Why Aquinas’ Five Ways?
Toward the end of a discussion about whether atheists are angry and unhappy people — by the way, my basic sentiment is that if they are that way, it’s because of all the zealot nutters we have to deal with in life, and that, actually, most atheists I know aren’t all that angry or sad — someone challenged my assertion that Aquinas’ Five Ways is transparently fallacious and relies on all kinds of assumptions that simply need not be accepted by a listener. This was in the course of a discussion that had such amazing comments as,
Your points about post-Enlightement Philosophy were enlightening. All hell broke loose after she gave up being the Handmaiden of Theology, Queen of the Sciences. [Puzzled emphasis mine.]
Of course, to those of us who adhere to a philosophy of sanity and reject the tomfoolery that the moderns have foisted upon us, it’s the materialists who are completely irrational. In his aforementioned work, MacIntyre argues convincingly for the deficiency of modern concepts of rationality and a return to the premodern paradigm. It’s a must read if you’re interested in this sort of thing.
Reading these Aquinas’ arguments that supposedly prove the existence of God, however, I certainly don’t feel moved to adopt premodern philosophy. I’m going to go through them piece by piece, to show why. Essentially, they all fit well with my dismissal of Peter Kreeft’s arguments in the discussion linked above — most of his writing that I’ve encountered has been downright pathetically fallacious and illogical.
Another reason I’m posting about this here, and now, is that it takes time to dissect something like this. Words need defining, explanation, contextualization. The simultaneous complaints over on that discussion of my not having attempted a refutation of Aquinas, combined with complaints that I’m long-winded — a ridiculous set of complaints to advance together, really! What these people expect of someone is incredible — and the realization that I might want this content long after it may be deleted elsewhere all led me to posting this examination of Aquinas’ Five Ways.
The First Way: Argument from Motion
1. Our senses prove that some things are in motion.
2. Things move when potential motion becomes actual motion.
3. Only an actual motion can convert a potential motion into an actual motion.
4. Nothing can be at once in both actuality and potentiality in the same respect (i.e., if both actual and potential, it is actual in one respect and potential in another).
5. Therefore nothing can move itself.
6. Therefore each thing in motion is moved by something else.
This trip into the world of Aristotelian physics is somewhat supportable until point 7. Of course, we could bring up Brownian motion, but even there, the main issue Aristotle is driving at is, whence comes the “original” conversion of potential motion to actual motion. When we’re talking about the planets going round the sun, for example, the question can be answered by gravity. But the theist (and Augustine) will then directly ask, “Whence comes gravity?”
The answer that a good scientist would give is, “Our current understanding of gravity is not such that this question is sensical,” in that strictly speaking, our model of the universe does not actually have a whence. There may well be a whence, but physics has nothing to say about any such thing even existing, let alone it being a deity or some baby-universe engineers in our universe’s “parent” universe, or the folks running the ancestor emulation we may well be clomping about inside.
In other words, science simply does not speculate about the whence. Theists will often say, “Aha! You see, not everything is knowable through science!” And right they are: we cannot know whether there aren’t pink invisible unicorns in the world through science. We cannot know whether the universe was birthed by a cosmic transcendant kine or emerged from an egg or the dream of ancient, immortal being reclining on the back of a tortoise borne upon the backs of four elephants.
Nor is it science’s job to falsify every assertion made. Science does not answer such questions because science doesn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole. The reason is because theists of all stripes are more than eager to chuck the ball into the scientist’s court — or the rationalist’s — and demand a proof that their chosen deity doesn’t exist. This is made without any incontrovertible evidence that such a being does exist, of course, and it’s a trip down the rabbit hole into endless arguments about semantics.
Which in itself is revelatory about the nature of the “proof” that is presented in Aquinas’ argument itself: if it were indeed “proof” as we conventionally use the word, it would be unarguable, and it would not hinge on “logical” assertions but on demonstrable, repeatable observation. Everyone who examined the argument and observed the phenomenon wouldhave to agree with it. But Aquinas’ argument rests on logical convolutions. This, in itself, is the fatally telling flaw with regard to both his proofs, and to most of the latter-day applications of it (such as in the bullshit “Intelligent Design” movement that has been embraced by surprising number of zealots in the last few decades).
