Why does Dawkins think it is wrong to posit that a paragon of 100% morals could theoretically exist?



Let’s move on down Aquinas’s list.
4. The Argument from Degree

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.

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 equivalently fatuous conclusion.

Source: p 102, The God Delusion, By Richard Dawkins (and also LNAT Sample 1, Passage 10)

About Dawkins's counter-argument, I have two specific questions:

  1. What's a "dimension of comparison"? How does it differ from just "a comparison"?

  2. I read some counter-arguments and apologetics here, but why does Aquinas's argument fail in general?

  3. Why does Dawkins think it is "fatuous" to hypothesize that a paragon of 100% morals could theoretically exist?


Posted 2014-10-13T06:48:28.963

Reputation: 1

22Dawkins wrote in the introduction of that book how he himself doesn't bother reading or understanding theological arguments since he thinks they're wrong anyway. I agree with virmaior to be careful about how you use Dawkins. – James Kingsbery – 2014-10-13T18:55:57.593

1"why does Aquinas's argument fail?"...in what context? The rebuttal is specifically saying it fails to prove that there is a god. – DA. – 2014-10-13T22:49:44.000

9We should note also that Aquinas' argument also fails in that it tries to identify this "standard of perfection" for goodness with the God otherwise identified in theology - creator of all the stuff, render of infants, sender of plagues, and so forth. Of course there is no basis in Aquinas' argument for this identity. So not only is there no reason to believe that this maximally good entity exists, there's no reason to suppose it has anything to do with any particular god, or any god at all. – Jon Kiparsky – 2014-10-14T03:59:04.523

2"it does make sense to refer to a paragon of 100% morals who could theoretically exist" -> Yes, but you'd have to define this non-tautologically in relation to God, i.e., if you say the definition of such a being is God, then you are just begging the question. If you come up with some more rational definition, such as a morally aware being (i.e., no rocks or trees) that has never committed a moral violation, then it could easily apply to a human being... – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-14T12:51:06.097

5...IMO the Aquinas' quote really falls apart with "Humans can be both good and bad, so the maximum goodness cannot rest in us." This is nonsensical, but also an obvious quick reference to Christian theology. Aquinas is just preaching to the choir, he knows there is no real debate here. Dawkins perhaps uses him as an example of how this is an "Emperor Wears No Clothes" realm -- arguing for the existence or perfection of God in many historical/cultural contexts means you don't even have to bother making sense, you just have to rephrase liturgy. Everyone will smile and applaud. – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-14T12:55:19.633

@goldilocks It sounds like you disagree with "humans can be both good and bad". This struck me as rather evident. Do you know any wholly good or wholly bad people? In what way is it nonsensical? Or did I misread you? – AndrewC – 2014-10-15T06:08:21.740

1Aquinas' argument that "There are degrees of, say, goodness or perfection. But we judge these degrees only by comparison with a maximum" is flawed. It leads to the conclusion is that if we have no example of "maximum goodness" it is impossible to determine goodness at all. I am quite able to determine degrees of "goodness" without reference to any theoretical "maximum", but by reference to other examples of goodness. – RobG – 2014-10-15T09:49:14.893

1@AndrewC "can be" and "are" are not the same, so this is the equivalent of saying, "Whatzits can be both red and green, therefore they cannot be the maximum green". If they can be green, why can't they be the maximum green? There's nothing in that sentence which would explain this. Of course in a Christian Theological context, there are detailed explanations of how people are born into sin but not evil and thus inevitably "both good and bad". Aquinas appears to take that as a given -- this is not an inquiry into anything, it's just regurgitation of arbitrary mythology. – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-15T13:25:27.030

@goldilocks They can't be the maximum green because they are partly red. You don't need to assume Christian theology to see that people are imperfect. – AndrewC – 2014-10-15T16:23:32.710

1@AndrewC That's not what "can be both" means, it means something could be red and green, not that it must be both (I get the point though: what Aquinas means is are). I do not need Christian Theology to see that people in general are not perfectly good, but I do need it to tell me they cannot be perfectly good. Since I'm not a theist, that argument is not convincing: I don't see any reason why a person could not be perfectly good, even if it was very unusual or only in theory. I.e., outside of Christian Theology one could describe a perfectly good person, but within it one cannot. – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-15T16:41:59.093

...because, of course, the mythology has a story (that of Adam and Eve and Christ) explaining why it is impossible, ontologically, for a human being to be perfectly good. We are created a priori flawed. Aquinas takes this on faith and works backward. – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-15T16:46:55.763

4You don't need to assume Christian theology to see we're born not good, you just need experience as a parent. Babies are born incredibly selfish,inconsiderate and beligerent. It takes years for children to learn to think of others. We don't call children evil for this behaviour, but we certainly don't call it good. I see plenty of reasons that people cannot be perfectly good, since I don't know how a birch tree could grow from an oak seed. – AndrewC – 2014-10-15T20:10:55.760

@AndrewC That's an opinion you could argue -- I would disagree with it, and guess that if we teased that out it would come down to different (secular vs. divine) definitions of good and evil. As a parallel, I believe in evil people, which I know Christian Theology insists do not exist -- yet it is as obvious to me that there are evil people as it is evidently obvious to you that babies are bad, selfish, etc. – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-16T13:53:12.150

