When St. Thomas concludes his five ways with different variations on this statement, he likely does so for several reasons.
First, it seems that it was more or less true at the time. Certainly atheists existed, just as they do now, but they were rarer, and they probably mostly denied not only that “God exists,” but also the specific conclusions of St. Thomas’s arguments.
Second, he does so for convenience. Since he proceeds to make numerous arguments about the first principle to which he concludes in Question 2, the name “God” is a simple way to refer to that principle.
However, there are several things about this procedure which could cause confusion. This was possible at the time, and perhaps even more so now.
First of all, by drawing the conclusion that “God exists,” St. Thomas suggests not only the conclusions that he is actually drawing, but also conclusions such as “the first efficient cause is omniscient and omnipotent,” since such things are usually said of God. Using this terminology will inevitably affect the thought processes of students of theology in predictable ways. For example, since the student already believes that God is omniscient, an argument for this conclusion will almost certainly feel more reasonable, given that that it is phrased in terminology referring to “God,” than it would feel if put in more abstract terms.
Similarly, we saw earlier that Richard Dawkins’s objections are not to the idea of a first principle as such, but to the things which are typically attributed to that principle. This made clear communication between himself and the theologians with whom he spoke very difficult, because it was not clear exactly which questions were being addressed at any particular time.
In our own discussion, we have established various things about the cause, and others can be easily established. For example, we did not explicitly discuss whether the first cause is a body, but it can be easily shown that it is not. However, there are some things among the usual divine attributes which, at the least, cannot be easily proven, and which possibly cannot be proven at all. St. Thomas says something similar when he gives reasons for the necessity of revelation:
It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: “The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee” (Isaiah 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.
We have seen that the first cause has various attributes that make it similar to a mind, as for example that it acts for an end and is thus concerned about the good, and as said above, that it is not a body. However, the statement that it is a mind simply speaking is much harder to establish, if it is possible at all. For example, St. Thomas argues in Question 14 of the Prima Pars:
In God there exists the most perfect knowledge. To prove this, we must note that intelligent beings are distinguished from non-intelligent beings in that the latter possess only their own form; whereas the intelligent being is naturally adapted to have also the form of some other thing; for the idea of the thing known is in the knower. Hence it is manifest that the nature of a non-intelligent being is more contracted and limited; whereas the nature of intelligent beings has a greater amplitude and extension; therefore the Philosopher says (De Anima iii) that “the soul is in a sense all things.” Now the contraction of the form comes from the matter. Hence, as we have said above (Question 7, Article 1) forms according as they are the more immaterial, approach more nearly to a kind of infinity. Therefore it is clear that the immateriality of a thing is the reason why it is cognitive; and according to the mode of immateriality is the mode of knowledge. Hence it is said in De Anima ii that plants do not know, because they are wholly material. But sense is cognitive because it can receive images free from matter, and the intellect is still further cognitive, because it is more separated from matter and unmixed, as said in De Anima iii. Since therefore God is in the highest degree of immateriality as stated above (Question 7, Article 1), it follows that He occupies the highest place in knowledge.
In order for this to be conclusive, St. Thomas’s first statement has to be evident, since he does not argue for it here, although of course this does not imply that he could not possibly make an argument for it. The statement is that “intelligent beings are distinguished from non-intelligent beings in that the latter possess only their own form; whereas the intelligent being is naturally adapted to have also the form of some other thing; for the idea of the thing known is in the knower.”