The necessary answer to the question of “Whence?” is not that science has nothing to say to whence, though. The correct answer is that the question “whence?” simply begs the question of a “whence” which may or may not even exist or be necessary; after all, the only thing a theist needs to paste the word “God” into is a single currently unknown stage in the regress of causes.
Here comes the first begged question:
7. The sequence of motion cannot extend ad infinitum.
Why is that? This is far from a statement of fact. It is an assumption, not a statement of evidence — because there is absolutelty no evidence that this cannot be the case.
The scientifically literate theist might ask, “But… but… you surely don’t dispute the Big Bang?” And this is correct — I don’t dispute that our best model of the universe involved what we call The Big Bang. Over the last century or so, plenty of observations — of cosmic microwave background radiation, and before that, observation of Doppler shift in faraway galaxies — have suggested that something like what we now call The Big Bang occurred. Time, in our universe, commences with a massive expansion of superheated, supercompressed matter which exploded outwards in all directions at once. In the time after that primal expansion, matter as we know it and the familiar physics of our universe came to be obeyed by that matter.
The theist’s game of “Whence?” here comes into play too quickly. After all, there are a number of models that suggest the Big Bang may not in fact be a “beginning” but rather “an event in a much larger and older universe, or multiverse, and not the literal beginning” (as mentioned here). In fact, anyone who’s looked into the notion of branes, as discussed by Dr. Lisa Randall (among others, though it’s her book Warped Passages that I’d very much like to read to improve my understanding of branes) knows that it’s quite possible our own universe isn’t made up only of the observable dimensions and that the distribution of forces within it might vary vastly along different branes. (There’s a great discussion with Dr. Randall on Charlie R9ose’s TV show here that’s worth checking out if you’re curious.) The notion that a universe could have multiple branes, with different concentrations of forces — gravity so much less here, gravity more towards another brane — means that the Big Bang could be a natural event involving the collision of branes, as discussed in ekpyrotic cosmological models.
That’s even leaving out one of the great flaws in Intelligent Design theory, which is that, as several SF writers have jokingly suggested, maybe our universe really did emerge as the result of design — by beings like ourselves, using technology purposefully to create a singularity that would spawn a baby universe with the specific traits and properties that ours has and which makes it likely to give rise to complex, intelligent life of some kind. Intelligent Design, endlessly going on and on about a “Creator,” studiously avoids the possibility that it could be mortal, human-like beings that “created” the universe we live in. There’s no reason that it couldn’t be, as least not until we’ve completely falsified the notion that the Big Bang involved a singularity of some kind.
It’s important for me to point out, however, that when we talk about branes or other speculative cosmological models, that we remember they are speculative. Scientists will discuss these models and their implications using declarative sentences, but there’s no assertion — no “faith” — in them of the kind that Aquinas has in his statement, above,
7. The sequence of motion cannot extend ad infinitum.
I’m afraid that Aquinas has precisely no reason to declare this, much less in his own time than in ours, when certain poorly-understood elements of cosmology (such as the incomplete model of our universe’s [or brane’s] early existence) has given people the potentially false impression that the Big Bang is a “creation-like” event.
But it’s useful to speculate. My speculation is that, were the ekpyrotic model to be validated at some point in the future, theists would once again move the goalposts and say, “Yes, but where did branes come from?” That is completely predictable following the trend of their argumentation in the past.
The response is, “Demonstrate that there must be a whence,” and Aquinas, here, fails to do so. Instead, he simply asserts that there must be a whence, so that he can Sctoch-tape the word God onto it, in step eight.
8. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.
First off, there is not, not even now, any evidence that the existence of a “first mover” is necessary. Not even after several hundred years of quite radically rapid advancement in science have we come up with any demonstration that there must be a first mover. And were we to come up with such evidence, as I noted above, not everyone understands this “first mover” to be God. There are a whole panoply of other possibilities which Aquinas studiously excludes.
