Source: p 100-101, The God Delusion, By Richard Dawkins

1. The Unmoved Mover. Nothing moves without a prior mover. This leads us to an infinite regress, from which the only escape is God. Something had to make the first move, and that something we call God.

2. The Uncaused Cause. Nothing is caused by itself. Every effect has a prior cause, and again we are pushed back into infinite regress. This has to be terminated by a first cause, which we call God.

3. The Cosmological Argument. There must have been a time when no physical things existed. But, since physical things exist now, there must have been something non-physical to bring them into existence, and that something we call God.

All three of these arguments rely upon the idea of an infinite regress and invoke God to terminate it. They make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress. Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God; omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins and reading innermost thoughts.

My question: 2. What does Richard Dawkins suggest is the main flaw in these first three arguments?
✓ There is no reason to endow the terminator with god-like qualities.
✗ There is no evidence for the arguments.

The bolded words influenced me to think ✗; but the correct answer is ✓. Why?

Also, is ✗ a stronger argument than arguing whether "God himself is immune to the regress"?

  • 2
    The Terminator? Now that's an interesting image of God!
    – user4894
    Oct 19, 2014 at 11:20
  • 1
    Why does he think everything has a cause? Eternal things (Which deities are) have long held to not need causes? Heck 80 years ago the universe was thought to be eternal and uncaused.
    – Neil Meyer
    Oct 20, 2014 at 11:52
  • Who says that the first one is the correct answer? Not sure I agree or disagree, but some context would be helpful. Oct 20, 2014 at 16:53
  • With respect the first cause there is an interesting talk in TED: ted.com/talks/jim_holt_why_does_the_universe_exist
    – borjab
    Oct 20, 2014 at 17:33
  • 1
    I'd like to note that neither (1), (2) or (3) are arguments Thomas Aquinas actually makes. Dawkins is fighting with a straw man and utterly failing to understand, let alone critique Aquinas's actual arguments.
    – user5172
    Oct 23, 2014 at 10:47

5 Answers 5


I think Dawkins is a little sloppy in explanation here, but his counter-argument, once understood, is devastating.

Firstly, he notes in passing that these arguments assume that there must be a "first cause". This is not readily apparent. We could live in a universe that has existed forever, or a universe that exists within some greater structure which creates and destroys universes in accord with some eternal equilibrium.

Secondly, he attacks the lack of explanation (the "entirely unwarranted assumption") as to why God should somehow be immune from requiring a cause. Implied in this is that if we postulate a first cause, there should be some attempt to address why it itself does not need to be caused by anything.

Thirdly, he attacks the arbitrary assignment of qualities to this "first cause" (such as omniscience, goodness, etc). He seems to attack the "dubious luxury" of having a terminator a little more strongly than is warranted, but as he proceeds it becomes apparent that he's skipping right into the presumption of an intelligent entity, which more than deserves the ridicule. And of course, even if we did assume that some intelligent entity was the "first cause" we would not be able to infer anything of their motives from the simple act of starting everything.

His attack is not so much based on the lack of evidence for the arguments as on the failure of the argumenter to even perceive that evidence is necessary.

  • Conversation between Virmaior, Quirk, and goldilocks moved to chat.
    – stoicfury
    Oct 22, 2014 at 7:40
  • He is immune because his existence is eternal. Just like the static universe was thought to be immune from a cause.
    – Neil Meyer
    Oct 22, 2014 at 8:50
  • Do you say previous cause in a temporal sense? Universal laws fulfill the conditions to be a previous cause in the temporal sense but not in the root case sense. On the other hand God is immune in the temporal sense but not in the root cause sense.
    – borjab
    Oct 23, 2014 at 10:16
  • 2
    @NeilMeyer He is immune because his existence is eternal. ...which is another way of saying "except for things that don't have a 'first cause'." Oct 29, 2014 at 10:07
  • No it is a way of saying things that have always existed cant have something making it because there has never been a state of non existence... because it is eternal.
    – Neil Meyer
    Oct 29, 2014 at 10:39

It is important in reading Dawkins to understand that the only evidence that is admissible are essentially material:

  1. Things we detect directly with our senses
  2. Things we can detect by having our senses enhanced (e.g., via telescope, magnifying glass)
  3. Models that can be created as a result from data collected in 1 or 2.

Since Thomas's argument does not use only material evidence (and that which can be logically derived from it), it must be wrong in Dawkins's eyes.

