them insinuates that I deny “that it is possible for a living thing to be the product of design”; another claims that I “attack [the] evidence for design in nature”; most bizarrely, a third alleges that I put Thomism “in bondage to atheism.”  In fact I have, of course, never denied that the natural world is designed by God, much less that we can reason from the existence of the world to the existence of God.  (These would be rather strange views to take for someone who has vigorously defended each of Aquinas’s Five Ways.)  As I emphasized in a recent post:

The dispute between Thomism on the one hand and Paley (and ID theory) on the other is not over whether God is in some sense the “designer” of the universe and of living things – both sides agree that He is – but rather over what exactly it means to say that He is, and in particular over the metaphysics of life and of creation.

There have been other serious misrepresentations from the Uncommon Descent camp as well, which I have addressed here and here.  Irritation at this pattern of misrepresentations led me yesterday to post a fairly harsh response.  Vincent Torley, one of the writers to whom I was responding, assures me that he did not intend to misrepresent my views.  I will take him at his word, and I have removed my response of yesterday.  But it does seem to me that Torley and other Uncommon Descent contributors are sometimes culpably negligent in their mischaracterizations of their opponents’ views, even if no malice is intended.  And I think that this should be clear to anyone who has actually carefully read what I’ve written.  I will leave it at that.


A reprint is not a reply

Some of my readers seem to think that Jay Richards’ recent series of posts over at Evolution News and Views (here and here) constitute a reply to my recent post about Richards.  But in fact Richards has merely been reprinting, in several installments, the very essay of his that I was criticizing in my post!  He is, quite literally, just repeating himself without actually responding to my objections.  Moreover, Richards himself says in the first of his posts that that is all he is doing.  The brief introductory material he adds there mainly just summarizes some of the claims he makes in his essay – claims I already answered in my original post – without adding anything new. 

(Actually, there is one new tidbit there: Richards informs us that he “agree[s] with Duns Scotus' critique of what he took to be Thomas' view of [analogical predication].”  Readers of my original post on Richards will note the irony.) 

So, in answer to any readers who might be wondering whether I’m going to reply to Richards’ “latest”: I already did reply! You should be asking him when he’s going to reply to me.  (When he does, I guess I can just reprint my original post about him and people will think it’s a reply…)


A further thought on the “one god further” objection

We’ve been beating up on the “one god further” objection to theism.  Here’s another way to look at the problem with it.  The objection, you’ll recall, goes like this:

When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

Suppose I go along with the gag.  Why do I dismiss all other gods?
Well, in part because there is ample reason to think they do not exist.  But also – and far more importantly – because even if they did exist, they would all in various respects be less than ultimate and thus would not be truly divine and worthy of worship.  So, for example, if the gods of Olympus existed, we would expect to find them living atop Mount Olympus, and they don’t.  But even if they did exist – suppose they return to Olympus when no one is looking, or reside in some other dimension as in the Marvel Comics version of the Olympian gods – they would all in various respects manifest limitations and defects that show them to be mere creatures like us, even if more grand creatures than we are.  Hence, as we know from mythology, they are all supposed to suffer myriad limitations on their power, and to be motivated by various petty concerns.  They come into existence, just as we do.  They can be startled when the face of the guy they’re about to kiss comes peeling off to reveal a leering skull.  (Just check out Aphrodite – also known as Venus – on that comic book cover up above!  You’d think the skeleton hands would have been a clue that something was up with this dude…)

In short, the gods of Olympus, or of any of the other pantheons for that matter, are all essentially finite, contingent beings like us, about as impressive as extraterrestrials – which might be very impressive indeed, of course, but still within the order of creation.  In particular (and to be more philosophically precise) they would all be mixtures of actuality and potentiality and compounds of essence and existence, would all be governed by principles outside themselves, and would all be less than absolutely necessary in their existence and imperfect in their natures.  And that means that, no less than we do, they would depend for their being on that which is Pure Actuality, that which is Being Itself (i.e. in which essence and existence are identical), that which exists in an absolutely necessary and independent way and in which all the diverse, derivative, and finite perfections manifest in the world of our experience exist in a united, underived, and infinite way.  That is to say, they, no less than we, would depend for their being on the God of classical theism.

