Reclaiming the Fifth Way

Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin, and St. Thomas Aquinas

“New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris utilize evolution’s supposed purposelessness to cast doubt upon God’s existence, and draw atheistic conclusions about morality, ethics, and human nature.1 They do this by showing that any appearance of “design” in the universe more plausibly is the result of chance and random evolution rather than a superhuman designing intelligence. When the New Atheists consider the classical proofs for God’s existence, often they are badly misunderstood or caricatured. For example, the teleological argument of Aquinas’ Fifth Way is written off as just another version of William Paley’s design argument. It is, therefore, important for Christians today to reclaim their classical intellectual heritage with a proper understanding of the traditional arguments for God’s existence. This essay will assist in that reclamation by briefly showing how the Fifth Way is nothing like Paley’s argument and, thus, not susceptible to the sorts of criticisms the New Atheists raise against it.

In his atheistic polemic, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins attempts to refute several arguments for God’s existence, including the Five Ways—Aquinas’s metaphysical demonstrations of God’s existence from empirical effects manifest in the world to his existence as their first and final cause. Each of the Five Ways suffers badly in Dawkins’ hands as he repeatedly proffers straw men instead of actually addressing Aquinas’ arguments.2 However, none of the Five Ways is distorted as greatly as the Fifth Way. Dawkins mistakenly interprets the Fifth Way as William Paley’s “argument from design” and erroneously claims that, of all the arguments given for God’s existence, the design argument is “the only one still in regular use today.”3 After stuffing his straw man, Dawkins sets about burning it:

…it still sounds to many like the ultimate knockdown argument. The young Darwin was impressed by it when, as a Cambridge undergraduate, he read it in William Paley’s Natural Theology. Unfortunately for Paley, the mature Darwin blew it out of the water. There has probably never been a more devastating rout of popular belief by clever reasoning than Charles Darwin’s destruction of the argument from design.4

Darwin’s rout of the design argument may indeed have been devastating to Paley. Fortunately for Aquinas, however, neither Darwin’s theory of evolution, nor Dawkins’s Neo-Darwinian evolutionary worldview, does anything to undermine the Fifth Way.

By turning the Fifth Way into the design argument, Dawkins is able to use his reductionist interpretation of Darwin to refute it. Unlike Aquinas, who argues for the metaphysical necessity and ontological priority of God, Dawkins attempts to re-frame God’s existence as if it depended on his preferred evolutionary method of analysis. In fact, despite claiming to disprove God’s existence, Dawkins sets about refuting only his own Neo-Darwinian caricature: a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.5 This immeasurably complex designer God, he argues, must be a product of the universe, which places him ontologically after the universe. Thus, Dawkins writes, “This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.”6 This “alternative view” is compelling against William Paley’s watchmaker God, and certain other anthropomorphic conceptions of God, as just one being among many others, whose existence is a matter of probability not metaphysical necessity. It is one reason, presumably, why Dawkins, and other New Atheists, return to the design argument.7 But it has absolutely nothing to do with Aquinas’ God, the God of classical theism.

The stated goal of The God Delusion is to take on “God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented,”8 but the question of God’s existence is largely irrelevant to Dawkins. Thus he can effortlessly attack the probability of an anthropomorphic conception of God that has nothing to do with his metaphysical necessity. For what Dawkins really seeks is the elimination of religion as an impediment to his preferred political, social, and cultural agenda. The God Delusion, though, has to at least pay lip service to some of the arguments for God’s existence as a way to erode confidence in the entire religious enterprise. But in each of Dawkins’s critiques of the Five Ways, he is ill-informed.9

A major problem with his criticism of the Fifth Way is that it has nothing to do with Paley’s argument. Paley famously likens the complexity and design in the world to a watch. In a watch, finely tuned parts are constructed and assembled together in a way they would otherwise have no tendency toward, and given a purpose they ordinarily would not have: to tell time. The individual parts of the watch cannot tell time; jumbled together, the parts have no power to tell time. It is only when a watchmaker comes along and, taking the different parts, consciously arranges them in such a way that they form a watch with the purpose of telling time.10 According to the design argument, it is at least possible that the universe’s complex order came together by chance, but it is far more probable that there is a designer.

