Monday, October 14

Thomas Aquinas and the Existence of God

According to the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” There can be found no internal argument for God’s existence within the Bible, it simply begins with the premise that God exists. When philosophers refer to “God,” the discussion is not necessarily limited to the Judeo-Christian God, but arguments for God’s existence can also be used in support of the Ancient Alien hypothesis, New Age beliefs, Hinduism, some sects of Buddhism, Islam, Baha’i, along with other world religions and philosophies. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) was an Italian Dominican priest of the Catholic Church. Aquinas’ philosophical arguments concerning the existence of God, the problem of evil and free will have shaped the course of Western philosophy in such a way that much of Western philosophy is in agreement with, or rejection of, his philosophies.

Since Aquinas was a Catholic, clearly he was arguing for the existence of the Christian God, and therefore the God of the Bible. The Bible has much to say about God, yet it is not the intention of this essay to delve into a theological discussion about the attributes of God, although these will be touched upon later. It is the intent of this essay to review the five arguments for the existence of God, as well as examine the concept of free will. Prior to further evaluation of these arguments, it should be noted that “Aquinas” was not the surname of Thomas, but was the Latin adjective meaning, “of Aquino,” the place of his birth. This has been noted for clarity’s sake. Concerning Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence, we shall proceed to examine and review each one in detail. These five arguments are best viewed as five parts of a single argument, each having in some form to do with cause and effect, “beginning with our experiences of effects and moving toward their cause, God” (Soccio 225).

First of what can be called the “Five Ways” is the argument from Motion. We live in a world of matter in-motion. Every object has actualized potential motion, meaning that it has the potential to move, but non-living objects do not move without an external force. This is true even of the law of planetary motion, discovered by Kepler in the 1600’s. The indisputable fact conveys that everything that is in motion was set into motion by something else. This is also true of human beings, as each of us comes from our parents, who in turn came from their parents, and so on. If an object is at rest, then it is not in motion, but “any object at rest is potentially in motion. Motion is the actualized potential of a particular object” (Christian 517). No object is actually moving unless it is put into motion by something that is actually moving. If an object is at rest, it cannot be set into motion by another object at rest, because both objects are not already in motion. This essentially means that everything that was set into motion had to be set into motion by something else, which subsequently was set into motion by something else, and so on.

However, we are then confronted with an infinite regress, or an infinite chain of moved and unmoved. If we attempt to continually go further back, we are faced with a logical contradiction: logically, something must start this chain, and whatever starts this chain must be something without an antecedent activator. The universe was set into motion, and therefore had to be set into motion by something else. This something must be outside of time and space to have set the universe into motion, and it must be, as Aquinas called it, the “unmoved mover,” which, Aquinas argued, “everyone understands to be God.” “Thomas reasoned that some ‘first mover’ had to exist outside the series of becoming – some force or being with the ability to move other things without itself needing to be moved by any outside force” (Soccio 226).

Second of the “five ways” is the argument from Cause and Effect. This is also known as the Cosmological argument, which comes from the Greek word kosmos, meaning “world,” “universe,” or “orderly structure”(226). In everyday life, we understand that nothing happens in isolation. Each event, or effect, can be traced back to what started this event, or cause. Much like the argument for Motion, we can determine that each effect was caused by something, and each cause was caused by something else. Aquinas’ argument for cause is partially based on the Aristotelian concept of cause. Policemen utilize the concept of cause and effect in their investigations, and children in the United States are generally taught the concept of cause and effect. If a person decides to go to school, there is a motivation behind it, or rather a cause. When people go out to dinner only to eat, it is because they are hungry. The cause is hunger; the effect is eating the food.

Therefore, logic dictates that there must be something to start the chain, an original or “first cause.” Now, there are two universal laws which we observe in the world around us. The first law conveys that there is no new mass (or energy) coming into existence in the universe, and every part of the original mass is still here in some form. For example, if someone burned a log in a fire, the log would eventually turn to ash, and some of its contents would also be released into the atmosphere. This is an example of an object changing from one form of matter to another. The second law is that every time something happens, or an event occurs, the amount of usable energy becomes unavailable. The first law tells us that matter (mass/energy) cannot be created or destroyed (by natural means), but it can be changed; the second law tells us that all mass/energy continually proceeds to lesser levels of usefulness. In other words, each cause must be at least as great as the effect which it produces, and as a result produces and effect which is less than the cause. The effect must have a greater cause.