1I thought we were trying to avoid assuming Christian theology, I wasn't aware of a Christian theology of non-evil, and thought most people, Christian or not, consider Hitler evil for example. You disagree with which bit? Is selfishness part of maximum goodness? Are babies considerate? Does it not take children years to learn to share? Are babies graceful when they don't get what they want? We don't blame babies for that, and I did not call babies bad, but I don't call it maximum goodness either. I also implied we are never fully free of this as adults and thus cannot be perfectly good. – AndrewC – 2014-10-17T01:13:46.537

@RobertHarvey This is a comment section and not discussing the question, so two examples: One thing is that the birth-rate of religious societies vs secular societies is significantly stronger. Being the majority is a huge advantage even if unchecked it can finally lead to ecological collapse due to overpopulation. Another adaptive advantage you can find in sociological and psychological literature is that religious beliefs demonstrably inhibit suicide. – Thorsten S. – 2014-10-17T19:10:18.487

1You ask: "Why does Dawkins think it is "fatuous" to hypothesize that a paragon of 100% morals could theoretically exist?", but the quotation you give says that it's fatuous to argue that a pre-eminent stinker must exist. The distinction between must and could is clearly relevant, and to a huge extent. Are you trying to defeat Dawkins with a straw man? – Dominic Cronin – 2016-09-02T19:52:51.250



Judging Dawkins' argument solely by the quotation above, I would say that Dawkins response is a form of "argument by satire" which is a type of fallacy.

Furthermore, the argument is truncated (whether the truncation is by Dawkins or by OP, I cannot say). The argument could go on to say "we define the maximum amount of smelliness as 'Oscar the Grouch'". Then again, Dawkins, being British, may not be familiar with Oscar.

Some flaws with Aquinas's argument are (these flaws are not explicitly stated by Dawkins in the above quote):

  1. Sentence three "But we judge these degrees only by comparison with a maximum." is utterly false. Tallness, for example, is a comparison which is entirely relative, and is not compared to some sort of maximum. There are many comparisons that are not in reference to some theoreical maximum. Given that this premise is wrong, the argument can only stand if one then justifies that "goodness" is measured relative to a maximum. Such a justification is not included in Aquinas's "proof".

  2. The argument presumes that goodness is an objective standard. This assumption is directly contrary to reality. There are man competing definitions of what constitutes good versus evil. As another answer pointed out, a woman crusading for women's rights would be considered "doing good" by some people and "doing evil" by others.

  3. Even if you did accept the premises of the argument, it is not a proof of the existence of God. We know that Oscar the Grouch is a fictional character, despite the fact that we have defined him to be the quintessential of smelliness. As a mathematician would say "The existence of an infimum of a set does not imply that the infimum is a member of the set." Even if we did accept that "God" is the maximum of goodness, that does not imply that God exists.

My evaluation of Dawkins' argument is that he is so shocked that Aquinas fails to notice this third point that Dawkins forgets to explicitly state it. Or else he thinks it is so obvious that it does not need to be stated.


Posted 2014-10-13T06:48:28.963

Reputation: 737

Don't have time to dig up the reference, but I'm pretty sure Aquinas had a pretty specific idea of "goodness" in mind. – James Kingsbery – 2015-08-18T21:23:57.647


dimension of comparison = something you can compare things about. i.e., consider two dogs: a toy poodle and a doberman pinscher.

You can compare them in terms of size in which case size is the dimension of comparison. You can compare then in terms of weight in which case weight is the dimension of comparison.

This is not a term of art in philosophy. This is just what the English words mean.

Regarding the philosophical part, I would strongly recommend against using Dawkins to understand anything in the history of philosophy. He's not knowledgeable about philosophy.

I haven't bothered looking at the link, but Dawkins' understanding on this point is clearly vacuous. Aquinas's choice of goodness is not arbitrary and cannot be replaced by say morbidity or fatness or smelliness. The simple reason is that for Aquinas goodness is a type of transcendental in a way these others things are not. Moreover, it's a transcendental we don't possess to the utmost, so it's somewhat mysterious to him that we think of it.

There may be legitimate questions about this whole idea of transcendentals but all Dawkins does with his writeup as you've quoted him is demonstrate that he doesn't bother trying to understand what he reads.

For those not in philosophy or analytics who don't know any history, the term transcendental might be unfamiliar as would the reason why such a category would exist.

Historically speaking, both Plato and Aristotle articulate the same set of transcendentals (the good, the true, and the beautiful). For them, these are (to use contemporary language) special types of predicates. Their specific reasons for identifying the three are probably best understood through the true. Looking at it from the true, you need to keep in mind that Aristotle and Plato both believe in essences/forms and that for both specific things implement these essences/forms to a limited degree. (For Aristotle, the essence is in the object and perceived; for Plato, the Form is elsewhere and the thing is an inadequate copy). The true then is the degree to which it emulates the perfect version of itself. For Plato, at least at some points in philosophy, the perfect forms of everything exist. These thinkers also take objective views of the beautiful and the good, which unify the concepts.

Even if you're thinking, the above para sounds dumb, you likely believe in at least one transcendental: existence. Most contemporary thinkers and people think existence is a different type of predicate than say red. There are big differences between a red house vs. a blue house and a red house vs. no house. The concept of existence in the way we think about it was an idea that grew up in the middle ages.