Of course, you might reject classical theism on other grounds, but to pretend that it is subject to the same sorts of objections that might be presented against the gods of Olympus is simply to miss the central point of 2500 years of philosophical reflection on the question of God’s existence and nature.  For from at least Xenophanes onward, it has been understood by Western philosophers that the only divinity worthy of the name is that which is not “a being” among other beings or in any way less than metaphysically ultimate.  Thus, the main problem with all so-called “gods” other than the God of classical theism is not that they don’t exist.  It is rather that even if they did exist, they would not be the ultimate source of reality and thus would not be truly divine or worthy of worship.  Worshipping Zeus or Thor, for example, would still be idolatrous and irrational even if they existed and the God of classical theism did not.  The rational response called for in such a circumstance would not be “Well, it turns out that the one thing worthy of worship doesn’t exist, so let’s instead worship one of these half-assed pseudo-deities.  Thor’s got a new movie coming out, so I’ll go with him…”  Rather, it would be “The one thing worthy of worship doesn’t exist, so, naturally, there’s nothing worth worshipping.”  But then, a world without the God of classical theism would as a matter of metaphysical necessity be utterly unintelligible anyway, so there wouldn’t be any point in doing much of anything, much less worshipping false gods. 

Good thing, then, that a world without the God of classical theism is (since the world is intelligible) metaphysically impossible.  Indeed, the same writers who developed the classical theistic understanding of the nature of God also put forward cogent arguments for His existence, and the two issues are deeply interrelated.  For the arguments that are, historically, the central arguments for theism – those developed within the Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, and Thomistic and other Scholastic traditions – are precisely arguments for a cause of the world which could not even in principle be less than ultimate or absolutely unique.  To see why there must be a God is precisely to see why He cannot intelligibly be compared to other so-called “gods.”  (See chapter 3 of Aquinas for my fullest defense of the main arguments.)  But even someone who rejected those arguments as proofs of God’s existence must, if he understood them, at least agree that such a comparison would be ludicrous.

In response to the “one god further” objection, then, nothing further need be said but this: 

When you understand why I dismiss all other gods, you’ll understand why I dismiss your “one god further” objection as puerile.


The “one god further” objection

A reader calls attention to Bill Vallicella’s reply to what might be called the “one god further” objection to theism.  Bill sums up the objection as follows:

The idea, I take it, is that all gods are on a par, and so, given that everyone is an atheist with respect to some gods, one may as well make a clean sweep and be an atheist with respect to all gods. You don't believe in Zeus or in a celestial teapot. Then why do you believe in the God of Isaac, Abraham, and Jacob?

Or as the Common Sense Atheism blog used to proclaim proudly on its masthead:

When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

I see that that blog has now removed this one-liner, which is perhaps a sign that intellectual progress is possible even among New Atheist types.  Because while your average “Internet Infidel” seems to regard the “one god further” objection as devastatingly clever, it is in fact embarrassingly inept, a sign of the extreme decadence into which secularist “thought” has fallen in the Age of Dawkins. 

Suppose someone skeptical about Euclidean geometry said:

When you understand why you regard all the particular triangles you’ve observed as having sides that are less than perfectly straight, you will understand why I regard Euclidean plane triangles as such to have sides that are less than perfectly straight.

Or suppose a critic of Platonism said:

When you understand why you regard the things of ordinary experience as in various ways imperfect or less than fully good instances of their kinds, you will understand why I regard Plato’s Form of the Good as being less than fully good.

Would these count as devastating objections to Euclidean geometry and Platonism?  Would they serve as fitting mottos for blogs devoted to “Common Sense Anti-Euclideanism” or “Common Sense Anti-Platonism”?  Obviously not.  They would demonstrate only that the speaker didn’t have the slightest clue what the hell he was talking about.

The “one god further” objection is no better than these stupid “objections” would be.  The “Common Sense Anti-Euclidean” objection supposes that the concept of a triangle as defined in textbooks of Euclidean geometry is merely one triangle alongside all the others that one comes across in traffic signs, dinner bells, and the like, only invisible and better drawn.  But of course, that is not what it is at all.  What the textbooks describe is not a triangle, not even an especially well-drawn one, but rather (Euclidean) triangularity itself, and the triangles one comes across in everyday experience are defective precisely because they fail to conform to the standard it represents.  The “Common Sense Anti-Platonism” objection supposes that the Form of the Good is merely one more or less perfect or imperfect instance of some class or category alongside the other instances, albeit an especially impressive one.  But of course, that is not what it is at all.  The Form of the Good doesn’t have goodness in some more or less incomplete way; rather, it just is goodness, participation in which determines the degree of goodness had by things which do have goodness only in some more or less incomplete way.  Similarly, the “Common Sense Atheist” or “one god further” objection supposes that the God of classical theism is merely one further superhuman being alongside others who have found worshippers – Thor, Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, and so forth – only a superhuman being of even greater power, knowledge, and goodness than these other deities have.  But of course, that is not what God is at all.  He is not “a being” alongside other beings, not even an especially impressive one, but rather Being Itself or Pure Actuality, that from which all mere “beings” (including Thor, Zeus, and Quetzalcoatl, if they existed) derive the limited actuality or existence they possess.  Neither does He “have” power, knowledge, goodness, and the like; rather, He is power, knowledge, and goodness (where the “participation” relation in Plato’s theory of Forms is transformed by the classical theist into a relation between created things and their uncaused cause, in light of the doctrine of divine simplicity – and also thereby transformed, by Thomists anyway, into a kind of efficient-causal relation). 