- any other number of imaginable (or unimaginable) divine creator beings with little or no resemblance to the gods worshipped by humans all over the world, or who happen to be the gods someone else worshipped
- a pantheon of such beings that all simultaneously have prime mover status
- an evil being such as the Demiurge repudiated by the gnostics
- experimental scientists in our universe’s “mother universe” who created a singularity with specific traits to birth our universe
- our ancestors in the multiverse who manipulated brane interactions to seed the multiverse with life-potential branes
And that’s assuming evidence of a some antecedent to the Big Bang were to exist. It’s quite possible that the Big Bang was not a “first” event in the bigger picture, and that time actually does extend, in the big picture, infinitely backwards (and forwards) on the multiverse scale, or the multi-multiverse scale, or so on.
In other words, Aquinas cheats in several ways here:
- he asserts that the sequence of motion cannot be infinite, without any evidence for the claim, with the expectation that the claim will go uncontested,
- he “deduces” from this that there must be a “first mover” — suddenly not only does he posit time and movement cannot extend back into the past infinitely, but he also posits that a consciousness, and not some natural process, must have initiated it, though he gives no reason for this assumption except the (implicit) conviction that a the first movement cannot be the result of a non-movement-involved natural process or spontaneous natural irruption of movement, or part of a much bigger physical system
- he Scotch-tapes the word “God” onto this mysterious “first mover” that he has dreamed up
Naming his First Mover thus brings all the baggage of the established Church to bear on this ostensible First Mover for which there is no logical or physical evidence, so that suddenly this mysterious, ill-described “first mover” is the God of the Jews and the Christians.
The First Way is therefore logically fallacious and may be rejected on the ground that it rests upon false, or at least unnecessary, assumptions. Furthermore, I have to argue, in good faith, that its approach drips with dishonesty — it willfully posits declarative statements about the universe, where scientists have the good grace simply to say, “We have models, but we don’t know.” The scientistic statement is the less arrogant, since it does not impose a desired claim on the universe. In fact, throughout Aquinas’ arguments, it is just such truth claims as these, jammed into place at the precise moment when rational empiricism steps back and says, “We simply don’t know right now,” that he relies upon to make the leap from describing the world we agree upon, to the world he wants us to believe in (and believes in himself),
The Second Way: Argument from Efficient Causes
1. We perceive a series of efficient causes of things in the world.
Okay, here it’s important to understand that Artistole meant when he discussed the four forms of cause:
- Material Cause: what stuff is made of — ie. Wood is the material cause of this table
- Efficient Cause: the agent that made it — ie. The woodworker is the efficient cause of the table
- Formal Cause: the potential for something to be made, as proceeding from the conceptual existence of the thing as a “form” — ie. The design for the the table as imagined or used by the woodworker is the Formal Cause of the table.
- Final Cause: the purpose or telelogy of something — ie. The Final Cause of this table is its usefulness as a piece of household furnishing. At the moment, its usefulness is its final cause. (This is complexified by an exchange or moneyed economy, but let’s leave that alone for the moment.)
What’s crucial to note here is that Aquinas gravitates directly to an “efficient cause” — an agent in the creation of something. Right off the bat, he’s focusing on agents that create things, which is of course because he wants to set the stage for discussing a supernatural Creator.
Right from the beginning, this argument is wholly questionable. Aristotle’s set of four causes apply quite well to things we know are made by agents — people and animals — but applying them to, say, planets or worlds or mountains is a little more problematic. It’s problematic because the set of causes Aquinas borrows from Aristotle relies on the implicit assumption that things are created, in the way things we humans create things, and thus is also implicitly assumes a Creator. But as in the First Way, Aquinas has offered no proof of a Creator.
2. Nothing exists prior to itself.
At first blush, this statement looks as if it is wholly sensible. Yes, things do not exist before they exist. Before I carve the wood, there is no table, there is only wood, and the potential for a table, and perhaps the need for one. In other words, prior to the intersection of material, formal, and final cause with an efficient cause — the intersection of materials, design, and need with someone who can make the thing — things do not exist.
