Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Dr. Kreeft's Bad Case for God (Part I)

Hey, I know it's been a while. You can blame my lack of posting mostly on my health which has been up and down a lot (please pray.) I was inspired to jump back into blogging today when someone posted a video by prominent atheist 'AronRa' responding to this video by prominent Catholic philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft. Now, I have to say, I wasn't impressed by AronRa's efforts and plan (Deo volente) to do a post explaining why, but I wasn't impressed by Dr. Kreeft either. Dr. Kreeft is, as I said, a fairly prominent Catholic figure and lectures in philosophy at a Catholic University, you'd therefore expect him to have a reasonable grasp of the positions of the Church's most famous philosopher, St. Thomas Aquians. Regrettably, he actually helps perpetuate a number of misconceptions about St. Thomas' position, misconceptions that other Thomists like Edward Feser have been working hard to dispel.

After some brief preliminaries, Kreeft tells us that "...a good place to start [in rationally proving God's existence] is with an argument by Thomas Aquinas..." Actually, as St. Thomas would be quick to point out, this argument actually comes from Aristotle, but that's a minor point. More seriously, Kreeft tells us that that the argument begins with the observation that things move (they do) and that motion must have a cause (it must). So far so good but Kreeft then goes on to speak of the need for a first mover being like a first domino, causing the other dominoes in a line to fall. When attempting to give an explanation of why this cannot go back indefinitely Kreeft gives the an arument that the material universe has been demonstrated by science to have a beginning.

That is not St. Thomas' argument. When St. Thomas speaks of God as "First Mover" or "First Cause" he is not speaking about being first in a temporal but in a hierarchical series of causes. To explain the difference, consider a series of dominos. The first domino knocks the second one over which knocks the third over and so on. If the line of dominoes is long enough, then further dominos could be knocking each other over long after the first domino has stopped doing anything. In fact, with a line sufficiently long, you could wait for the first domino to knock over the second, pick that first domino up and throw it in the fireplace to be burned, and the rest of the dominos in the sequence would keep on falling. This is an example of what Thomists call a "temporally ordered" or "accidentally ordered" sequence.

In contrast, imagine a book, laying on top of a table, which is laying on top of a second story floor. The table is holding up the book, the floor is folding up the table, the first story walls are holding up that floor and the building's foundation is holding up the whole thing. In this circumstance the foundation is the first cause of everything being held in place in a very different way to that first domino, if the basement were to be removed from its place, the whole edifice would collapse. This is what Thomists call a "hierarchically ordered" or "essentially ordered" sequence of causes.

For Aquinas, God is the first mover in the same way that the foundation of that hypothetical building is the first cause of everything in the building being where it is. Dr. Kreeft makes very clear that he is not using St. Thomas' argument when he rhetorically asks (a little bit after the two minute mark in his video) "But what if the universe was infinitely old?" St. Thomas' answer is that it makes no difference; even if the universe were infinitely old, at any given moment God would need to exist to underlie whatever motion  is happening in that moment. In the same way, even if, hypothetically, we imagine an infinitely old building, the foundation would still need to exist, moment to moment, to hold the whole thing up.

This is not, however, the answer Dr. Kreeft gives. He attempts to give a scientific argument for the impossibility of an infinitely old universe. I will (deo volente) explain in a future post why I find his argument unconvincing, but for now I will just note that, whether good or bad, his argument is not the argument of St. Thomas.

As a brief aside, at about the one minute, thirty second mark, Dr. Kreeft declares that "Science will never find the first cause, that's no knock on science it simply means that a first cause lies outside the realm of science." I happen to agree with this statement but my reason for thinking this lies in a fairly lengthy bit of reasoning which considers what qualities can be shown to be necessary for a first cause to have. Absent any explanation of this, Dr. Kreeft's claim sounds like a dogmatic assertion. I can well imagine an intelligent listener, unfamiliar with the theistic philosophical tradition hearing this and thinking something like "Why, when science has identified so many other causes, would we imagine that it can't find the first? This is simply God of the gaps reasoning."

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