Note that the “Common Sense Anti-Platonist” objection is a silly objection whether or not one accepts Platonism, and that the “Common Sense Anti-Euclidean” objection would be a silly objection whether or not one accepted Euclidean geometry.  In the same way, the “Common Sense Atheist” or “one god further” objection would be a silly objection even if one had other grounds for rejecting classical theism.  In all three cases, the objections represent a failure to understand even the fundamentals of the position one is attacking.

It is no good replying that lots of ordinary religious people conceive of God in all sorts of crude ways at odds with the sophisticated philosophical theology developed by classical theists – ways that make of God something like a glorified Thor or Zeus.  The “man on the street” also believes all sorts of silly things about science – that Darwinism claims that monkeys gave birth to human beings, say, or that molecules are made up of little balls and sticks.  But it would be preposterous for someone to pretend he had landed a blow against Darwinism or modern chemistry by attacking these silly straw men.  Similarly, what matters in evaluating classical theism is not what your Grandpa or your Pastor Bob have to say about it, but rather what serious thinkers like Aristotle, Plotinus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Avicenna, Averroes, Maimonides, and countless others have to say. 

Nor would it be any good to insist that the “one god further” objection is significant at least as a reply to the more anthropomorphic “theistic personalist” conception of God that has replaced the classical theist conception in the thinking of many modern theologians and philosophers of religion.  For one thing, most theistic personalists, though they depart in significant (and in my view disastrous) ways from classical theism, are still committed to a far more sophisticated conception of God than purveyors of the “one god further” objection take as their preferred target.  (Comparing God to the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not a serious reply to a theistic personalist like Plantinga or Swinburne.)  More importantly, purveyors of this objection take themselves to be presenting a serious criticism of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and philosophical theism as such – not merely of this or that modern representative of these views – and the historically mainstream tradition in these religions and in philosophical theology is classical theist, not theistic personalist.  Hence to fail to address the classical theist conception of God is ipso facto to fail seriously to address the claims of these traditions.  In particular, unless one has made a serious study of philosophical theology as it has been developed within the Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, Thomistic and other Scholastic traditions, one’s understanding of traditional Christian, Jewish, and Islamic theology, not to mention philosophical theism, is simply infantile.

Needless to say, your typical “Internet Infidel” or “New Atheist” is entirely innocent of knowledge of these traditions.  Nor is he much interested in finding out what they really have to say – he prefers to spend his time coming up with ever more elaborate rationalizations for refusing to find out.  But like the Myers Shuffle (the secularist rationalization du jour), the “one god further” objection has this much going for it: It is an infallible indicator that one is not dealing with a serious or well-informed skeptic.

[For readers who are interested in learning about classical theism, I have defended it at length in my books The Last Superstition and Aquinas.  I have also had reason to discuss it in several earlier posts, which deal with such issues as divine simplicity, the relationship between classical theism and theistic personalism, and the relevance of the classical theistic understanding of God to issues concerning morality and the problem of evil.  See, for example:

Please read at least the posts linked to before commenting critically on what I’ve written in this one, since I would rather not have to repeat things I’ve said elsewhere.]


Descartes’ “trademark” argument

Descartes presents three arguments for God’s existence in the Meditations: a version of the ontological argument; the “preservation” argument, which is an eccentric variation on the idea of God as First Cause; and the “trademark” argument.  Each of these is problematic, though each is also more interesting and defensible than it is usually given credit for.  I have said something about ontological arguments in a couple of recent posts (here and here), and I might have something to say about the “preservation” argument in a future post.  For now let’s consider the “trademark” argument – probably the most maligned of the three.