It is evident that in the sense specified, intelligent beings can have the form of another. And it is also evident that non-intelligent beings do not have the form of another in precisely that sense. But it is not evident that they do not have it in any sense, and this is necessary for the argument to follow. For someone who supposes that the first cause is not a mind, does not assert that it does not have the forms of other things in any way. Instead, he asserts that it has the form of all things as the cause of all. Nor would he say that it has them in a lower way than intelligent beings do, but in a much higher way. Plotinus maintains a theology of this kind (Enneads 5.3.11):
Thus the Intellectual-Principle, in the act of knowing the Transcendent, is a manifold. It knows the Transcendent in very essence but, with all its effort to grasp that prior as a pure unity, it goes forth amassing successive impressions, so that, to it, the object becomes multiple: thus in its outgoing to its object it is not [fully realised] Intellectual-Principle; it is an eye that has not yet seen; in its return it is an eye possessed of the multiplicity which it has itself conferred: it sought something of which it found the vague presentment within itself; it returned with something else, the manifold quality with which it has of its own act invested the simplex. If it had not possessed a previous impression of the Transcendent, it could never have grasped it, but this impression, originally of unity, becomes an impression of multiplicity; and the Intellectual-Principle, in taking cognisance of that multiplicity, knows the Transcendent and so is realized as an eye possessed of its vision. It is now Intellectual-Principle since it actually holds its object, and holds it by the act of intellection: before, it was no more than a tendance, an eye blank of impression: it was in motion towards the transcendental; now that it has attained, it has become IntellectualPrinciple henceforth absorbed; in virtue of this intellection it holds the character of Intellectual-Principle, of Essential Existence and of Intellectual Act where, previously, not possessing the Intellectual Object, it was not Intellectual Perception, and, not yet having exercised the Intellectual Act, it was not Intellectual-Principle. The Principle before all these principles is no doubt the first principle of the universe, but not as immanent: immanence is not for primal sources but for engendering secondaries; that which stands as primal source of everything is not a thing but is distinct from all things: it is not, then, a member of the total but earlier than all, earlier, thus, than the Intellectual-Principle- which in fact envelops the entire train of things. Thus we come, once more, to a Being above the Intellectual-Principle and, since the sequent amounts to no less than the All, we recognise, again, a Being above the All. This assuredly cannot be one of the things to which it is prior. We may not call it “Intellect”; therefore, too, we may not call it “the Good,” if “the Good” is to be taken in the sense of some one member of the universe; if we mean that which precedes the universe of things, the name may be allowed. The Intellectual-Principle is established in multiplicity; its intellection, self-sprung though it be, is in the nature of something added to it [some accidental dualism] and makes it multiple: the utterly simplex, and therefore first of all beings, must, then, transcend the Intellectual-Principle; and, obviously, if this had intellection it would no longer transcend the Intellectual-Principle but be it, and at once be a multiple.
While Plotinus is not easy to understand, it can be seen from the last statements here that according to him, the first principle of things is not an intellect, but transcends intellect. This kind of theology is not evidently mistaken, and in fact Plotinus is making a fairly reasonable argument in favor of it.
One reason why it will be fairly difficult to settle such questions definitively, from the point of view of reason, is that we do not have a sufficiently precise understanding of the things involved. In the discussions here on this blog, I took care to form fairly precise definitions of terms such as distinction, whole and part, one and many, and so on. No one has given an equally clear definition of mind, and it is not clear that it is possible to do so. We know what it is like to have a mind, but that does not mean that we can define it. And in fact, as Dawkins and Plotinus suggest, some parts of that experience seem to be contrary to the idea of a first principle. From the point of view of Catholic theology, such difficulties may be resolved, or partly resolved, by the doctrine of the Trinity. But if it is necessary to bring in the Trinity to resolve the difficulties, this suggests that reason alone may not capable of such a resolution.
The name “God,” then, suggests many things which can be proven true of the first cause only with great difficulty, and possibly not at all. Consequently St. Thomas’s procedure has a significant risk of leading students to believe that they have a better understanding of theology than they actually have.
There is a second issue with his procedure, much more relevant in our times than in his. Saying that God exists is making a claim which is remote from the senses, both because God is not a body, and because “truly you are a God who hides himself,” as Isaiah says. Consequently, as was argued in the post on things remote from the senses, people will be more likely than usual to be influenced by motives other than truth in their beliefs regarding God.
