The ways of Aquinas

Carolin asked:

Hi, I wonder what the steps for Aquinas’ Causal Argument for the Existence of God are. Thank you.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

In his ‘Summa Theologiae’, Aquinas posits his proofs for the existence of the Christian God as the ‘Five Ways’.

The first argument is the argument from Motion. It can be observed that things in the world are in motion. A thing in motion does not cause itself to move or be sui generis (this prevails only if one remains within the categories of Aristotelian metaphysics where a thing cannot be both actus and potentia at the same moment) but is caused to motion by some other thing. Whilst the potential for motion lies within the thing B, its actual motion must arise from some prior existing thing A actually in motion, which actualises the potential inherent in B.

This leads to an infinite regress in which there is no first mover. If there is no first mover then ‘there would not be a first mover and consequently, any other mover’. To avoid this argument from absurdity, there must be a First mover which is itself, not moved by anything. This first mover is God.

However, why does Aquinas, in this argument, find it objectionable that motion is infinite? Could he be accused assuming the truth of that which has yet to be proved, (Peticio Principi) as it is equally possible that motion has always existed?

The Second Argument is that from Efficient Cause. Again, the senses perceive a series of Efficient causes (i.e. A causes B, B causes C and so on) in the world. A thing cannot cause itself into existence (causa sui), it would have to exist before it exists so as to cause its own existence — which is impossible. So things, as effects, are caused into existence by a prior existing efficient cause. So there is a series of Efficient causes in the world. However, an infinite regress of efficient causes is impossible because a regress rules out a first cause and without a first cause, there would not be a subsequent effect and so, nothing would exist – which is absurd. So there cannot be an infinite regress and there must be a First cause of the series of efficient causes and this, is God.

Again, it is equally possible that there was no first cause and that what exists has always existed. Pace Spinoza…

The Third Argument is based on Possibility and Necessity. Things both exist and cease to exist, are generated and destroyed. If every thing was like this, then not existing is possible. If everything is such that not existing is possible for it, then at some time there was nothing in existence. But if nothing existed in the past, there would be nothing presently in existence for, from nothing comes nothing (ex nihilo nihil fit). Yet this is false, as we are here answering this question. Thus it is not true that all things exist possibly. There must be beings which necessarily exist. Some beings exist necessarily because they were caused to exist by other beings. But the problem of infinite regress applies here as it does in the Second Argument. So, there must be a being which exists by necessity and is not caused to exist by anything else. This being is God.

The fallacy committed here is in the drawing of the conclusion that nothing exists follows on from the fact that contingent beings exist. For whist some beings might not exist at any given time, others do exist. Possible existence does not give rise to the impossibility of existence — an erroneous position which then invites the need for a necessary being — God.

The Forth Argument is based on the degrees of reality or eminence found in existing things. That is, things display different quantitative levels in relation to an optimum. There are varying levels of existence, goodness and perfection in living things. God as the maximum epitome of existence, goodness and perfection is the cause of such things.

This line of argument is found in Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics’. It argues that the cause of an effect must have sufficient perfection and reality to cause such effects and that the cause is present in those effects in a sliding scale of greater or lesser degree in relation to the cause itself.

The Final and Fifth Argument is a nascent Argument from Design/Teleology as a proof for the existence of God. Again, like all of the arguments in the Five Ways, it has its origin in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Non-thinking things can be observed to act in a purposive, directed way which, is always for the best outcome. It is not by chance that they act like this. If not by chance, it is because there is an intelligent being which directs non-thinking beings toward their ends (telos). The intelligent being is God.


Curious asked:

I am thinking about time and time topics all my free time. But I don’t know what is time correctly. Can anybody help me?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I would want to ask you what you get out of thinking and reading on this subject matter ‘in all your free time’. You should know more about it than any of us! So I’m really puzzled: What do you expect to be told? I ask this because no-one could possibly give a definitive answer, let alone in a few short paragraphs — most of all because the question needs a background.

Thus a philosopher’s angle on it would conflict with the scientific; the religious angle with the agrarian; the cosmological angle with quantum mechanics; and on the business angle, time is money. One among these many notions seems conclusive to me; but I’m in no position to be definitive about it. It goes like this:

If we assume the universe to be spatially infinite, then it must be temporally infinite as well. Then any conception of time-per-se is automatically nullified, because every segment of time can only apply to whatever our object of study happens to be. On the largest perceivable scale, i.e. far away galaxies, we have a spatiotemporal ‘window’ to which we can arbitrarily attach the vocable ‘now’ because it lasts so long, and then subdivide it at our pleasure. On the smallest perceivable scale there is no ‘now’, because these events occur at speeds that are beyond our imagination, packing billions upon billions of our subdivisions into a single second on our conventional time scales. Somewhere in between these two, are the periodicities which affect us directly, from biorhythms to the patterns of seasons. These rhythms gave birth to our concepts of time in the first place. So time is nothing other than the enumeration on a clock face, of the rhythms of nature by which we are affected.

