Recently there's been a comment conversation on this blog about the religious philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, a medieval Christian.
I've never been interested in his theology, since like most avid religious believers, Aquinas wants to use philosophy to defend his faith, not to engage in a search for truth. Wikipedia has a cogent criticism of Aquinas by Bertrand Russell.
He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith.
If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading. I cannot, therefore, feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or of modern times.
Right on, Mr. Russell.
If someone has to resort to dredging up some bit of pre-scientific philosophizing by Aquinas in an attempt to prove the existence of God, this shows that there is zero evidence for God other than what exists in the empty words of holy books and the equally empty mental gyrations of people desperate to convince others that God is more than a fantasy.
For example, from reading some of the Aquinas-related comments on this blog, I gather that he argued that God must exist because everything has a cause, and that sequence of causes and effects evident in our universe must have a first cause, which Aquinas somehow labels as "God."
This makes such little sense, it's hard to see how anyone could take the argument seriously in the 13th century, much less the 21st century. For Aquinas is concerned with the same question as I've addressed many times on this blog, why is there something rather than nothing?
Let's agree with Aquinas that either the cosmos had a primal cause, or has existed forever. In no way does this point to a supernatural being, God. It points to either a natural primal cause, since nature is evident and God isn't, or the eternal nature of, well, nature.
For if something has to be eternal to avoid an assumption that the cosmos sprang into being out of nothing -- an admittedly difficult notion for us humans to wrap our minds around -- that eternal something is much more likely to be the observable physical world than an unseen God.
Now, I heartily agree that the idea of existence having always existed is mind-blowing. For in everyday life we never encounter anything that has always been, is now, and always will be. People are born; then they die. Stars are born, then they die.
Everywhere we look, causes lead to effects that turn into more causes and more effects. Aquinas, like most religious people of any historical time, is uncomfortable with the mystery of existence having always existed.
Me, I'm with those who find this idea hard to grasp and mystifying, but I don't find it uncomfortable. Because I believe in science rather than faith, I'm fine with not knowing an important question: How did the cosmos come to be?
So are scientists who study the cosmos. They wrestle with what came before the big bang, if "before" even has any meaning in regard to the instant our universe blossomed into existence, forming time and space.
Scientists, along with atheists such as myself, are comfortable with saying "I don't know." I don't know how existence came to exist, or if existence has existed eternally, how eternity came to be. (Again, we're reaching the limits of language here, since pretty clearly eternity never came to be if it has always existed.)
Religious believers, on the other hand, can't tolerate not-knowing the deepest mysteries of the cosmos. So they wrap up all of those mysteries into a tidy conceptual package typically called "God." They then believe in God as the answer to all unanswered questions.
Of course, those believers don't have the answers either. But they have faith that one day, usually after death, all will be revealed to them through God's grace and mercy. Nice story. I prefer unvarnished not-knowing, though.
Back to Aquinas. This web page has a nice rundown of all the bullshit arguments put forward for God's existence. Aquinas gets a mention.
The Classic Cosmological Argument: Thomas Aquinas
“We see in the world around us that there is an order of efficient causes. Nor is it ever found (in fact it is impossible) that something is its own efficient cause. If it were, it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Nevertheless, the order of efficient causes cannot proceed to infinity, for in any such order the first is cause of the middle (whether one or many) and the middle of the last. Without the cause, the effect does not follow. Thus, if the first cause did not exist, neither would the middle and last causes in the sequence. If, however, there were an infinite regression of efficient causes, there would be no first efficient cause and therefore no middle causes or final effects, which is obviously not the case. Thus it is necessary to posit some first efficient cause, which everyone calls ‘God.'”
—Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, c.1260 CE
Dating back to Aristotle, the cosmological argument is very probably the oldest argument offered in support of the existence of God, and probably the most frequently used by lay apologists as well. As formulated above by Thomas Aquinas, the cosmological argument states that every event has a cause; but every cause is itself caused by something else. To avoid an infinite regression, the argument concludes, we must postulate a first cause that is itself uncaused and eternal, and it identifies this first cause as God.
If the flaw of the ontological argument is circularity, the fallacy of the cosmological argument is special pleading. Namely, it asserts without good reason that everything except God needs a cause. But why should this be? If anything can exist without a cause, we could just as well conclude that it is the universe itself that is uncaused, existing eternally and giving rise to all other cause and effect. This hypothesis has just as much explanatory power as the hypothesis that God created the universe, and it is more parsimonious, requiring fewer additional assumptions. Therefore, all other things being equal, it is to be preferred.
Aquinas’ objection to the possibility of an infinite regress is also poorly founded. He claims that an infinite regression of causes could not exist because there would be no first cause, but this shows a failure to understand the notion of an infinite series. In such a series, every individual event would have a perfectly good cause: the event preceding it.
Alternatively, if we accept Aquinas’ logic on this point, we can then ask, how many thoughts did God have before creating the universe? Every thought God had must have been caused by another thought preceding it, since Aquinas claims nothing can be its own cause. But since by Aquinas’ argument an infinite beginningless series is impossible, God must have had a single thought preceding all others – i.e., there must have been a point at which God came into existence. We can then ask the cause of this initial thought, and so on ad infinitum.
There is one final attack on the classic cosmological argument. Say for the sake of argument that we ignore the above difficulty and grant this argument everything it asks – then it still does nothing to establish the existence of God.
Even if we accept this argument’s logic, all it proves is that there was a first cause. It does not prove that this first cause still exists today; it does not prove that this first cause has any interest in or awareness of human beings; it does not prove that this first cause is omnipotent or omniscient or benevolent. It does not even prove that the first cause is conscious or a person. An atheist could accept this entire chain of logic and then posit that the first cause was a purely natural phenomenon.