As far as I can tell from the quote, Dawkins knows none of this and raises an ignorant critique.


Posted 2014-10-13T06:48:28.963

Reputation: 23 970

Invisible, colorless house. Well, in this case color doesn't exist. But then is not tall house also about the non-existense of tallness of a house? House can't be tall (in usual sense). – rus9384 – 2018-09-13T07:22:22.310

Please take long discussions to chat. If you've got an answer to the question it goes in an answer. – Joseph Weissman – 2014-10-14T15:41:29.173

This conversation has been moved to chat.

– Joseph Weissman – 2014-10-14T15:41:46.697


Dawkins is using the concept of smelliness for laughs, but the serious point that he's making is that we are capable of judging smelliness without a supremum of smelliness. The same goes for elevation: we do not need an "Absolute Up", like some sort of absolute zero, to make height comparisons. Humans are perfectly capable of making relative judgements of mundane qualities of things: why should it be any different with 'transcendental' qualities?

One may add that goodness, like smelliness, is not a standard that everyone agrees on. Is a campaigner for women's reproductive rights doing good work, or evil work? There are a number of evangelicals in the U.S. who have a different opinion to me: just as they might disagree with me over whether a blue cheese is smelly. If we do not even agree on what good or evil are, on what basis can one justify even the existence of an absolute scale, to have a maximum? But if judgements are relative, and informed by personal and cultural priorities, the mystery of disagreement goes away.

Niel de Beaudrap

Posted 2014-10-13T06:48:28.963

Reputation: 9 640

5"the mystery of disagreement goes away". In another question, I'm disagreeing with someone about infinity and pi. If my points are taken as culturally relative, the mystery of disagreement goes away. Sadly also truth goes away! Universal relativism is a cop-out and a tool for anyone to assert anything without challenge. Sorry, no, whilst some things are partly or relatively true, some other things are completely true whilst others are fiction. I wrote this using my phone. It's not true "for me" or "from my point of view", it's just plain old true. Disagreement is sometimes just error. – AndrewC – 2014-10-13T23:40:48.807

3@AndrewC: If you have as much support for your ideas of 'infinity' and 'pi', as most people have for 'good', then perhaps your notions of those mathematical concepts have less 'truth' in them than you think. Having said that: ask yourself what the basis for the mathematical concept of 'infinity' is, or even 'truth'. They are useful conventions: ways of thinking. – Niel de Beaudrap – 2014-10-14T03:03:01.187

Why disagree with me if you really believe truth is relative? My understanding of infinity and pi is on solid ground due to my education and career in mathematics. Do you not accept even mathematical truths? 3+5=8? Maths isn't just a social club of people who like to follow their own conventions. – AndrewC – 2014-10-14T06:06:15.643

3@AndrewC Math as a field has a whole lot of people following their own conventions... for instance, I recently came across a system in which 3+5=5. A large part of being good at (high-level) mathematics is being able to work within other people's systems. In such an environment, truth is relative, but meaningful arguments and disagreements are quite common - they simply require agreeing on the system you're working in. – Brilliand – 2014-10-14T19:28:02.473

2@AndrewC There is a (usually) uncontroversial difference between things that are true by definition and things that are contingently true. 3+5=8 is true because of the definitions of the component terms. Your "culturally relative" phrase above does not (can not!) apply to mathematical entities. Relativism is not a cop-out, it's a recognition that truth, beauty, and goodness are much more complicated than people of a certain intellectual constitution would like for them to be. – Klay – 2014-10-14T20:08:25.033

Hmmmmm... I wonder who "people of a certain intellectual constitution" might be. – None – 2014-10-14T21:36:14.427

@Klay 1+1=2 is, if you like, a definition of 2, but 3+5=8 is not just true by definition. Moreover it is an overarching truth you'll find working no matter what you're counting. It's not a cultural truth, it's not partly truth, it's not relatively true, it's always true. – AndrewC – 2014-10-15T00:46:24.207

2@Brilliand It's clear from context that I was talking about the integers, not Z/nZ or other alternative algebraic structure. Arithmetic is not relatively true, and you have to deliberately alter the meaning you're giving to the symbols I'm using to find your supposed alternative truth. – AndrewC – 2014-10-15T00:49:39.103

5@Klay My point is not that all truths are absolute. It is that some are not relative. Of course truths like "Hannibal was a great tactician", "I love my wife" and "soap operas are popular" are more nuanced and complicated than 5+3=8, and there are definitely-relative truths like "this book is exciting". If you treat all truths as if they were only as valid as opinions I fundamentally disagree. "It's true for you" is the one of my least favourite relativistic cop-outs, denying actual truth and relegating facts to opinion. If you admit there are some solid truths and some less so, we agree. – AndrewC – 2014-10-15T01:00:31.657

Looking back to the comment that started this discussion, I suspect there's been some confusion over what Niel meant by "judgement". Perhaps a clarifying adjective is in order. – Brilliand – 2014-10-15T07:57:14.800