But this is arbitrary too, as shown by the conflict between the length of a second on our standard clocks and the definition of a second that has recourse to the steady vibrations of a caesium atom. This definition is so accurate, that our clock time has constantly to be re-adjusted, as they move out of synch with each other at alarming speeds!

In a word: ‘Time’ is not an independently existing ‘something’ or ‘process’. It’s a word that means whatever any group of humans using it, define it to be. As such it has utility; but we can hardly extrapolate from here to the universe in the expectation that it will nod obligingly in our direction.

Philosophical novels

Joshua asked:

I am a fan of what is known as philosophical novels; and have seen a lot of philosophical thinking in a lot of science fiction. I wonder: what is the relationship between literature and philosophy? Why are such novelists such as Fyordor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy and such others regarded as philosophers, without real training in the craft?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

One could be cynical about this: When authentic philosophy begins to ebb and the shelves of academic exegesis outnumber them by ratios in the thousands, the hunt for new ideas might very well alight, here and there, on poets and novelists who have not previously been considered fit for discussions of ‘their’ philosophy. That’s one side of it. The other is, that the tradition of philosophical writing has never been averse to literary excellence. Plato’s dialogues and hundreds of imitations up to the days of Hume speak for it; and so do the literary masterpieces of such men as Francis Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and others.

It is a ready-made invitation for novelists with this kind of inclination to produce dialogues infused with a philosophical spirit, even if the rigour of argumentation yields to the drama of their mise-en-scene. Consider the Grand Inquisitor episode and Ivan’s encounter with the devil in The Brothers Karamasov as well as the figure of Kirillov in The Demons: These sections thrive on philosophical ideas in that they bring issues of the utmost relevance to the human condition under the searchlight. Consider in the same light The Magic Mountain of Thomas Mann, which is in one of its aspects a theatre piece where two conflicting intellectual powers (Naphtha and Settembrini) struggle for the soul of the naive hero Castorp, which is also deeply philosophical in its social and ethical context.

However, let’s not shove the crucial issue under the carpet, which is that neither of these writers was expounding ‘his philosophy’ this way, as (per contrast) Plato did. So there is a difference between ‘a philosophy’ which a philosopher might publish in literary form, and a novel, poem or play in which the author engages himself with philosophical ideas that are rarely (if ever) his own. It stands to reason, I think, that if we continually smear out this difference, we are not honouring men of literature (or science) who did not regard themselves as philosophers.

As for sci-fi, which used to be a favourite genre of mine, I have grown skeptical about its fitness for philosophy. It is not the genre as such, but simply its store of ideas which on the whole are so far removed from life that I have come to doubt that these writers and film-makers actually know what it is. But without life, there is nothing to philosophise about. (Nevertheless I give you leave to contradict me wholeheartedly, if you are so inclined).

Philosophy and science (2)

Lasmii asked:

I am a literature student. I am deeply interested in philosophy and science. Who are the philosophers who probed into scientific ideas?

Answer by Peter Jones

Some names that might be relevant would be Erwin Schrodinger, Arthur Eddington, Neils Bohr, Albert Einstein, Bernardo Kastrup and Ulrich Mohrhoff. Most scientists doodle with philosophy but these names do more than this. Schrodinger is an excellent philosopher. Kastrup argues from science to Idealism and has a new book out. Mohrhoff explores the area between quantum mechanics and non-dualism.

Generally scientific ideas are not much help to philosophers but the birth of QM changed this and among the early pioneers many recognised this.  With the passing of that pioneering generation scientists seem to have gone back to not being interested.

The list could be longer and stretch back to Democritus and might include the Alchemists, but for me it’s only with modern physics and ‘scientific’ consciousness studies that physics becomes interesting in philosophy.

Philosophy and science

Lasmii asks:

I am a literature student. I am deeply interested in philosophy and science. Who are the philosophers who probed into scientific ideas?