The basic thrust of the trademark argument is that the idea of God could not possibly have gotten into the mind unless God Himself put it there.  Its presence in the mind thus constitutes a kind of divine signature or trademark, and therefore shows that God exists.  Like Descartes’ other arguments for God’s existence, the trademark argument starts from premises that can be known by someone in the epistemic situation Descartes finds himself in by the Second Meditation:  He knows that he exists as a thinking thing, but so far that’s all he knows.  Hence he has to work from knowledge of himself and of his ideas alone if he is to come to know anything else.

Descartes is of course well aware that people first come to learn about God from other people, such as parents.  What is at issue is whether this teaching is a matter of introducing into the mind something that wasn’t there before at all, or rather of drawing out of it something that was there already but only unconsciously (like the geometrical knowledge Plato famously has Socrates draw out of the slave in the Meno).  Descartes takes it to be the latter.  But even if it weren’t, we would still need to ask where our parents got the idea of God, where the people they got it from got it, and so on, and Descartes’ argument is intended to show that one way or another, directly or indirectly, the idea of God could only have originated with God Himself.

How is the argument supposed to work?  To understand it requires a prior understanding of several background assumptions that Descartes either borrows from Scholasticism (altering them somewhat in the process) or develops on the basis of Scholastic concepts.  The first is his distinction between the formal reality and the objective reality of an idea.  A thing’s formal reality might be thought of as analogous to its “form” as that would be understood in Scholastic thought – though only analogous, since Descartes rejects the Scholastic doctrine of formal causes.  It is in any event that which a thing has simply by virtue of being the kind of thing it is.  Hence all ideas have the same formal reality since, qua ideas, they are all just modes of a thinking substance.  Ideas differ in their objective reality, however, insofar as they represent different things – as a contemporary philosopher might say, they differ in their “intentional objects” (and thus are in that sense “objectively” different).

Despite the awkwardness of the terminology, the basic idea is simple enough, and can be understood by comparison with other kinds of representations, such as words or pictures.  “Dog” and “cat” are the same kind of thing – they are both words – and thus have the same formal reality.  But they differ in what they refer to – the first refers to dogs, the second to cats – and thus differ in objective reality.  A blueprint of a house and a blueprint of a computer are the same kind of thing – they are both blueprints – and thus have the same formal reality.  But they differ in what they represent – the first represents a house, the second a computer – and thus they differ in objective reality.  Similarly, the idea of a stone and the idea of God are the same kind of thing – they are both ideas – and thus have the same formal reality.  But they differ in what they represent – the first represents stones, the second represents God – and thus they differ in objective reality.  (This marks another respect in which Descartes differs from the Scholastics, who did not regard thought as involving inner “representations.”

Next we have the distinction Descartes draws between degrees of formal reality, of which there are three: Modes have the lowest degree of formal reality; finite substances have a higher degree; and an infinite substance would have the highest degree of reality.  A “mode” would be something like the shape, size, or motion of a stone, which exists only insofar as it inheres in the stone, in contrast to the stone itself which, as a substance, does not inhere in anything.  That’s why it makes sense to say “All I’ve got in my pocket is a stone,” but not “All I’ve got in my pocket is the shape of a stone” – there’s no such thing as the shape of a stone apart from a stone which has it.  The stone thus has an independent existence in a way its shape, size, motion, and other modes do not, and in that sense has a higher degree of reality than they do.  As a finite substance, though, the stone comes into existence and passes out of existence, depends on other things for its existence, and is limited in various other respects as well.  In this way it has a lower degree of reality than an infinite substance – namely God, if God exists (which at this point Descartes does not yet claim to have shown, lest he argue in a circle) – which neither comes into being nor passes away, existing necessarily rather than contingently, and without limitations.  An idea has a particularly low degree of reality since it is not only a kind of mode, but, qua mode of a thinking substance, something with no mind-independent reality at all (which even the modes of the stone have).

The final background assumption we need to understand is something commentators on Descartes often refer to as the Causal Adequacy Principle, according to which a total efficient cause must have, either formally or eminently, at least as much reality as its effect.  This is a variation on the Scholastic Principle of Proportionate Causality (which I discuss and defend in Aquinas).  What it means can be illustrated by a simple example.  Suppose you come across a puddle of thick, red liquid on the ground near an outdoor water faucet.  You know that a leak in the water line could not have caused it all by itself, because a leak might generate a puddle, but not a thick, red puddle, specifically.  There had to be an additional factor as well, such as someone’s spilling cherry soda, or perhaps dropping a “fizzy” tablet into the water.  For whatever is in the effect must in some way or other be in the cause as well, otherwise it couldn’t have gotten into the effect.  Now, it might be in the cause “formally” – that is to say, in the same manner in which it is in the effect – as it is when the cause is red soda and the effect is a red puddle.  Or it might be in the cause “eminently,” as it is when the fizzy tablet is not red but has the causal power, by virtue of its chemical structure, to generate redness in a puddle when it hits the water.  Moreover, the “reality” of the effect might all be present (either formally or eminently) in a single cause – as when the effect is a puddle of red soda and the cause is a can of red soda – or it might instead be in several causal factors acting together as a total cause – as when the effect is the red puddle and the cause is water from the line together with the fizzy tablet.