One of those motives, as was also stated there, is the desire to be loyal to a group to which one belongs. And this particular motive will be especially likely in the case of God, because God is understood to be a person, and in most cases, he is understood to be a person who has a special relationship with a community that believes in him. Consequently belief in God is necessary for the sake of loyalty to God himself, since he is a person, and for the sake of loyalty to his community. This is likely the reason for the fact that historically apostasy was often punished with the death penalty, as for example in the Old Testament:
If anyone secretly entices you—even if it is your brother, your father’s son or your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend—saying, “Let us go worship other gods,” whom neither you nor your ancestors have known, any of the gods of the peoples that are around you, whether near you or far away from you, from one end of the earth to the other, you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people.
The same thing is true in many Islamic societies even today. For the apostate is understood to be literally guilty of treason, in the political sense of the term.
Again, insofar as God is understood to be a person responsible for some community, that community will ordinarily accept some religion, namely the one which is believed to be approved by God. In this way saying that God exists is commonly understood not only to imply that he has certain divine attributes, but also that some particular religion is true. And believing that a religion is true is often something that is openly admitted to have motives other than truth, as when St. John says at the end of his Gospel, “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Thus “life in his name”, which is a Christian life, one in a Christian community, is explicitly set down as a motive for belief here.
Since people easily notice the motivations of others, but suppose that they themselves are motivated by truth alone, and since such motivations are especially clear in the case of God, atheists sometimes suppose that they are concerned about truth while believers are not.
This is a mistake, however, since whether you assert or deny the existence of God, the statement remains equally distant from the senses, and human nature is the same in believers and in atheists. Consequently atheists are also likely to have various motives other than truth for their opinion, as for example in this particularly honest statement by Thomas Nagel in chapter 7 of his book The Last Word:
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper— namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
In particular, the semi-political orientation of religious belief implies that atheists will often have somewhat political motivations for their unbelief. This can be seen in accounts such as this one:
Two atheists – John Gray and Alain de Botton – and two agnostics – Nassim Nicholas Taleb and I – meet for dinner at a Greek restaurant in Bayswater, London. The talk is genial, friendly and then, suddenly, intense when neo-atheism comes up. Three of us, including both atheists, have suffered abuse at the hands of this cult. Only Taleb seems to have escaped unscathed and this, we conclude, must be because he can do maths and people are afraid of maths.
De Botton is the most recent and, consequently, the most shocked victim. He has just produced a book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, mildly suggesting that atheists like himself have much to learn from religion and that, in fact, religion is too important to be left to believers. He has also proposed an atheists’ temple, a place where non-believers can partake of the consolations of silence and meditation.
This has been enough to bring the full force of a neo-atheist fatwa crashing down on his head. The temple idea in particular made them reach for their best books of curses.
“I am rolling my eyes so hard that it hurts,” wrote the American biologist and neo-atheist blogger P Z Myers. “You may take a moment to retch. I hope you have buckets handy.” Myers has a vivid but limited prose palette.
There have been threats of violence. De Botton has been told he will be beaten up and his guts taken out of him. One email simply said, “You have betrayed Atheism. Go over to the other side and die.”
We noted the lack of clarity in the disagreement between Richard Dawkins and the theologians with whom he conversed at the Cambridge conference. I would suggest that this is vagueness of the third kind. Insofar as political and social allegiances are at stake in the assertion or denial that God exists, it is not necessary to be clear about the meaning of the claim. All that is necessary is to say that you are on one side or the other. Alain de Botton, by praising various aspects of religion, is admitting that he is not giving his full allegiance to the atheists, and thus they must condemn him as a traitor.
For the first reason, namely the fact that using the name “God” immediately suggests all of the usual divine attributes, it might be better to compose theological treatises without following St. Thomas’s procedure, even if this is somewhat less convenient. For the second reason, namely because of the motivations that are at stake in asserting or denying the existence of God, it might be better to adopt an approach which is more sensitive to context. If you are speaking with Richard Dawkins, it is perhaps better not to use the name of God at all, in order to ensure a common understanding, while if you are speaking with believers, there is much less of a problem with calling the first cause God.