2I think that I'm being fairly clear, and that AndrewC is assuming that my definition of truth is wishy-washy — rather than demanding enough to require a good hard stare at notions such as 'good'. There is no such thing as 'true for you', but there is confusion and disagreement over ideas. Where there is confusion about abstract scales of comparison, one cannot simply assume the existence of an absolute scale. – Niel de Beaudrap – 2014-10-15T15:46:17.310

2@AndrewC - 3+5=0, 3+5=1, 3+5=2, 3+5=8 - each and every one of these equations is true depending on which base number system you use. If we change the equation to 35+35=70 the Sumerians and Babylonians would have considered you bonkers. – CramerTV – 2014-10-15T21:47:31.190

@CramerTV I am aware of modular arithmetic, but it's obvious in context I meant in the integers, particularly since I already said so! I say 3+5=8 is true and you say "ah, but I can reintepret that to mean something different, so it's not as true as all that", but deliberately misinterpreting a statement isn't a valid rebuttal at all. The Sumerians and Babylonians wouldn't know what you meant since all those symbols were unfamiliar to them. Once you explained place value and the base 10 number system to them, they would concur. – AndrewC – 2014-10-16T06:04:31.090

1@NieldeBeaudrap No, not a valid rebuttal; the silly argument over the value of 5+3 is a case in point. The fact that disagreement and confusion are being brought to bear does not in the slightest detract from the fact that there is an absolute scale called the integers. It was the one I was refering to. Its existence is not in any way altered or compromised by the muddying of the waters in this discussion, and to suppose that doubt, confusion and disagreement disproves that this absolute scale exists is nonsense. We see the integers working always and everywhere; doubting is self-delusion. – AndrewC – 2014-10-16T06:14:45.777


In my opinion this isn't actually a philosophical problem.

What Dawkins is attempting to point out is that the fact that any two elements are comparable doesn't mean there are absolute maximums or minimums.

A less contentious example is the set of integers. Sure, it is the case that 2 is greater than 1 in the usual metric, but that doesn't magically imply that there is a greatest integer (in fact, there are elementary proofs that there is not).


Posted 2014-10-13T06:48:28.963

Reputation: 355

8I agree that's what Dawkins is attempting but he does so in complete ignorance of how the argument works. It's like insulting a chess player for not using the pieces to play checkers. – virmaior – 2014-10-13T22:50:19.127

8@virmaior Nah; I'm pretty sure he knows what he's doing. He's got a doctorate in logic-heavy field, and he wouldn't have phrased it in the way he did if he were completely ignorant. He's taking Aquinas literally, not philosophically.¶ I'd even go so far as to say his reaction comes from understanding. Condescension aside, if you read Aquinas's quote aloud, it's hard not to laugh. "we judge . . . only by comparison with a maximum" is especially preposterous to me, since any real human knows this isn't actually true. I wouldn't be surprised if anyone ridiculed it. – imallett – 2014-10-13T23:31:38.553

3"logic-heavy field"? He's a biologist not a mathematician. "taking Aquinas literally not philosophically"? Considering Aquinas is writing philosophically and this discussion is happening on philosophy.se what does literally even mean here? How can I take one someone literally by literally and intentionally misunderstanding them? In his own preface, he explains he doesn't bother trying to understand the theologians he wants to mock. – virmaior – 2014-10-13T23:42:12.697

2@virmaior: ""logic-heavy field"? He's a biologist not a mathematician." Yes. Those are not incompatible ideas.¶ I'm not defending Dawkins on ignoring the philosophy--I'm saying that that's what he's doing. As I wrote, "In my opinion this isn't actually a philosophical problem.", because Dawkins isn't treating it like one. – imallett – 2014-10-14T00:10:06.493

15@virmaior There can be no "ignorance of how [Aquinas'] argument works", because it doesn't work. The postulate that we judge these degrees only by comparison with a maximum is trivially false. That is Dawkins' point. – Kevin Krumwiede – 2014-10-14T03:42:01.487

7@KevinKrumwiede Yeah, you're demonstrating the point here. You don't understand something, thereby misread, and then say "it doesn't work". What's failing is your and Dawkins comprehension of what is being said -- not the original argument in this case. If I speak to you in Japanese and you don't understand it, you don't get to just say look "what's he saying doesn't work." 通じるか | I'm not saying the argument cannot be critiqued, but I'm saying chess games are not well critiqued by checkers players. – virmaior – 2014-10-14T04:00:37.633

Please. Those who say that "goodness" have especial qualities explain why the greatest applies to this.

I do not see why there should be a supreme goodness and not a "supreme ignorance", "supreme change", "supreme indignation" or "supreme convenience". – borjab – 2014-10-15T09:27:30.817


@borjab - despite appearances I'm not one of "Those who say" but please look here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/transcendentals-medieval/. If you have questions, ask them using the function at the top of your page. But the important part is that transcendentals are those attributes which are true to a degree of all existing things. Indignation being an emotion is a weird candidate unless you believe in an angry pantheistic fire god. The true is a good candidate, because anything that exists has some truth in it (here meaning some things that are true about it).