When we combine the distinction between degrees of formal reality with the Causal Adequacy Principle, we get the result that any cause can, by itself, produce an effect only of the same or a lower degree of reality.  An infinite substance, if there is one, can cause either a finite substance or a mode to exist.  A finite substance can cause either another finite substance or a mode to exist, but cannot cause an infinite substance.  A mode can cause another mode to exist, but cannot cause a substance, whether finite or infinite.  An idea can, all things being equal, cause another idea, but it cannot cause a mind-independent mode to exist.  For a cause cannot give what it doesn’t have to give.  An idea doesn’t have mind-independence, so it can’t impart mind-independence to anything; mind-independent modes don’t have the stronger kind of independent existence substances have, so they can’t impart such independent existence to a substance; and finite substances don’t have the kind of unlimited, necessary existence an infinite substance has, so they can’t impart this sort of existence to an infinite substance.

When in turn we combine these themes with the distinction between the formal and objective reality of ideas, we get the result that the cause of an idea must have within it as much formal reality as the idea has objective reality.  Once again, though the terminology is forbidding if one isn’t familiar with it, the basic idea is fairly simple.  Consider again a blueprint for a computer: If you find such a blueprint lying on the kitchen table one morning, you know it wasn’t the dog or your five-year-old son who drew it.  The reason is that there is nothing in the “formal reality” of the dog or the five-year-old – in particular, nothing in the mind or the drawing capacities of either – that corresponds to the “objective reality” of the blueprint – that is, the design plan for the computer that is represented by the blueprint.  You know that only someone with the requisite knowledge of electrical engineering could have been its ultimate source, that even if someone who had no such knowledge had drawn it, that is only because he had (say) copied it from a blueprint made by someone who did have such knowledge. 

Of course, you could also suppose instead that it was drawn from scratch by someone who knew nothing about electrical engineering but just by accident had come up with a diagram that looked like the blueprint for a computer.  But in that case you can, for that very reason, no longer regard it as truly a blueprint at all, but instead only as something that looked as if it were a blueprint.  If it really is a blueprint, though, really, literally represents a computer, then only someone with the relevant knowledge could have been the ultimate source of the diagram.  That is to say, only someone with sufficiently sophisticated concepts could have the “formal reality” to produce a blueprint with the “objective reality” in question.

[I put aside for the moment the question of whether something non-human – another computer, say – could have produced the blueprint, or whether natural selection could produce something of comparable sophistication, in the form of the “program” encoded in DNA.  Suffice it for present purposes to note that if either a computer or natural selection could do such things, that could only be because the information that ends up in their products already pre-existed in some form or other in the total cause (i.e. all the relevant causal factors taken together, which might be the computer or natural selection together with other factors).  Misguided ID theorists should take note, however, that the issue has nothing whatsoever to do with “probabilities” or with “complexity” per se.  It is not “highly improbable” but rather metaphysically impossible for even the slightest bit of information to arise out of a total cause that did not already have it in some fashion, whether “formally,” “eminently,” or “virtually” (as the Scholastics would put it – again, see the discussion of the Principle of Proportionate Causality in Aquinas).  I have discussed these issues in earlier posts, here and here.]

Note that it isn’t just that a dog or a five-year-old couldn’t build an actual computer; again, they couldn’t come up with even the blueprint for a computer, since the information content contained in the blueprint is the same as that contained in the computer itself, and that is what the dog and the five-year-old don’t have.  And for the same reason, neither could come up with even the idea of a computer merely from the resources they’ve got qua dog or five-year-old.  A dog couldn’t come up with the idea no matter how much time you gave it, and a five-year-old couldn’t come up with it unless he first learns a lot more than the typical five-year-old does or is capable of learning.