When we trace these two universal laws backwards, the infinite regress is again present. We are faced with an ongoing chain of cause and effects, which results in a chain of ever-increasing causes going further and further back. The very law of causality is used in the scientific method, in which we can test, observe, and repeat experiments. Without the law of cause and effect, science as we know it would be very different. This leads us to two inevitable conclusions: either we have an infinite series of cause and effect, which appears improbably, or we are faced with an “Uncaused Cause,” one which would have to exist outside of time and space, and like the argument for motion, would have had to be self-existent. This Uncaused Cause would have been the one absolute cause to initiate everything, and would be the primary cause.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics demonstrates that things are winding down, that the amount of usable energy is becoming less and less. The Laws of Thermodynamics, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, along with Redshift, the burning up of the Sun’s gases, as well as many other such examples, show that the universe is not eternal, and therefore had a beginning. It cannot be static. The universe cannot stand still, otherwise the gravitational force between galaxies would bring them together and result in catastrophe. According to the late Robert Jastrow, founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and former professor of astronomy and geology at New York’s Columbia University, “The seed of everything that has happened since he Universe was planted in the first instant… It was literally the moment of creation” (47). These and other factors demonstrate that the universe had a beginning. Anything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe began to exist; therefore, the universe has a cause. According to Aquinas, this is the Creator God.

Third of the five ways is the argument from necessity. This argument relies on the principle of sufficient reason, which Soccio defines as “nothing happens without a reason” (228). Along with this and the principle of plentitude, Aquinas argued that God’s existence is necessary. He distinguishes between things which are possible and those which are necessary. For example, one does not exist out of necessity, but because several factors occurred which led to the birth of the individual. Our existence is dependent on something else, it is contingent; this is also true of all created things. Aquinas believed that “it is not possible to conceive of a time in which nothing whatsoever existed” (Soccio 227). If this is the case, then there would be no space, and time would not exist. This would mean that there would be nowhere for something to come into existence, or move to. It follows that there would be nothing. But if nothing existed, nothing would always exist. Through mere human experience, we understand that things exist around us. Therefore, Aquinas pointed out, there was always something, something which would have always existed and always will exist – something eternal. This argument essentially can be used to contend to eternality of God.

Fourth of the five ways is the argument from gradation, or degree. This fourth argument was put into place because the first three do not establish God as a loving and good being, but only His existence. If such an Unmoved Mover or Uncaused Causer existed, the attributes are still not described. Aquinas based his argument on the concept of the hierarchy of souls. In other words, “being progresses from inanimate objects to increasingly complex animated creatures” (228). For example, a horse or cat would have more being than a fly or worm, and a human would have more being than the horse or cat. Aquinas contended that this chain, or hierarchy, continued upward to the angels, and then to God. He argued that existence went downward from perfection and wholeness to lower stages, with each stage descending to a lower level of being. This concept is difficult for many in modern thinking to grasp, and is not one of the more popular arguments for God’s existence.

The fifth and final way is the argument from design, more commonly known as the teleological argument. It is perhaps the most widely used and best known of the arguments for God’s existence. Aquinas declared that the universe contains order and design. Water obeys certain Natural Laws, as do the planets, stars, and other related things. The Law of Gravity, for instance, is law because it has been tested, observed and repeated countless times. It is an unchangeable law, and is therefore a Natural Law. These Laws of Nature hold the universe together. Kepler’s Law of Planetary Motion still would have been in place whether Kepler had discovered it or not. Likewise, the Chemical Laws, Laws of Physics, Laws of Logic, and other Natural Laws hold the universe together. According to the late Eugene P. Wigner, physicist and mathematician, “The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.”

As a result, Aquinas argued that order implies intelligence, purpose, and a plan. He “held that the order we observe in inanimate nature cannot come from matter itself, since matter lacks consciousness and intelligence” (Soccio 230). Empirical science demonstrates that something cannot come from nothing, which is what attempts to explain a godless universe have stated. Writers and scientists now use the term anthropic principle to describe the appearance of the universe and the earth being fine-tuned for life, specifically human life. Life as we know it depends on the Natural Laws, and were they changed but a little, human life would be impossible. Sir Isaac Newton once asked, “Whence arises all the order and beauty we see in the world?” William Paley, an Anglican clergyman in the eighteenth century, pondered the same thing, and developed the concept of the watchmaker. Paley concluded that “the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.”