– virmaior – 2014-10-15T10:56:02.593

Goodness is more complicated but basically on the ancient and medieval understanding, existing is a good thing (including in it a moral sense) and thus things that exist have that attribute under them. (I am much less sure about the beauty). Truth seems, at least to me, to be pretty non-arbitrary as transcendentals (or in our modern philosophies -- existence). – virmaior – 2014-10-15T10:57:47.003

I appreciate the link (+1). After reading it I do not see any proof that "transcendental attributes" have a supreme. This is a fundamental part to the argument.

I would say that something is true or false. It exists or it does not. So everything that exists and is true is the supreme truth/existance or God. Similar to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantheism

On the other hand I won't be able to say that every stone is bad or good. It is just a stone that happens to exists.

P.S. In maths a maximun is unique and an supremun can be shared between several values. Like several gods/godness

– borjab – 2014-10-15T14:40:23.540

@KevinKrumwiede - I'm sorry you are having difficulty with a person on this site but commenting with the sole intent of calling them out or provoking them is not really constructive. At our site we tend to have people who are very logical, sometimes they seem curt to the layperson. But in my experience here virmaior has been nothing but a great, positive influence on this site. Sure, the phraseology some of us use can sometimes be somewhat caustic (usually intended in a humorous way) but you shouldn't take them personally; I hope you can understand. – stoicfury – 2014-10-16T02:21:12.033

1@stoicfury virmaior can't even correctly identify an ad hominem. I'm not taking it personally; I'm concerned because he's so skilled at dressing up his nonsense as what might appear to the layperson as valid information. – Kevin Krumwiede – 2014-10-16T16:09:38.817

2@virmaior "but I'm saying chess games are not well critiqued by checkers players." What a cop-out! So what, any theologian can make a bogus argument for God. And when defeated by a well reasoned argument of a non-theist simply appeal to that his field is not theology? – Cruncher – 2014-10-18T17:47:42.440

@Cruncher The field in question here is philosophy -- not theology. My guess would be you don't know much about academic philosophy or theology based on your statement. The idea of transcendentals is a philosophical one -- it ain't from the bible, quran, talmud, or any other religious text. There's no difference between Aquinas using that concept there and chemists using molar mass. If non-chemists complain that a gram is a gram, so a gram of one thing is the same as a gram of another thing, then that's just because they don't get that gives different #s of molecules in the same mass. – virmaior – 2014-10-19T02:48:44.933


The reason why it seems so strange is that both argumentations are built on fundamentally different axioms and if Aquinas would live he would also vigorously deny Dawkins's premises. Because Dawkins & Co. have nothing than contempt for religious argumentations, the argumentation of Dawkins & Co. does not consider the metaphysical premises, on which Aquinas's assumptions are based, and which (metaphysical premises) could be taken as granted during the time Aquinas wrote his Summa.

Aquinas was firmly standing on Aristotle's philosophy and was therefore considered untouchable during the time Aquinas's Summa were created. Now that we have a much better overview over the severe errors Aristotle introduced, we can take many of his propositions much more critically.

Aristotle remarked that there are words for individuals: "moon","Aristotle","Mount Everest";
words which are generic: "cat","dog","rock";
and adjectives like "good","red","beautiful", etc. The adjectives he called universals. He asked why such words exists (the problem is called problem of universals). Why do people use such words if there are essentially only individuals? Every cat, dog, human, rock, whatever you find in nature, is inimitable. Aristotle believed that real things are representations or approximations of universals and we are only able to use generic terms
because universals are real existing ideas and independent from their representations,
and because we judge the likeness of a real thing with its universal.

Example: A cat may be a house-cat, a ozelot, a puma, a lion, a tiger. Let's say we learn a new language and he tell us the word "sotehu". He points to the different cats and we understand that he wants to tell us that "sotehu" means cattiness despite their completely different color, fur, stance and size.

It is a straightforward reason to assume: if this is true, we automatically understand if we will find the perfect representation of a universal. If you do not know this (as Dawkins demonstrated) you find this irritating from a modern perspective.

Worse, Dawkins demonstrated with his "rebuttal" that he understood the meaning of the argument. Yes, "stinking" is a universal which is fulfilled by representations of a sweaty foot, limburger and rotten fish. So there may exist a perfect stinking entity and no, it is not God, but more something likely to be encountered in the seven circles of hell. Dawkins launched a bad counterargument.

Wittgenstein and others have attacked Aristotle and the idea of universals and the idea that language tells us facts above the world mercilessly and in my opinion convincingly. So no counterarguments needed, Aquinas did not survive the test of time.

Some problems that seem evident for a "prove of God" were not apparent for Aquinas. The "unmoved mover" and "the first cause" cause either an infinite regress (Who moved God ? Wo created God ?) or a violation of the premises (Everything has to move/be created). The reason is that Aquinas made a whole book of special pleading for God's uniqueness (which are also conclusions from this proves and yes, for modern minds it is begging the question).

God is eternal, unchangeable and the only instance where essence and itself is equal. He cannot be defined but contains every positive universal aspect (truth, goodness, omnipotent and omniscient), etc. As special pleading is allowed in case of God, the arguments did not sound bad in former times. In essence the Summa Theologiae is not philosophical, but a defense of the catholic belief based on Aristotle.

