Thomas Aquinas’ Argument From Degrees of Being: A Socratic Dialogue

St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas

In today’s discussion Brad and Sarah discuss the fourth way of St. Thomas Aquinas to prove the existence of God. You can read their discussion of the first and second way here and their discussion of Thomas’ third way here.

Brad: I have to say, I’m enjoying these conversations. So far I’d say the best argument you’ve presented was the argument from contingency, but like I said last week, I’m not convinced.

Sarah: Well, since you were unable to sufficiently show what was wrong with Aquinas’ third way, it might just be that you’re stubborn. Have you considered that?

Brad: Yep.

Sarah: And?

Brad: And I might be stubborn but you’re definitely wrong.

Sarah: Riiiight.

Brad: So I have a little time before I have to get back to work, do you think we could go through the fourth and fifth way today?

Sarah: Yeah, I don’t see why not. I’ll read it, okay?

Brad: Sure.

Thomas’ Argument From Degrees of Being

Sarah: “The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things.

Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But “more” and “less” are predicated of different things, 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; 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, as it is written in Metaph. ii.

Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things.

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.”

Sarah: It’s hard for moderns to grasp because it relies on the medieval idea—the time St. Thomas lived— that there is a great chain of being. Creatures become more perfect: rocks, then animals, then man, then angels, and so forth. But if this chain is to be meaningful there must be a perfect being, or what we call God. A modern understanding would be to ask if “goodness” is a real attribute or just a label we arbitrarily assign. If real, what’s the standard we use?

Brad: So the only way for this argument to get off of the ground is to admit that some things are more perfect than others? Perfect how? In what way?


Is There a Real Better?


Sarah: I think it’s clear some things really are better than others. The philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it this way: “Is there a real better? The very asking of this question answers it. For the questioner would not have asked it unless he or she thought it really better to do so than not, and really better to find the true answer than not. You can speak subjectivism but you cannot live it.”

Brad:  Hmm, I’ll have to give that some thought. Dawkins make a great point in The God Delusion, he says if you say there must be an all-perfect being to make sense of the varying degrees of perfection, then, and I quote, “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.” What do you think of that?

Sarah: Dawkins misunderstands perfection. It only relates to having more or less being. Imperfections or evils in the world come from a lack of being. We have gas, for example, because we lack the proper food that is perfectly digestible. The chain goes in the other direction. A better begin is one without gas, then one that needs no food, then one not encumbered by a body, then one not limited by space or time itself. Before you know it, you’re just at being itself, or what we call God.

Brad: So okay, you’re saying that because I think a human being is better than a rat I have to believe in God? Show me how.

Sarah: It’s not just you think they’re better, are they better? If so, what standard do you use to show one is better?

Brad: Okay, I see your point, I take back what I said. No, I don’t think that humans are better objectively, just subjectively. What I mean is, I value human beings—no doubt because it has been wired into me to prefer my species over another by evolution. At the end of the day, however, we’re all equal, men, rats, bacteria. That doesn’t mean I think rats should be treated as humans or vice versa.


A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Bot


Sarah: Hopefully you don’t agree with the former director of PETA Ingrid Newkirk, “A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy” But in any case, the fifth way could be more fruitful because we can more easily observe the feature of the universe that points to God.

Brad: Well hang on a minute, objectively I do think that. That is what follows if God does not exist. If God exists then maybe Ingrid and me are wrong, but this argument certainly doesn’t show that.  But as I said, though it may follow, it doesn’t follow that we should act in that way. I’m sure Ingrid treated her coworkers with more respect that cockroaches. At least, here’s hoping.

Sarah: I think the argument helps us ask, how could they be different? If 5 is objectively greater than 4, and the same is true for all numbers, then there must be a reality that is “perfection” of numbers, or a number without limit, infinity. The numbers, which objectively become greater, don’t stop at 1,000,000,000,678. In the same way, the gradations of being can’t just stop at a “half-perfect” or 99% perfect act of being, what makes is just the pure act of being, or God. But in any case, shall we move on?

Sarah: Hopefully, at least you’ll see the fourth way isn’t as asinine as Dawkins makes it.

Brad: Well I’m not sure about that, but should we move on to the fifth way?

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