Even Isaac Asimov, ardent anti-creationist, stated that “In man is a three-pound brain which, as far as we know, is the most complex and orderly arrangement of matter in the universe” (10). An illustration of swatting a fly has been given before. The squashed fly has all of the chemicals necessary for the supposed “primordial soup.” However, we know that nothing will evolve from this fly “soup.” Why then did this fly die? It is because by swatting the fly, it became disorganized. When the “machinery” of the fly was destroyed, the organism could no longer exist. Thousands of molecular “machines” are required to exist before life becomes possible. It seems as if life does not arise from nothing. We must consider: can complexity come from non-complexity? Likewise, does information arise from non-information? If this was the case, one would not need to write, since the information would arise by itself. Yet this is not our experience.

In the past few decades, the Intelligent Design movement has become prominent. This movement attempts to argue for the existence of a Creator by using scientific research. Michael Behe has popularized the concept of irreducible complexity, and Stephen C. Meyer has focused on cellular research. Intelligent Design is often mistaken for Biblical Creationism. The ID movement does necessitate a Creator, but it does not specify the creator. As aforementioned, without further arguments, once could cite such evidence in support of Hinduism, Islam, certain Buddhist circles, Baha’i, or other religions and philosophies. However, Aquinas’ arguments were centered on the God of the Bible, and certainly there are other arguments which involve Christianity. The next issue to address then is free will. Does free will exist, and do humans use free will?

If one did not have free will, one would be unable to argue that free will does not exist, because the individual would be using their free will to argue against their free will. If free will means simply that God allows mankind to freely make decision which can affect our destiny, then indeed it appears to exist. Within free will, however, we cannot do something against our nature. For example, a human can choose to walk on the sidewalk or not walk on the sidewalk, but it is against out nature to choose to fly over the sidewalk. Free will is necessary for moral responsibility. If mankind did not have free will, then it follows that they could not be held accountable for their actions. The example has been given of God not giving mankind free will. If this was the case, men would not be able to love Him freely, but would be essentially mindless robots, slaves to a dictator. However, this is not the concept of free will as presented in the Bible, which Aquinas’ arguments were for.

Conclusively, the concept of God as presented in the Five Ways and the concept of free will, like any argument, surely have an issue here or there, but it does not negate the reasoning behind the argument. It is true that faith is required to believe that God exists. Reason can only take one so far, the final step must be a leap of faith. There is nothing wrong with faith either, since it takes faith for many things. It takes faith to believe that the person you are driving with will get you to the desired location safely, just as it takes faith to believe that the teacher or students will show up to a class. Faith is a part of life whether we concede it or not. There are many other arguments for God’s existence, as well as other arguments for Christianity, which include historical apologetics, predictive prophecy, archaeology, and the like. For Aquinas’ part, however, the Five Ways are perhaps some of the most influential philosophical arguments for God’s existence, and has shaped much of Western philosophy. The question of God’s existence is life’s big question. If the God of the Bible exists, then humanity is responsible for their actions, and was created with and for a purpose. If the God of Bible does not exist, then humanity is not responsible for their actions, and is the result of a mindless chain of random chance. Ultimately the individual must choose what to believe, but careful investigation ought to go into their final conclusion. One must wonder, however: if the individual can choose what to believe, are they not using their free will?

Works Cited
Asimoc, Isaac. “In the game of energy and thermodynamics you can’t break even.” Smithsonian, June 1970. 10. Print.

Christian, James L. Philosophy: An Introduction To The Art of Wondering. 3rd ed. California: CBS College Publishing and Rinehart Press, 1981. 517. Print.

Soccio, Douglas J. Archetypes of Wisdom. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2010. 225-230. Print.

Jastrow, Robert. Journey to the Stars: Space Exploration – Tomorrow and Beyond. 1989. 47. Print.

Paley, William. Natural Theology: or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. Reprinted in 1927 by St. Thomas Press, Houston, Texas. 3. Print.

Wigner, E.P. 1960. The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, No. I. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Print.

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