Many arguments for and against the existence of God have a long and rich philosophical tradition, which means they’ve had many centuries to be formulated, reformulated, and critiqued. The Argument from Degree, which is typically thought of as a version of the ontological argument, was posited by Thomas Aquinas and has survived for hundreds of years. I’ve written a series of articles outlining some well-known and frequently studied arguments both for and against the existence of God, and you can find my other articles on the topic by clicking this link. In this article I’ll examine the argument from degree and also look at some common criticisms of this argument for God’s existence.
What is St. Thomas Aquinas’s Argument from Degree?
Thomas Aquinas was a Catholic theologian and philosopher, who wrote about topics far beyond the traditional scope of Catholic theologians. The argument claims that some being must exist who possesses all possible attributes to the highest degree, and we call this being God. Aquinas drew this belief from the claim that all objects possess attributes to a lesser or greater degree, and that if something possesses a particular attribute to a lesser degree there must be something else that possesses it to a greater degree. There also must exist some other object that exhibits all qualities to the greatest possible degree. If there must be such a being, then that being exists, and therefore God exists.
Criticisms of the Degree Argument
Some philosophers and laypersons have argued that ontological arguments are mere word play that set up syllogisms with false or unstated premises or that work on paper but are not verifiable in real life. In this case, the unproven premise of Aquinas’s argument is that if a trait exists, something somewhere must have it to the largest possible degree. Richard Dawkins, a well-known scientist who has written several pieces of atheist philosophy, has made this exact argument, and used the example that just because one thing is a little smelly does not mean that there must be something else out there that is the smelliest thing possible.
Further, Aquinas’s argument could be viewed as actually undermining God if God did exist. A being who had all possible qualities would have the qualities of evil, dishonesty, etc., while simultaneously having the qualities of honest, good, etc., which leads to a logical contradiction. Finally, there is no reason to think that, even if some being must possess an attribute to the maximum degree possible, that all attributes must be contained in one being. In other words, perhaps different beings possess different attributes to the maximum degree possible. These beings could be human or animal, or this argument could be used as evidence of multiple Gods.
Bertrand Russell-A History of Western Philosphy
Richard Dawkins- Why There Almost Certainly Is No God (Huffington Post)
Thomas Aquinas- Summa Theologica