Your question is if the argument has any validity. Now, it is not a proof for God, but what about the idea of a maximum itself ? In fact the idea of perfection pervades still the modern era. People gets irritated if, e.g., a justice would say: "Ok, we as judges and prosecutors do a 9-5 job. We are trying to do a good job, but shit happens time from time." Or if a doctor would say:"You know, human rights has this idea of equality. But right now I have the president on the other table, he is rich, he is powerful and he has a broken hand. You on the other hand are a jobless, broken white trailer trash who was unfortunately hit by a bullet. So I ask you to bleed quietly until I have fixed the president's hand." It may be the whole truth, but people do not accept that.

People fought and died for ideals who do not exist as entities (freedom, equality, privacy, right of property....). If you deny that the argument itself is meritless, you must stick to the viewpoint that striving for a maximum or believing in the existence of a maximum is a stupid thing to think or do. And if it is a stupid thing, your idea of (e.g. "human rights") loses its plausibility. Hard question.

Thorsten S.

Posted 2014-10-13T06:48:28.963

Reputation: 469

I thought it was Plato that originated the theory of forms... – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-10-14T00:34:27.333

And not Aristotle. – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-10-14T00:34:43.230

@MoziburUllah Correct. Aristotle lived after Plato, took key elements of it but attacked parts of it he did not like and modified the rest according to his own ideas like a good philosopher. :-) – Thorsten S. – 2014-10-14T00:39:46.590

1So why the attack on Aristotle, when there are strains of neo-platonism in Christian doctrine ? – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-10-14T00:43:51.007

2Uh, there were always internal fights between the different philosophers. Plotin was the most important neo-platonist and had a very strong influence on the evolving Christian belief. But he had problems with the gnosticists, another branch of Christians. After that the Dark Ages and no important philosophers. Then Johannes Scotus, again neo-platonist and very influencal, but two meetings of bishops considered it heretical. You must also know that these man had likely not access to the original Plato but only fragments from other people. Aquinas in fact moved Aristotle in the first position. – Thorsten S. – 2014-10-14T01:00:22.793

In fact Aquinas had to fight the Averroeists which did not know the original Aristotle but a version with neo-platonic influences. Aquinas was enraged that the more lenient Arabic interpretation allowed loopholes in the catholic doctrine and convinced his superiors that he found the correct interpretation (But De Anima seems much more to support Averroes conclusion than Aquinas). – Thorsten S. – 2014-10-14T01:06:46.817

1Can you say a little more about the more 'leniant' Arabic version? – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-10-14T02:03:51.213

Let us continue this discussion in chat.

– Mozibur Ullah – 2014-10-14T02:04:06.767


Those who say that Dawkins is not knowledgeable about Philosophy might be missing the point of philosophy. That is, philosophical arguments should stand on their own. You shouldn't need any understanding of the history of Philosophy in order to evaluate an argument. An argument is a set of premises with a conclusion. You can test to make sure that the argument is valid by applying laws of inference. Then you can check to make sure that the premises are true. In the case of Thomas Aquanis' argument for the existence of god, there is no law of inference that allows for this sort of inductive argument. What I mean is that just because you see some gradient of some quality (like goodness) in the natural world, doesn't mean that it keeps going to some absolute maximum. And certainly you can't say that that absolute maximum must exist.

Glenn Henshaw

Posted 2014-10-13T06:48:28.963

Reputation: 107

First off, welcome to philosophy.se. Not all philosophers agree with you about "the point of philosophy" there and regardless of that to see whether an argument stands on its own requires knowing the rules of that type of argument (to give a contemporary example, which modal logic [e.g. S5] or which rules of inference?) It's not at all clear Dawkins understands the rules for the logic Aquinas is using. – virmaior – 2014-10-14T23:04:57.820

There is only one logic. Even the greats like Aquinas have to use it. By laws of inference I mean a set of premises p1, p2, ... ,pn, and a conclusion q. So that the statement (p1 and p2 and p3 and ... and pn --> q) is a tautology. Such an argument may qualify as a law of inference if you want to call it that. If Aquinas is using such a law of inference in the argument under discussion then why wouldn't he or anyone on this thread present it in a clear way? Furthermore, to show that the argument works, you have to argue that the premises are true. Dawkins rebuttal is entertaining but unnecessar – Glenn Henshaw – 2014-10-15T17:40:19.500

2There is a problem: argumentations do not levitate autonomously, but must be based on a worldview, current knowledge and what you and your opponent regards as true (You may think you are right and you may be right, but you cannot argue with someone who is not sharing your beliefs: Contra principia negantem non est disputandum). The very first thing natural scientists will tell you if you try to argue with "common sense" is: Learn the basic stuff. – Thorsten S. – 2014-10-15T20:56:31.607

1Example: Aliens with knowledge based only on natural sciences may come the conclusion: The idea of "property" in human minds is a sign of mass delusion. There is no such thing in the real scientific world (and in fact they are right). But that may leave them clueless. On the other hand, someone who tries to understand may come to the conclusion that humans simply solved the problem of distribution of goods with the invention of "property". And if you think "property" is a mass delusion you may experience trouble with humans. – Thorsten S. – 2014-10-15T21:01:59.540