Now, what about the idea of God?  It couldn’t come from some entirely unthinking mode or substance, precisely because they are devoid of any ideas whatsoever and thus can’t impart ideas.  So it must come from something that already has within it, in some way or other (whether formally or eminently), ideas or the capacity to generate them.  Nor could the idea of God come merely from other ideas all by themselves, apart from a thinking substance which has the ideas.  For even the ideas of (say) pure actuality, omnipotence, omniscience, and the like, considered individually, would need to be combined by some mind in order for them together to form the idea of God.  That leaves only a finite thinking substance or an infinite thinking substance – that is, God Himself – remaining as the possible ultimate sources of the idea of God.  And whatever its ultimate source is must have as much formal reality as the idea of God has objective reality, just as the source of the blueprint for a computer has to have at least the sophistication that the computer itself has (as the mind of an electrical engineer does). 

But in Descartes’ view, no finite substance, thinking or otherwise, can possibly have the requisite formal reality.  For the idea of God is the idea of something infinite, and finite substances, precisely because they are finite, do not have of themselves the formal reality to generate even the idea of infinity, any more than a dog or a five-year-old could generate all by themselves even the idea of a computer.   And this essentially gives us the “trademark” argument, which we can now summarize as follows:

1. I find within myself the idea of God: a supremely perfect [i.e. purely actual] being, infinite, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful, and creator of everything other than Himself.

2. Whatever caused this idea must have at least as much formal reality as the idea has objective reality.

3. But anything other than God has less formal reality than the idea of God has objective reality.

4. So only God Himself could be the ultimate cause of my idea of God.

5. So God exists.

What should we think of this argument?  As I have said, it is almost universally rejected, and with scorn.  (Though for an interesting recent defense, see Steven Duncan’s The Proof of the External World: Cartesian Theism and the Possibility of Knowledge.)  But I think that the scorn, at least, is misplaced.  Certainly the background principles are, in my view anyway, correct (or at least their more consistently Scholastic analogues are correct).  Those who reject the Causal Adequacy Principle, for example, tend either not to understand it, or are overly impressed with what are in fact easily-answered objections, or perhaps dismiss it merely because it smacks of medieval ideas of the sort that aren’t fashionable in contemporary philosophy. 

But there are, nevertheless, some serious objections that can be raised against the trademark argument.  An objection that Descartes himself considers is that he could have arrived at the idea of God all by himself merely by negating the idea of what is finite.  For example, he could start with the idea of knowledge, which he has to a limited degree, and negate those limits so as to arrive at the idea of omniscience.  But Descartes responds that this has things backwards: In his view, the idea of what is finite itself presupposes the idea of what is infinite, just as a boundary presupposes a larger expanse outside the boundary.  (Compare: The notion of an imperfect circle presupposes the idea of a circle, which just is the idea of a perfect circle.)

A more serious difficulty, though, is one that John Cottingham raises in his book Descartes.  We can grant that a sophisticated blueprint of a computer is beyond the capacity of the average five-year-old to produce.  But suppose instead that we came across a drawing of a box-like object with the words “supremely complicated computer” written on it.  Here, of course, we might well suppose that the five-year-old could have drawn it.  Now, is our idea of God as a supremely perfect being more like the blueprint for a computer, or more like the box-like object with the words in question written on it?  If it is more like the former, then Descartes may have a case for saying that it could not have originated with us.  But if it is more like the latter, then it seems he does not.

This is an objection a Thomist is bound to take seriously, for from a Thomistic point of view we cannot in the strict sense grasp God’s essence, and thus cannot form an idea of God that captures anything close to what God is like in Himself.  This, you will recall, is the reason Aquinas rejects Anselm’s ontological argument, and it would seem to entail a rejection of the “trademark” argument as well.  If we fully grasped the divine essence, then we would see from that essence alone that God cannot fail to exist, just as Anselm says; but in fact we do not fully grasp it.  Similarly, if we fully grasped the divine essence, we would have an idea of God of which only God Himself could have been the source, just as Descartes says; but, again, in fact we don’t fully grasp it. 

Of course, that does not by any means entail that we cannot know that God exists, or that we can know nothing about His nature.  We can know that God exists, but (contrary to what Descartes supposes) only a posteriori, through arguments like the Five Ways (when properly understood in terms of the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics underlying them – once again, see Aquinas).  And we can know a great deal about the divine attributes, but relatively speaking our knowledge of the divine nature is bound to be more like the five-year-old child’s knowledge of the computer than the electrical engineer’s knowledge of it.

So, Descartes’ “trademark” argument, while of greater interest than it is often given credit for having, ultimately fails.  Like Descartes’ “clear and distinct perception” argument for dualism, what’s true in it isn’t new, and what’s new in it isn’t true.
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