Answer by Craig Skinner

In the ancient world there was philosophy. Then Christianity appropriated it to formulate intellectually appealing doctrine (theology). Throughout, systematic enquiry into the natural world was called natural philosophy. A ‘science’ was simply a body of knowledge or area of enquiry, such as military strategy or geometry. It was only with the application of mathematics, and the distinctive methodology of conjecture and testing with experiment, beginning with Galileo and Newton, that natural philosophy became science as we now know it, and physics, chemistry, geology, biology, psychology, and other fields of study, successively budded off from philosophy.

I will deal briefly with three things:

1. Great philosophers who were also scientists.

2. Great philosophers of science.

3. Great or well-known scientists who show interest in philosophy.

(1) The presocratics are sometimes called protoscientists because they were the first to seek explanation of events by natural rather than supernatural causes (mechanism rather than agency). Perhaps the most notable is Anaximander (born 610 BCE). He held that the Earth was a stone floating in space and didnt ‘fall’ because there was no reason for it to prefer one rather than another direction to move. He also held that change through time was due to universal necessary laws. A sparkling account of his contribution and its significance is given by one of our best scientist-writers (Rovelli C (2007) Anaximander, Westholme.

The greatest scientist among great philosophers is Aristotle. His physics is often derided as nonsense these days. Of course it is long superseded. But it held the stage for 2000 years because, given the accepted cosmology of his day — an Earth-centred system of concentric spheres with circular motion in the heavens and linear motion on Earth — it was a coherent system of fluid mechanics, and was only replaced when Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton came up with something better. Newton, in turn, was replaced by Einstein, and now, because Einstein’s theory of gravity doesnt work below the Planck scale, we await the new theory of quantum gravity which will replace it. Aristotle’s field work in marine biology is world-class. Darwin admired it, commenting on the illustrious biologists, Linnaeus and Cuvier, that ‘they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle’. Aristotle knew that individuals varied within a species, that some variations were heritable, and that some variations aided survival. But he didnt make the conceptual leap to evolution by natural selection, maybe because of his view that there were fixed natural kinds. Mind you, nobody else came up with the idea either, although Hume was close, till the 19th century. Philosophy texts tend to skim over Aristotle’s biology (although they deal with its metaphysical underpinnings, and these are also very much alive and well in modern scientific practice). An outstanding account is given in Leroi AM (2014) The Lagoon: How Aristotle invented Science, Bloomsbury.

Descartes was a great mathematician, inventing analytic geometry, and we still refer to the x-y axes on which we plot our graphs and functions, as Cartesian co-ordinates. But he was also a scientist. His vortex theory of the formation and motion of the solar system was mainstream till succeeded by Newton’ laws of motion and gravity. He also studied animal anatomy and physiology by dissection.

Berkeley made original contributions to the science of optics, again mostly skimmed in philosophy texts.

(2) Once science got going, philosophers turned to systematic analysis of scientific method and practice, including confirmation, refutation, theory choice, underdetermination, versimilitude, realism, reduction, distinction from pseudoscience, and much else. Among the great 20th century philosophers of science are Popper (distinguishing science from pseudoscience), Kuhn (science proceeds by long stretches of within-paradigm routine work punctuated by paradigm shifts), Feyerabend (there is no single scientific method, only a hotchpotch), Duhem, Lakatos, Hempel, Laudan, Cartwright and others. All have written important works, and well, but, perhaps, they are mostly too heavy-duty for the general reader.

(3) Scientists with an interest in philosophy are a mixed bag, their philosophy ranging across the whole spectrum of the good, the bad and the ugly. Einstein’s contributions are mostly aphoristic, but astute. Eddington’s 1927 Gifford lectures, published as The Nature of the Physical World are worth a read. A brilliant account of the science and philosophy of time, making clear difficult ideas which many other authors leave opaque, is Rovelli C (2018) The Order of Time, Allen Lane. As for Dawkins and Hawking, considerable scientists and good writers both, their philosophical contributions are best passed over.

I have only skimmed the surface of a vast subject, and havent even touched on the disputed question of the distinction, if any, between science and philosophy, but I hope my remarks are of some help.

Meaning of life

Ali asked:

A man can produce more than 70 millions of children in just 1 ejaculation. So many children & crowds of people can exist in the world if man decides to. How is it possible for billions of unwanted species to be given souls in a moment. Is god or life or anything waiting for men’s sexual intercourse to give them free souls?

Is there such a thing as soul or its injector (god) at all? If it is done by mere accidents therefore our lives is meaningless & worthless; If god gives souls whenever men get hard-ons, so it is based on men & men decide to produce men (so many souls too!) not the peeping god!