3@ThorstenS. The first step in analyzing an argument is to check its validity. This step is independent of world view. This is the step where you check the logical consistency of the argument while just assuming all premises are true. It seems that Aquinas' argument does not even pass this "worldview independent" stage. Hence it is not a sound argument. Aquinas says "Humans can be both good and bad, so the maximum goodness cannot rest in us." This is not valid reasoning even if we accept that humans are both good and bad and that a maximum must exist. Quite simple really. – Glenn Henshaw – 2014-10-16T00:03:49.120

You're using maximum in a very different sense to Aquinas. Toy example: If it were possible to rate goodness on a scale from -1 to 1 along various attributes like kindness, avoidance of harm to others etc, then we'd each have a score like (0.3, -0.12, 0.8 ...) Aquinas argument is similar to saying that because we all have some scores negative some of the time, none of us are the constant and permanent (1,1,1,1,1,...) which is maximum goodness. He's not saying that these is no best human, because he's maximising the scale, not the dataset. You knocked down a straw man. – AndrewC – 2014-10-17T13:21:33.023

2"This step is independent of world view." Only in mathematics we have a clearly defined set of definitions and rules which enable people to get to iron-clad conclusions. Once the set of axioms are not shared, even mathematicians are starting to argue (Axiom of Choice, Intuitionism). Now in real world we have mostly vague definitions, misunderstandings, misinterpretations and the argumentations are not iron-clad either. If any error of this kind happens, your or the other conclusions are not valid. Special pleading as used by Aquinas can lead to valid conclusions. <to be continued> – Thorsten S. – 2014-10-17T18:25:10.060

Pulling down Aquinas is not so much a problem. If he accepts special pleading for God, you can attack his conclusions even from scholastic philosophy: "Ok, supernatural beings are exempt from human logic ? Then your conclusions about God are not conclusive !". But if you don't understand or misunderstand the argument or its premises which could have been avoided by studying scholastic Philosophy and give a bad argument, then it's tough luck for Dawkins. – Thorsten S. – 2014-10-17T18:31:34.337


Dawkins is being facetious and playing for laughs from his readers by using smelliness as his dimension of comparison.

Aquinas's fourth way, the argument from degree is grounded in the idea that all things have fundamental qualities and these qualities have graduating degrees such that, for example, one poem may be considered more beautiful than another. Aquinas advances the argument that all these qualities have a maximal possible value and these values are contained within or embodied by God.

The problem with this is that while smelliness is not a good example of these transcendental qualities, these transcendental qualities do not have to be universally positive. If Aquinas is correct then God is not only perfectly good, honest, beautiful etc. He is also perfectly Evil, insane, jealous and many other negative traits.

As a perfectly evil being cannot be omnibenevolent, this would seem to turn the Fourth Way into a refutation of the Abrahamic God.


Posted 2014-10-13T06:48:28.963

Reputation: 307

5Those negative traits are not perfect for Aquinas... – virmaior – 2014-10-13T12:14:42.700

Change perfect evil for supreme evil. In fact it saves the problem of choosing which concept of perfection.

Supreme is a matematical concept: See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infimum_and_supremum

– borjab – 2014-10-15T10:39:52.220

1That they are not perfect for Aquinas does not change that they are dimensions of a beings character and therefore must be embodied in god if Aquinas's theory fundamental qualities is correct. Either ALL qualities are judged objectively with reference to god or none of them are. The only way around this is to propose a second, evil, god to embody the negative traits but you can't do tha in christianity because you must defy numerous bible verses including at least one commandment stating that there is only one god. – JonS – 2015-07-15T08:53:53.257


  1. What's a dimension of comparison? How does it differ from just 'a comparison'?

"Dimension" here refers to the concept of a scale on which you could order all measurements or the same type (and it is a mathematical concept). In this context, a dimension could be physical sizes arranged on an imaginary axis (measured in meters and sub/supra units or inches or whatever), degree of order in a system (a.k.a. entropy), heat, electrical potential, or anything else that can be measured. "Goodness" can also be seen as a dimension, but (arguably) it cannot be measured accurately/objectively.

  1. I read some counterarguments and apologetics here, but why does Aquinas's argument fail in general? If I replace stench by pure moral probity/propriety, for example, then it does make sense to refer to a paragon of 100% morals who could theoretically exist. What's 'fatuous' about this?

I will take it appart line by line:

There are degrees of, say, goodness or perfection. But we judge these degrees only by comparison with a maximum.

This maximum does not exist in nature. It is a theoretical maximum measurement that was imagined by Aquinas (and others like Plato, Aristotle, etc). The only way someone would "judge by comparison with a maximum" is after finding an existing maximum.

Humans can be both good and bad, so the maximum goodness cannot rest in us.

"Good and bad" are often in the eye of the beholder, and they not only change with who is doing the judging, but also with other factors (things that are "good" in Paris may be bad for living in Mumbay and the other way around, and there are things that were good five hundred years ago, that are considered bad now).

Therefore there must be some other maximum to set the standard for perfection, and we call that maximum God.

The idea that whatever Aquinas imagines (like an absolute goodness) must exist is not addressed here (but simply assumed to be so). A definition of God is then made, to match this idealized good-ness.


Posted 2014-10-13T06:48:28.963

Reputation: 121

Thanks, but your answer seems only to clarify and enlarge on Aquinas's argument. Did you answer why his was false? – NNOX Apps – 2015-07-14T23:50:05.087


Aquinas's argument rests on two, perhaps faulty assumptions:

  1. No human can achieve "maximum goodness."

  2. Maximum goodness, whatever that may mean, must have been achieved by something that we shall call God (with capitalization).