  • Does he make these assumptions explicit in any of his writings?
    – Dave
    Oct 20, 2014 at 17:56
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    Yes, he discusses these in the God Delusion somewhere early on... might be the introduction, or one of the first chapters. I think he phrases it more along the lines of "how do we know that something is true." Oct 20, 2014 at 18:37
  • 1
    Even a magical / spiritual God will have the same problems: Does not explains why there is an Unmoved Mover and Uncaused Cause and does not tells us which kind of cause o mover. God could be a physical or logical principle. It is a bit like when a kid asks a lot of "why?" questions and the parent says "because I tell you". Why god has this attributes and not others? why there is universe and god at all? Why did god decided to create the universe like this and not the other way? And of course this concept of god does not need to be intelligent at all.
    – borjab
    Oct 21, 2014 at 8:45
  • The existence of a purely spiritual god could still be demonstrated with science if the god had anything to do with the creation/development of the universe. We live in a physical universe and any interaction with it has consequences which we can detect and measure. Any time 'god' interacted with the universe he would pull his 'arm' out dripping with physics and we would be able to see the results. Like a meteor strike leaves a crater long after the fragments have been eroded away to dust, we should be able to see the evidence of a huge invisible cosmic something arbitrarily changing things.
    – JonS
    Jul 15, 2015 at 9:03

You can refute or weaken an argument by pointing out an exception to the rule. If someone says: "Material animals are always denser than air, so animals can never fly", you can point to a bird and say: "See ? While your assumption is correct, there is also dynamic lift (wings) which are able to give birds flight. Your conclusion is wrong". If your exception (counterexample) does not fit (you are pointing to animal gliders which always need to jump higher off the ground), you are committing special pleading.

Response to Dawkin's point 1 (in the quote): Dawkins knew little about Aquina's scholastic philosophy. In Aquina's world, what we would call special pleading was totally acceptable for supernatural beings. We can also correct the argument of Aquinas (example for the uncaused cause): "Nothing what we experience in our world is caused by itself. Every ordinary effect has a prior cause. This has to be terminated by a special first cause, something which does not or only partially belong to our world, and this is God."

While the original version has the problem that it contains a contradiction ('Every' means 'always', so every effect includes God), the contradiction is now removed and more to the form Aquinas intended. It also strengthens the argument because it now requires only a supernatural being instead of a specific God.

I still would not accept that because you need to specify what "caused by itself" meant. You really needed to be sure that something like that does not exist in nature (and would negate the argument and level down the being from "supernatural" to "natural"). Even then it is not necessary that it has the attributes of Aquina's "God" (as Dawkins rightly remarked). And every supernatural argumentation has the problem of ascribing normal argumentation based on normal behavior, to something which does not need to fit the "norm" (otherwise it wouldn't be supernatural). If such things really exist, you are not allowed to ascribe any property to them. I for my part have every reason to believe that the agnostics are right: You cannot refute or prove a supernatural being.

Response to Dawkin's point 2 (The argument about infinite regress itself):
I do not think it is correct to believe that nature is bound by something human mind is able to comprehend. If we have something like the universe, I and many people have problems with both ideas: infinite past or a specific timepoint with the universe beginning. We only experience something with past and future, by extrapolating our personal experiences to unknown phenomena...I think it's foolish.

Response to Dawkin's point 3 (Concerning "There is no evidence for the arguments"):
With his additions "entirely unwarranted" and "dubious", what Dawkins does is whistling in the dark. He is correct that the argument is not a proof, but his reply does not invalidate the impossibility of such a thing. So what Aquinas, or his counterparts Dawkins, Stenger & Co., write in their books is loaded with gratuitous nous like "delusion" and adjectives like "omnipotent", "omniscient", "illusion", or "dubious" to give the reader the impression that the basis for their wobbling arguments is much more stable than it is. Dawkins at least is nice enough to allow the remote possibility of a God while Aquinas will not allow one ounce criticism.

  • "Dawkins at least is nice enough to allow the remote possibility of a God"... That doesn't sound like Dawkins. Oct 20, 2014 at 16:56
  • Just using the concept of linear time brings a lot of physical problems. Without universe there is no time so no God can exist before universe because there is no before at all.
    – borjab
    Oct 21, 2014 at 8:52
  • However we might be able to say things like "root cause". Why is the speed of light like this... because the Maxwell equation of electromagnetism have wave solution with this value. Why do electromagnetic force exits. Why X dimensions? etc. One nice answer is "because it could exists and nothing contradicted it". Other possible universe could exist in parallel and we do need no explanation at all. Solved
    – borjab
    Oct 21, 2014 at 9:06
  • @JamesKingsbery Dawkins says something along the lines of, from 0 "There is absolutely a God, with all certainty" to 10 "there is absolutely NOT a God with all certainty" he is something like 9.9. He is a scientist, so he always holds out the potential to be demonstrated wrong by new evidence. He just finds it quite improbable. He has said similar things a few times.
    – puppetsock
    Mar 10, 2020 at 21:17

Dawkins' counter arguments to the arguments you list is written right in the paragraph you provide (it seems a lot of people are offering extraneous reasons). They are:

  1. Either infinite regresses exist or they do not (either they can be terminated [ended/no longer infinite] by things, or they cannot). If you believe in an infinite regress, and you invoke something that stops infinite regresses, then you don't believe in infinite regresses. They are just regresses that regress until they are stopped by something, i.e. God or some sort of "infinite-regress-stopper". You can't say (without sounding silly) that infinite regresses exist and then invoke God as a terminator of infinite regresses (because then they aren't infinite).