This asserts priority to the existence of things — that there is a “before” to the existence of all things. It is quite straightforwardly true of things like tables. However, this does not mean that there is a time before all things exist. In other words, perhaps nothing precedes the things that exist.
3. Therefore nothing is the efficient cause of itself.
I’m not sure whether this is true or not, but because it’s stated in the negative (in the English translation anyway), Aquinas manages to squeeze in a little trick. Let’s restate this as a positive assertion to see what he’s claiming:
3. Therefore everything isn’t the efficient cause of itself.
Which when we remember the meaning of efficient cause, means:
3. Therefore everything isn’t created by itself.
See the step he’s made here? He’s already asserting that everything has an efficient cause. Rocks, trees, stars, multiverses… the assertion spreads as far as one likes. Except, once again, there is no evidence that all things have an efficient cause — in other words, there is no evidence that everything has a creator, but Aquinas is implying that all things must have been created at some point. This sets us up for a quite transparently anthropomorphic application of human industry to the whole universe:
4. If a previous efficient cause does not exist, neither does the thing that results.
Bang. Here’s the application of the previous tricks and false assumptions, again obfuscatingly phrased in the negative. Restated without the negations:
4. If a previous efficient cause exists, so does the thing that results.
The commonality between the two statements is a bit of trickery, whereby Aquinas is creating two categories of things: things that have previous efficient causes, and things that do not exist. He’s claiming here that each thing that exists must have previous efficient causes — in other words, that for every thing, there is an agent that acts as Creator. Once again, he invokes (without any evidence for its necessity) boundedness:
5. Therefore if the first thing in a series does not exist, nothing in the series exists.
And then he crams all things into the set of things that result from a bounded set of efficient causes — in other words, he says all things must be created by a creator, and repudiates infinity without any obvious reason to do so except his own desire to have something upon which to Scotch-tape the word God:
6. The series of efficient causes cannot extend ad infinitum into the past, for then there would be no things existing now.
and now his Scotch tape is ready!
7. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.
Sadly, this argument is no more effective than the first, and in fact, is quite ruined by the end of the first line simply from intellectual dishonesty.
If you think the third of Aquinas’ ways is any more convincing, I’m sorry but it’s disappointing as well:
The Third Way: Argument from Possibility and Necessity (Reductio argument)
The history of this Third Way is interesting, and the reason it exists speaks directly to the earlier arguments, especially my focus on the incompleteness of our models of the early existence of the universe, branes, and the Big Bang. The issue of whether Big Bang model is complete, or part of a much larger comsological or meta-cosmological model, was far beyond the concerns of medieval scholars. There was no Big Bang theory to latch onto and misunderstand or misrepresent as “complete” — they simply had no idea whether the universe was finite or infinite temporally.
Therefore, this argument was deemed necessary. It is essentially the same argument as the Second Way, but recast in terms of “contingent beings” and causes.
As mentioned on Wikipedia’s discussion of the argument:
Aquinas follows Aristotle in claiming that there must be something that explains why the universe exists. Since the universe could, under different circumstances, conceivably not exist — that is to say, since it is contingent — its existence must have a cause. And that cause cannot simply be another contingent thing, it must be something that exists by necessity, that is, it must be something that must exist in order for anything else to exist. In other words, even if the universe has always existed, it still owes that existence to Aristotle’s Uncaused Cause, though Aquinas used the words “… and this we understand to be God.”
1. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, that come into being and go out of being i.e., contingent beings.
Okay, so the fact that something could just as easily not have existed is evidence that things exist as the result of other things. This is true of me, isn’t it? If my parents had never met, a person with my specific traits and characteristics would not have existed. So yes, my existence is contingent, though not upon anyone but my parents.
2. Assume that every being is a contingent being.
Here is where we can halt Aquinas and say, “Why should I?” It’s because of what he smuggles in under the term “contingent” (and his use, soon to be abandoned, of “beings,” that we should object to his exhortation to assume this. After all, the fact that things could just as easily not have existed makes them contingent, but they needn’t be contingent upon any creator — merely upon circumstance. Furthermore, I protest ahead of time that in step 5, Aquinas begins applying contingency to things, not just beings.