Of course, these are both untestable hypotheses. This is theology after all.

Dan Christensen

Posted 2014-10-13T06:48:28.963

Reputation: 975


There's another problem with Dawkins' argument. Smelliness requires a physical cause. There is no 'smell' outside of the physical realm of being by definition. If there were no material things that smelled or we had no physical organ for smelling, we would be unable to intellectually posit the concept of smelliness and therefore a 'peerless stinker'. In short, the peerless stinker has to exist in the material realm, and is therefore not God.

But goodness (or justice, love, mercy etc.) does not require material existence. It is because they belong to the metaphysical realm that we move into conceiving of Anselm's `beyond which there is nothing greater' and can attribute this to God.

Umm Yasmin

Posted 2014-10-13T06:48:28.963

Reputation: 35

3'Stinkiness' is being used merely as a metaphor for any number of traits...be they physical or abstract. His point is that you could replace 'goodness' with any measurable concept. (JonT's answer expands upon this) – DA. – 2014-10-13T23:02:23.360

2Except that physical and abstract qualities do differ much more than by degree. Try living on abstract air or on abstract water. – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-10-14T00:32:14.310

Furthermore, negative qualities can be understood as the absence of good qualities, rather than existent in their own right. So perfect evilness is the absolute absence of that which is perfectly good (God). – Umm Yasmin – 2014-10-14T14:57:29.903

You could say that "goodness, justice, mercy etc." do not requiere material existance as they are mental abstractions..

It is always a person who "feels" the goodness, justice o love (even if you think that all human have an objetive concept of justice).Having a supreme measure of an abstractions would invalidate the argument. Proving that God exists as a human abstraction is no help at all. Does it/he/she really exists in material realm able to create things, do miracles, etc or is just in the mind of people like PI, the antropomorphic Justice with its band over its eyes or Santa Claus – borjab – 2014-10-15T09:19:19.210

God can have an effect in material existence without being material. Just as you can feel the effects of abstract qualities like love, mercy, justice. – Umm Yasmin – 2014-10-16T16:22:11.073

I do not say that God must be material. But the maximum of a mental concept is another mental concept...in my head. Even a mental concept can make people behave different and change the world.

In this way Allah, Yaveh, Jehova, Amon Ra, all of them exist as a mental concept and changed the world.

P.D. People feel and not perceive love, mercy and justice just because love, mercy and justice are human concepts. Rocks do not love nor do good. Unless you think that every time you feel love there is a magical ghostlike energy transmitted this argument won't translate into a Holy Ghost kind of God. – borjab – 2014-10-17T09:18:54.213

You can see a mother taking care of a child and you JUDGE her as good. What it is the nature of goodness? Some will say that it is objective, some will say that it is relative. It could be a construction created by evolution in our minds so that our social animal can have sustain a peaceful society. Free riders and damaging individuals are punished for being "bad" with "justice". So the argument of degree depends on the concept of good and evil which is no small thing at all.

To be a valid it needs to prove that good is A)Objective B)Something more than a mental idea C) Has a maximum – borjab – 2014-10-17T09:31:48.503


Terry Eagleton, a literary critic criticises Dawkins on his New Atheism for his lack of sophistication and lack of knowledge of theology and philosophy, in itself and its history.

A lot of what I would say here has already been touched on by Virmaior.

Though you haven't specifically asked to consider this in your question its worth pointing out that the meaning of 'proof' differs a great deal here from the same word used differently but analogously in mathematics; its better understood as 'making plausible' or a 'hymn' in rational or axiomatic form.

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2014-10-13T06:48:28.963

Reputation: 1


It seems he can be charitably understood to be raising the issue of the ontological and epistemological queerness of putative normative truthmakers to moral facts understood through ethical intuitions and so on, so we should not posit what is prerequisite to such normative truthmakers/moral facts existing.

Lothrop Stoddard

Posted 2014-10-13T06:48:28.963

Reputation: 533

No, I don't think that Dawkins had this in mind. He is not someone acquainted with rather obscure technical terms and arguments in moral philosophy. Aside from that your answer barely makes any sense. – viuser – 2016-12-23T01:07:04.633


The Angelic Doctor's argument fails because it makes this leap:

Because we have the concept of Purity, there must exist that which is pure.


Posted 2014-10-13T06:48:28.963

Reputation: 95

Does Dawkin say that? If so where? – James Kingsbery – 2015-08-18T21:19:26.810

I think Angelic Doctor is a title for Aquinas... But if you want to make this a good answer for the question, you need to (1) add a citation of where Dawkins makes this claim, (2) defend that Aquinas does indeed do so (this sounds like an ontological argument), and (3) connect it to the question asked by the OP... – virmaior – 2015-08-18T21:47:35.490

OP asks Why does Aquinas's argument fail in general? I don't have to cite diddly about Dawkins to answer that question. But Dawkins does indeed say this. "...therefore there must exist a pre-eminently peerless stinker". – TRomano – 2015-08-19T10:39:39.517

This is quite an ant-hill. – TRomano – 2015-08-19T10:45:36.667