The design argument, therefore, takes a mechanistic view of nature, where the operation of the world, and the complex natural things we see in it, are compared to that of an artifact. It argues from analogy: the things in the universe are complex, artifacts are complex; artifacts have intelligent designers who impose design on them, the things of the universe probably have an intelligent designer who imposes design on them.11 But, as Henri Renard observes, there are two devastating drawbacks to such an argument: 1) it merely demonstrates a probability, rather than a metaphysical necessity, of 2) an architect for the universe, one that “would have to be a very clever being, but would not have to be God,” instead of the ipsum esse subsistens, the “He Who Is” who not only creates, but whose continual conservation of creation is absolutely necessary.12 It is no wonder why the New Atheists prefer to address the design argument: Paley-style arguments do not get us to the God of classical theism; rather, they only get us to Dawkins’ anthropomorphic conception of God.13 Against this conception of God, one which sees him constrained within the natural order, one being among others, Dawkins’ objection is quite powerful. But unlike the design argument, which can only establish a probable designer whose conservation, much like a watchmaker, is not necessary for the continual existence of his artifact, the conclusion of Aquinas’ Fifth Way is the metaphysically necessary, and ontologically prior, God of classical theism whose causal activity sustains creation at every moment of its existence.14

Thus, a key weakness of the design argument is that the question of the order is always a matter of probability rather than of metaphysical necessity.15 As Christopher Martin observes, “The argument from design takes as its basis the perceived mismatch between the detailed dovetailing of the different parts of the mechanism of the world, and any story we could tell about how this comes to be, as the result of blind chance.”16 The strategy of Neo-Darwinians, then, is to assert that “design” is only the appearance of such, and that this appearance of design need not have a designer, and is actually the result of blind chance. As Dawkins is happy to point out, as long as we are playing probabilities, Darwinian evolution provides a better explanation for the appearance of design. But evolution is not, strictly speaking, contrary to the Fifth Way, and its truth or falsity is largely irrelevant to St. Thomas’ argument. Rather, it is the presumed purposelessness of Neo-Darwinism that is at odds with the Fifth Way. To the extent that the Fifth Way sees order and direction in the world, it is similar to the design argument. But the Fifth Way radically differs from both it and Neo-Darwinism: the Fifth Way sees purpose and direction where Neo-Darwinism sees none, and sees it as immanent in the world, whereas the design argument sees it as extrinsic to it.

St. Thomas’ actual argument runs thus: In nature, there are things that lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, but which act for an end; this is evident from their acting always in the same way (unless impeded). From the fact that they always act in this way, we can conclude that they act, not fortuitously, but, rather, by some tendency. But, whatever lacks intelligence cannot move toward an end unless it is directed toward that end by something with intelligence. Therefore, some intelligent being must exist that directs natural things toward their end, “and this being we call God.”17 Each of the Five Ways begins with a distinct empirical fact of common experience.18 That which begins the Fifth Way—that physical, non-intelligent things engage in regular relations, orientations, and goal-directedness—points to a world of essences, each with its own intrinsic point of activity set by its transcendent Creator, rather than a mechanistic view where nothing has any purpose or point, or, if it does, it does only if imposed from without.19