    Stated differently, if infinite regresses are part of the way things are, and God exists, he too would be subject to infinite regress (otherwise infinite regresses aren't part of the way things are). Where did he (God) come from? Where did the thing that created God come from? Where did the thing that created the thing that God came from come from? etc. etc. etc. It doesn't make sense to invoke infinite regresses and simultaneously invoke something that makes them very not infinite.

  2. He continues by saying that even if for whatever reason we allow you to believe both in "infinite regresses" and "not infinite regresses" at the same time, there's no support for the fact that the entity/object that breaks the infinite recess is "God". It could very well be a super infinite regress-breaking alien species from Alpha Centauri, or an infinite regress-breaking physical object/event with no consciousness at all (for example, maybe The Big Bang (not conscious) is the terminator of the infinite recess). We have the same (virtually none) evidence for each of these possibilities.

  • If he where to explain why he thinks everything has a cause then maybe his argument would be better. Claiming the universe has a cause and claiming everything has a cause is not the same.
    – Neil Meyer
    Oct 22, 2014 at 8:47
  • I'm sure he would say it is simply a matter of induction. Just as we inductively hypothesize the universal existence of gravity (that is, the theory of Gravity, and that it exists everywhere even though we obviously haven't been everywhere to test it), we can also see that things seem to have causes around us. In fact, there seem to be no things without causes. So we form a hypothesis, or a theory, of causality, in this case known as determinism. I'm quite sure he believes that everything has a cause, although he probably doesn't spend his time mulling over first causes ad infinitum.
    – stoicfury
    Oct 23, 2014 at 0:52
  • The difference is that we have been able to find gravity everywhere we have tried to find it. However we haven't find causes for a few things. Hey, maybe we have not looked well enough but there are both science and metaphysical facts without found causes. P.S: Here you are talking about root causes not time causes.
    – borjab
    Oct 23, 2014 at 16:49
  • "there are both science and metaphysical facts without found causes". I'd be quite interested in hearing one. Not sure what you mean by "root causes" vs "time causes"; generally, a "cause" is an explanation for a relation between two events, the former event being seen as entity that gives rise to the second event.
    – stoicfury
    Oct 23, 2014 at 22:54

To understand Aquinas, we must understand his words.

The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.

--- Aquinas Understanding ---

I'll explain this to show the disparity in its meaning and Dawkin's understanding thereof.

You must understand actuality and potentiality. Read this: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01124a.htm

All substances actually exist, and their future existence is not actual but potential.

Example: I have a ripe apple. It is actually ripe. It potentially rots, or potentially stays ripe. With change (the movement from potentially to actuality) it either stays ripe or rots.

Now, nothing in motion is prior to itself. That is, nothing that exists potentially can actually move itself into actuality. Example: All the apples that potentially exist from now to 2023 cannot be the source of their future existence. Something that actually exists must move them, that is, something that actually exists must move from the potentiality of causing those potential applies into actuality.

Therefore, as the world around us displays a ton of things in change, it is apparent that there must a non-moving (from potence to actuality), universal substance, else nothing would move (from potence to actuality). That is the basis of Aquinas' God. Aquinas observed that the existence of things in motion necessitates something not in motion which sets all the others in motion; something whose unchanging essence is existence itself.

--- Dawkins' Understanding ---

Taking @stoicfury's interpretation:

Stated differently, if infinite regresses are part of the way things are, and God exists, he too would be subject to infinite regress (otherwise infinite regresses aren't part of the way things are). Where did he (God) come from? Where did the thing that created God come from? Where did the thing that created the thing that God came from come from? etc. etc. etc. It doesn't make sense to invoke infinite regresses and simultaneously invoke something that makes them very not infinite.

This shows fundamental misunderstanding. Things in motion (from potence to actuality) must be moved, yes. But God does not move from potence to actuality. He IS (for He does not change, He is existence itself wherefore all things derive their being. Put another way, He is the Sustaining Principle.)

Others claim that Aquinas must justify why there's an exception. However, no exception exists. They misunderstand him. Aquinas' proof does not include infinite regress. Their misunderstanding of him does.

--- Conclusion ---

Dawkins does great at misinterpreting Aquinas' arguments and tearing his mistaken understandings thereof apart. But does Dawkins critique Aquinas? No, Dawkins critiques Dawkins' perception of Aquinas.

To understand Aquinas, don't read "proofs" of his "fallacies" by those who misunderstood him. Read Aristotle, to get an idea of actuality and potentiality, whose method and foundation Aquinas builds upon. Finally, read Aquinas.

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