Argument from degree

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As formulated by Thomas Aquinas, the argument from degree is stated as follows:

"We notice that things in the world differ. There are degrees of, say, goodness or perfection. But we judge these degrees only by comparison with a maximum. Humans can be both good and bad, so the maximum goodness cannot rest in us. Therefore there must be some other maximum to set the standard for perfection, and we call that maximum God."

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2006, pp, 78-79, excerpted in Why There Is No God, The Times, Oct. 31, 2006


Dawkins replies:

"That's an argument? 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. Therefore there must exist a pre-eminently peerless stinker, and we call him God. Or substitute any dimension of comparison you like, and derive an equally fatuous conclusion."

— Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2006, p. 79

The Argument From Goodness

The argument from goodness is a special case of the argument from degree. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas writes:

"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."

— Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, question 1, article 3, objection 2

By saying, "as fire, which is the maximum heat", Aquinas scuttles his own argument: fusion reactions, which power stars (including the sun) are much hotter than fire. Aquinas, of course, did not know this, and therefore could not have based his idea of heat on the "maximum heat". Yet we do not doubt that he understood what "heat" means.

Likewise, we can know what "goodness" and "perfection" (in Aquinas's sense) mean by comparing people and actions to each other, and not to some superlative standard of goodness and perfection.

Secondly, a perfect standard can be useful without having concrete existence. For instance, we can mathematically define a perfect circle and use that as the standard for roundness. However, it is impossible to draw a perfect circle, and thus a perfect circle cannot exist. Similarly, the fact that we can imagine a perfectly good being in no way implies that that being actually exists.

Thirdly, there is no guarantee that a maximum is even logically possible, as in the cases of length or magnitude. We can tell which of two objects is longer or bigger, not by comparing to the maximum length (which would be infinite), but in the mathematical way of seeing which has leftover length when the one is taken from the other. When we compare, we are not seeing which is closer to an extreme, but rather which is in excess of the other: we take one as standard, and see if the other is above or below that standard.

Furthermore, the "and this we call God" part might as well say, "and this we call Bob." The argument is creating a definition of a "maximally good" thing, and then giving it a name Thomas Aquinas likes. However, a "maximally good" being is not what most people call "God", so the conclusion is not proof of a god, it's merely a biased choice of a name given to a particular definition of a thing for which no evidence is given that it even exists. It's basically an attempt to define God into existence.

Also, there's no reason the argument can't be applied with evil instead of (arbitrarily) good: "there is evil in the world, and the fact that we can perceive different standards of evil means there must be some maximal exponent of evil, and we call this supreme evil God."

Finally, even if we ignore all of the other flaws of the argument, it doesn't tell us which god is the real one. (Though, if the definition in the argument is strictly followed, it does allow us to rule out any gods that are not maximally good, such as those that would drown out nearly everyone on the planet.)

See also

v · d Arguments for the existence of god
Anthropic arguments   Anthropic principle · Natural-law argument
Arguments for belief   Pascal's Wager · Argument from faith · Just hit your knees
Christological arguments   Argument from scriptural miracles · Would someone die for a lie? · Liar, Lunatic or Lord
Cosmological arguments   Argument from contingency · Cosmological argument · Fine-tuning argument · Kalam · Unmoved mover · Why is there something rather than nothing?
Majority arguments   Majority argument · Argument from admired religious scientists
Moral arguments   Argument from justice · Divine command theory
Ontological argument   Argument from degree · Argument from goodness · Argument from desire
Dogmatic arguments   Argument from divine sense · Sensus divinitatis · Argument from uniqueness
Teleological arguments   Argument from design · Banana argument · 747 Junkyard argument · Laminin argument · Argument from natural disasters
Testimonial arguments   Personal revelation · Argument from observed miracles · Argument from personal experience · Consciousness argument for the existence of God · Emotional pleas
Transcendental arguments   God created numbers
Scriptural arguments   Scriptural inerrancy · Scriptural scientific foreknowledge · Scriptural codes
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