Enlighten me please! So much thanks & excuse the angry language of the questioner. No one has ever given a satisfying reply to the puzzled questioner!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I hope you are aware, Ali, that your question demands a history of all religions and philosophy on one page? Can’t be done; and in any case every answer can only reflect the prejudices of the writer. No-one ever had a solution to these problems that could be accepted by everyone as the whole truth and nothing but.

My point of view is that only one road leads to something near a relevant conception, which is trodden by philosophy and biology jointly. Obviously I must curtail it to a few paragraphs, but I hope you get something from them.

Humans are animals. If we are ensouled, then all animals must be ensouled. Evidently there are qualitative differences among the species, shown by the fact that only humans can express themselves in speech and thinking and possess a highly developed consciousness of selfhood.

But as all other life forms (including insects, plants, microbes) exhibit intentional forms of behaviour, it is likely that souls are the common property of all, again with qualitative differences. This implies that ensoulment is identical across all life forms, in fact a default definition of life.

The qualitative aspect results from individuation at or after birth. Its degree may be determined by the give and take with the habitat and the survival needs of species. Now this seems to be the real gist of your question — is a god needed to endow creatures with individuated souls?

I’m inclined to doubt it. Although there are many ontological proofs, not one of them succeeds in demonstrating the absolute necessity of such a being. As it happens, the scholastic thinker Ockham said 800 years ago: Don’t overload your theories with unnecessary hypotheses. Meaning: if any occurrence is repeatedly the same, there is no necessity for assuming that a creative act must be associated with each. Thus, to stay with animals: Life is transmitted from mother to child; there is never a ‘new’ life created in any birth, only a new body. After birth, the child acquires its individuation during the growth of what Kant calls ‘the unity of apperceptions’. In humans, the individuation is largely assisted by education. No god needed for this.

And so, finally: Where does value enter this picture? Is life just a meaningless accident? Questions like this point to the psychological need of humans to find value, which historically has been satisfied by our many religious doctrines. But the fact that there are so many, shows that ultimately none ever satisfied us completely. In our present scientific culture we make do with the idea of an ultimate cause. But a cause cannot confer value either. So we are stuck with the only possibility left over, which is that we ourselves are responsible for creating value and giving meaning to life.

How? I’ll repeat here a dictum that I’ve put into one of my books: That life is a privileged state of existence; and that self-reflexive consciousness adds a new vantage point from which to inject value and meaning into our existence. This should be understood in the context of an overwhelmingly lifeless universe, of which in every other respect it could be said that it makes no difference whether or not it exists. It is this privileged state of existence represented by living creatures that confers value and meaning; and as its (current) flag bearers, we humans have that opportunity and privilege to make something of it.

Time travel

Siobhan asked

What is the Philosophy of Time Travel?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This reminds me of a story, Siobhan, of many stories I’ve read from centuries, millennia ago — Orpheus in the Underworld, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, the Pharaohs — Cheating death, cheating time, flying through the air with magical animals, descending into the bowels of the past, tearing off the dark cloak from the future… so many dreams that will not die. Now we have science fiction to drape them — Science! Wow!

Yes, there have been philosophers too, in the middle ages, who propped up these dreams and stories with cast-iron logic, but we don’t believe them any more because we found that some terms in their syllogisms, called ‘common notions’, were not common any more when the power of the Church began to wane. Today we have science. Science delivers; we believe in it. Nevertheless, doubts creep in sometimes. Just how much science is there in science fiction? I suspect: very little; though a plethora of fancies that could be so construed on the basis of superficial similarities.

On my understanding, we owe our current conceptions of time and space to Einstein. His theory is called Relativity. It does not make provision for time travel; but is on the contrary, totally and absolutely inimical to it. So you see the problem: Relativity has to be proved wrong before one can philosophise about time travel. No philosopher would risk reputation and career on such a fool’s errant.

What about quantum theory? Don’t experimenters sometimes find particles veering off the straight and narrow path into the future to jump into the past? Well, that’s one reason why empirical physics and particle physics don’t get on, why we don’t have a ‘unified field theory’. This ‘maybe time travel’ might be nothing more than a limitation on our observational powers. But even if particles truly bounce into the past sometimes, they are not ‘things’ and therefore we can’t get a ride on them. It doesn’t stop fiction writers and movie makers, of course. Our imagination is fuelled by such fancies.

Coming to the end, you would not expect to be the first person to put a question of this nature to the panel. So let me finally point you to a more detailed rendering of the problems of time travel that I wrote in these pages a few years ago and is still accessible from the archives of Pathways. Happy reading!