The operative feature of the argument is not design; rather, it is final causality: the inherent “end” toward which any agent of efficient causality “points” in its regularly bringing into existence a certain effect.20 The immanent final causality in nature at the center of the Fifth Way—the point for which something is—applies to all things in the universe, simple or complex. Storm clouds drop rain, not butterflies. Flame regularly brings about fire, not snowflakes and ice. Even Neo-Darwinism exhibits final causality: as Edward Feser notes, “even if it should turn out that animal species are the accidental by-products of various convergent impersonal causal processes, the existence of those evolutionary processes themselves would require explanation in terms of final causes.”21 The crux of the argument is that, because non-intelligent things act regularly, they act so as to achieve an end. This cannot be due to chance, because those things that happen by chance do not happen regularly, only rarely (were chance to occur regularly, it would not be chance).22 Here, we can see the synergy between Thomas’ Second Way and the Fifth Way: the agents of efficient causality at the center of the Second Way, according to the Fifth Way, achieve their ends with intention; by being predisposed to them. But because they are non-intelligent, they are incapable of determining their own end, so they must be disposed to it by something capable of determining the end, namely, intelligence. Every example of unconscious teleology, of something regularly acting for a specific end and yet being unaware of it, depends on some conscious teleology. Aquinas’ path to God in the Fifth Way can be briefly sketched like so: The evident teleology in nature cannot be due to chance, for it happens regularly. The only other option is providence. But, it is obviously not due to our providence; for example, acorns that regularly bring about oak trees do so without the aid of man. Quite obviously, the acorn itself has no intelligence, so it cannot be due to its own providence. “Consequently,” Aquinas argues, “the world is ruled by the providence of that intellect which gave order to nature.”23

While the Fifth Way is concerned with the question of what things are for, both Neo-Darwinism and Paley’s design argument are obsessed only with efficient causality—how things have come to be the way they are. The constant refrain that evolution is pointless, random, and directionless, in addition to suiting its atheistic purposes, is also due to the fact that the modern scientific enterprise as a whole has largely banished final causality. Much of modernity’s difficulty with the notion of teleology in nature, William Wallace writes, “arises from conceiving all final causality as intentional or cognitive and not sufficiently differentiating the cognitive from the terminative and the perfective.”24 The founders of modern science left an unfortunate legacy that emphasizes the mechanistic, quantifiable aspects of nature to the almost complete exclusion of mathematically unquantifiable aspects such as essences, powers, and final causes.25 As Etienne Gilson notes, “the pure mechanist in biology is a man whose entire activity has at its end the discovery of the ‘how’ of the vital operations in plants and animals. Looking for nothing else, he sees nothing else, and since he cannot integrate other things in his research, he denies their existence.”26 Nevertheless, it is one thing to hold final causes beyond the purview of science, seeking, as the scientific enterprise rightly does, to uncover the material and efficient causes of the world. But it is quite another thing to make the fallacious claim that, from a willful denial of final causes, the nonexistence of final causes follows. Final causality is unavoidable if we are to make sense of the very things with which science concerns itself: patterns of efficient causality. This is exactly what the Fifth Way does (and the atheist’s design straw man does not): it makes the efficient causality of the world intelligible by grounding it in an explanation of what things are for.27 And according to Aquinas, what a thing is for is set by God.

