- The Fourth Way: Argument from Gradation of Being
This one is built on the idea that we simply need a measuring stick in order to understand the value of things. Good/bad, big/small, hot/cold – none of these concepts can exist in isolation. If you go out for a walk and you see an animal, and it’s like the size of a pug, that animal would be on the small side if we consider the general size of dogs. But if it was a rat instead of a dog, that would be HUGE. How do we know? Because we gauge the size of things in terms of other things.
The same idea applies to more abstract concepts, like grades. How do we know that an A is good? Because it’s at the top – we know that there are grades lower than an A, but nothing higher. And Aquinas thought that all of our value concepts would just be floating randomly in space if there weren’t some anchor – something that defined the value of everything else, by being perfect – and that, again, is God.
This is how Aquinas developed Number four, known as Argument from Degrees.
Properties come in degrees in order for there to be degrees of perfection, there must be something perfect against which everything else is measured God is the pinnacle of perfection
Let’s discuss these first four arguments before moving onto the fifth argument.
Philosophers – theists and atheists alike – have been relatively unimpressed by these four, having found many problems in them. For one thing, these arguments don’t seem to establish the existence of any particular god. Even if the arguments are correct, it doesn’t look like Aquinas gets us to the personal, loving God that many people pray to. Instead, we’re left with unmoved movers and uncaused causers who seem to have little in common with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob … the God who feels emotions, and cares about his creation, and answers prayers. Basically, this objection says that Aquinas’ god is so far removed from the god that theists actually believe in, that it doesn’t help anything.
But maybe you’re happy just believing someone’s out there. That’s fine. But then how about multiple someone’s? Because – guess what – Aquinas’ arguments don’t rule out polytheism. There’s nothing in any of his arguments to prove that God isn’t, like, a committee. Aquinas’ cosmological arguments also don’t prove the existence of a sentient God. So, it might be an old guy with a beard. It might be six old guys with beards. But it also might be an egg, or a turtle, or just a big block of stone.
These observations have made some philosophers uncomfortable with Aquinas’ ultimate conclusion. But there are two objections that are thought by some to be real nails in its coffin. The first is simply that Aquinas was wrong in his insistence that there can’t be an infinite chain of anything. Aquinas takes it as a given that there had to be a starting point for everything — whether it’s the movement of objects, or causes and effects, or contingent beings being created. But it’s unclear that this is true, or why it must be true.
If infinite regress can be possible, then Aquinas’ first two arguments fall apart. But perhaps the most significant charge made against Aquinas’ arguments is that they’re self-defeating — that is, they prove themselves wrong.
For example: If Aquinas is right that everything must have been put in motion by something else, and everything must have a cause other than itself, then it seems that God should be subject to those same stipulations. And if God is somehow exempt from those rules, then why couldn’t other things be exempt from them too? If they can exist without God being responsible them, then we don’t need God to establish things in the first place.