3. For each contingent being, there is a time it does not exist.
4. Therefore it is impossible for these always to exist.
This is self-evident. If things are contingent, they came into being. However, watch closely and you can see already the ghost of a deity that Aquinas is smuggling in here. All he needs to do is convince us of two things: that all things are contingent, and that they are contingent upon someone.
5. Therefore there could have been a time when no things existed.
There we are. He’s finally talking about all things — as usual, in the negative. In other words, he’s arguing that all things are contingent upon something else. He’s wangled his way into “a time before all things existed” without ever demonstrating that such a time need have existed. Conservative Big Bang theory doesn’t agree with this, by the way. There is no time when no things existed. Time commences with things in existence. Everything is contingent upon that moment, and science has no claim that that moment is necessarily contingent on anything else (though it could be contingent on physical processes in a number of models that we cannot now test or falsify).
6. Therefore at that time there would have been nothing to bring the currently existing contingent beings into existence.
In other words, there must be a creator, ornothing would exist! Again, flat-out manufactured declarations of knowledge of the absolute truth of the universe. Without even a close look at things that are visible in it, like, say, other galaxies.
7. Therefore, nothing would be in existence now.
8. We have reached an absurd result from assuming that every being is a contingent being.
This is like “teaching someone that alcohol is not pleasurable” by forcing them to drink three bottles of vodka. The absurdity is not rooted in the assumption that things could have been otherwise; it is rooted in the assumption that because things could have been otherwise, things must by necessity have been brought into being by someone or something by some agent in the past that itself exists because it’s necessary to bring all other things into existence.
Aquinas is now ready to unveil Whom this mysterious non-contingent being is. Can you guess whom it might be? Yes, we saw it coming long ago:
9. Therefore not every being is a contingent being.
10. Therefore some being exists of its own necessity, and does not receive its existence from another being, but rather causes them. This all men speak of as God.
In other words, God must exist because we need Him to in order to complete this logical proof, based on the assumption that all things must exist as a result of something else.
Ahem. Let’s move on.
The Fourth Way: Argument from Gradation of Being
This is one of the weakest, so much so that Dawkin’s alleged, “This is an argument?” is quite understandable, even to some theists.
1. There is a gradation to be found in things: some are better or worse than others.
Uh, yeah, I suppose, though the evaluation of “better” and “worse” is largely an artifact of human aesthetics and subjectivity. Things are’t absolutely “better” or “worse,” except in human heads. So anyway, so what?
2. Predications of degree require reference to the “uttermost? case (e.g., a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest).
Why not the leastmost? What does this have to do with anything? Except, of course, we know who he’s trying to talk about already.
3. The maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus.
All I can say to this assertion is that it seems to come out of left field, and all that I can really say is that this sounds like it’s based on some kind of mixed-up pre-evolutionary model of the origin of things. (Tied up, perhaps, with Platonic forms.)
Before arguing that the maximum in any genus is the cuase of all in that genus, what Aquinas needs to do is show us that maximums in any genus do indeed exist. Of course, he can’t, so he just skips it.
4. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.
But by this logic, wouldn’t God also embody and personify all the evils and weakness and stupidity of humans? The uttermost can, after all, include, “the stupidest” or “the most cruel.” The human capacity for wilful, wanton cruelty — not just unkindness but cruelty as a manifest capacity in itself — is ignored here, and I’m sure Aquinas would cast cruelty as the absence of compassion. He’d argue that God has the maximum capacity for compassion, but if we separate our aesthetics from a neutral observation of humans, our capacity for nastiness is just as pronounced as our capacity for compassion. (Sometimes at exactly the same time.)
In any case, this whole argument makes no defense of its most central claim, that any nexus exists which is the maximum of all genuses of traits in humanity actually must exist in a nexus in some other being. Why can they not just be traits of varying degree and important within human beings? Why could they not simply be ranges of predisposed traits that developed through evolutionary selection?
There is, actually, no reason why they cannot. And recognizing this doesn’t require any intellectual backflips or the acceptanc, on Mr. Aquinas’ word, of the existence of an invisible creator being that neither he nor anyone I know has ever seen face to face.