  1. See, for example, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Mariner, 2008); Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995); and Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Vintage, 2006). For a critique of the New Atheist position, see Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker, Answering the New Atheism (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road, 2008) and Edward Feser, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s Press, 2008).
  2. Dawkins, God Delusion, 100-103.
  3. Dawkins, God Delusion, 103.
  4. Dawkins, God Delusion, 103.
  5. Dawkins, God Delusion, 52.
  6. Dawkins, God Delusion, 52. One of the central tenets of classical theism is that God, unlike Dawkins’s version of a complex being, is utterly simple; being Pure Act, God is not a composition of parts—thus, He is not complex. On the classical theist view, only that which is simple can have the ontological priority that God is said to have in Exodus 3:13-14. As Edward Feser notes, “anything which is in any way composed of parts would be metaphysically less fundamental than those parts themselves, and would depend on some external principle to account for the parts being combined in the way they are.” See, Edward Feser, “Classical Theism,” at
  7. In addition to Dawkins, the design argument is set up, and knocked down, in Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation and Christopher Hitchens, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007).
  8. Dawkins, God Delusion, 57.
  9. Dawkins, God Delusion, 100-103.
  10. My summary of Paley’s argument is adapted from William Paley, Natural Theology, Or: Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1857), 5-6.
  11. See Maurice Holloway, S.J., An Introduction to Natural Theology (New York: Appleton, 1959), 146-147.
  12. Henri Renard, The Philosophy of God (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1951), 48.
  13. Dawkins, God Delusion, 52.
  14. Edward Feser, Aquinas (Oxford: One World, 2009), 111.
  15. Joseph Owens, An Elementary Christian Metaphysics (Houston: Center for Thomistic Studies, 1985), 349.
  16. Christopher F.J. Martin, Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), 171.
  17. Summa Theologiae I, q.2, a.3, at Hereafter STh.
  18. STh I, q.2, a.3.
  19. Jacques Maritain, Approaches to God (New York: Collier Books, 1962) 57.
  20. STh I, q.44, a.4.
  21. Feser, Aquinas, 115. The argument that evolution exhibits recurrent convergent tendencies to arrive inevitably at the same solution to a particular problem is made in Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  22. Questiones disputatae de veritate, q.5, a.2, at Hereafter QDV.
  23. DQV, q.5, a.2.
  24. William A. Wallace, The Modeling of Nature (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 17.
  25. Feser, Aquinas, 39.
  26. Etienne Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 14.
  27. De principiis naturae, c4, at
James Iovino About James Iovino

James Iovino is working on an MA in theology with a concentration in apologetics at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, in Cromwell, Connecticut. He has Masters degrees in medieval history from the University of Oxford, and the University of St. Andrews. He and his wife Trina have two daughters.


  1. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Thank you Mr. Lovino for your clear article on purpose and end of God creating. This common sense philosophy is missed by atheists. These New Atheists defeat their own thinking when they wait until a traffic light turns green since they can avoid the cars. and they certainly would move out of the way of a galloping horse coming toward them. They are oblivious to purpose and end there.

  2. My thanks to Mr. Lovino for a clear exposition of the quinta via. Dawkins can get away with turning it into the Paley argument because most people simply do not know the actual argument of St. Thomas. So, it is a worthy task to clarify this matter for the general public. As St. Thomas notes, the fifth way is an argument from governance. In fact, contrary to explaining order as a result of chance (as Dawkins would), chance actually presupposes order, as Maritain observes in his Preface to Metaphysics, where he describes the world as a “republic of natures.” All those natures are acting toward their respective ends with regularity — an immanent finality that is ordered to an end by some extrinsic intelligent agent. Again, Mr. Lovino lays out the argument with clarity and precision. A very helpful article.

  3. I must admit, I am waiting for the day that I come across a self-professed atheist blathering on about ‘science’ who’s worth engaging.

    As soon as they open their mouth, it’s pretty obvious they’re interested in far more primaeval concerns related more to their psychological baggage, than issues of religion or truth, so I don’t usually take the bait.

    In fact, I spend a lot of time with nonbelievers, and there’s often been a moment with those with whom I get close, when they ask why I don’t react like all the other ‘religious nuts’ they know, who ‘try to ram it down their throats’, which is telling, and seems to re-enforce what people here are saying about a critical relationship betwen teaching and being witnesses. To me, it can be only through grace and virtue.

    Maybe, if we try to discern carefully, there’s a time when we’re invited to speak and will be listened to if we’re patient, rather than getting caught up our own concerns about zeal of sealing the deal immediately, so more concerned with ourselves under the guise of concern for theirs?

    • Avatar James Iovino says:

      Paul, I have yet to engage an atheist who correctly understands the Five Ways. Unfortunately, that holds true for many Christians, too. The metaphysics is ignored and just not taught anymore outside a select few places. Dawkins, and the other new atheists, are hardly the only ones who misunderstand Aquinas’s arguments. (Though it’s hard for me to believe Dawkins–an intelligent man–misunderstands them, and isn’t simply being dishonest in the ways he characterizes them.)

  4. Avatar James Iovino says:

    Thank you, Martin and Professor Bonnette, for your kind words!


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