The Fifth Way: Argument from Design
1. We see that natural bodies work toward some goal, and do not do so by chance.
Wait, we do? Water runs downhill, but I wouldn’t say that the ocean is its goal. The ocean is just what’s there when water finished running downhill, and water is uphill because of rain or melting ice or whatever. Is water “working”? Aquinas is chucking teleology and intentionality into the equation right from the get-go, here, and once you do that, you’re already presupposing an intender and a goal — without any reason to. It’s entirely problematic.
2. Most natural things lack knowledge.
Um… yeah, Most things seem not to be sentient, anyway. But there’s a danger here because, while most things do not act, they do behave in certain ways. Unless Aquinas is careful, he’ll end up claiming that, since there are physics and chemistry in the universe, governing the behaviour of things, physics and chemistry exist because of intention and goals. There’s, once again, no evidence to suggest that things are government by physical and chemical properties that just happen to underpin our universe.
3. But as an arrow reaches its target because it is directed by an archer, what lacks intelligence achieves goals by being directed by something intelligence.
Ask yourself, does this make sense? To assert that our universe has physics, and to assert that some consicous beings in that universe manipulate physics to make some things “work”
4. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.
No, we don’t, because, again, Aquinas has summoned a “being” into his explanation that is necessary to explain invented intentionality and invented goals, the existence of which he’s produced no evidence.
So Much for the Five Ways
I think anyone who’s been patient enough to bear with me to this point should be congratulated, as this is somewhat dry stuff, so I’m going to make a single caveat to all of this before I tell you what I’ve learned:
Caveat: I’m not saying that I have “refuted” Aquinas’ claim. The claim as to whether a God exists is not one that can be answered by the kind of evidence that everyone will agree counts, or at least, such evidence is not now on hand.
But what I have demonstrated is the fundamental falsity of these proofs, as well as the rather conniving way in which they are constructed. Reading them carefully, with proper knowledge of the terminology (as proper as I can get together, anyway), it’s quite clear that the proofs were constructed backwards, from the assumption that God exists, to the first step — and in several of them, the assertions of that “conclusion” are plainly stated from the get-go. What these five proofs of Aquinas show is actually a much more disturbing fact about Pre-Enlightenment “Philosophy” and “Reason.”
What is shows is that such arguments simply cannot be trusted to say what they claim they say. If Aquinas is as intellligent as he’s supposed to have been, and spent even as much time as I have on these points, it’s very difficult for me to imagine him being unaware of the leaps and unqualified assertions and begged questions in his argument.
I’m not saying that he “knew” these arguments were false. I am sure Aquinas believed that God existed, it’s just that he used a very simply and very clear set of rhetorical tricks to shoehorn anxieties about meaning and existence in the universe into an argument forcing the comforting and absolutely unprovable conclusion that God exists. In every proof, he’s sneaking in assumptions that one can quite easily question or doubt, and against which he offers no reason not to doubt or question — but all the while, he seems to be trying to appear as if he’s being wholly logical, and not asserting anything unusual.
If conscious chicanery was not involved, then there’s something more disturbing to consider: whether unwarranted belief is able so completely and conclusively to hijack reason and muddle minds. If it is, then it seems to me doubt — which is the atheist’s chosen terrain — is the only safe position from which to evaluate such claims. After all, I am not claiming, definitely, that God does not exist, as much as I doubt it, but rather that Aquinas’ cherished proofs are unfortunately not at all what they’re billed as. Were they proofs, I would expect them to be logically more coherent, an, of course, indisputable. I have, at the very least, shown that they are wholly disputable, many of them from the first line.
Certainly, it seems from discussions elsewhere — over many years — the untenable and questionable assumptions encapsulated in this argument hasn’t to stick out to many religionists I’ve known. That is a profoundly interesting, and somewhat disturbing, fact.
In the end, what I am curious to read more about is branes. And Edward O. Wilson, who’s also featured in the Charlie Rose clip above, calling upon evangelical Christians to become ecological activists and stewards to the Earth.