St Thomas Aquinas and the Contuition of Divinity

I begin with confession: I do not know if the five ways of St Thomas Aquinas succeed as proofs for the existence of God. I lack the competence (and can confidently say, will always lack the competence) to offer an opinion. I have read a fair bit about them. On some days one or more of them persuade; on other days they do not. But more importantly, philosophers who do have the necessary competence disagree among themselves about both their validity and soundness. My interest, however, lies not with the particulars of each proof but with their overall intent—the identification of, in Frederick Bauerschmidt’s phrase, “the self-insufficiency of the world” (Thomas Aquinas, p. 95). Thomas believes that if we attend to the beings of the world we will apprehend their radical contingency and will therefore know that there is a self-existent Creator. His proofs invite us to contemplate the world under five aspects—motion, change, perishability, perfection, and teleological movement. Thomas is convinced that when we do so we will see what he sees, namely, a world that cannot account for its existence. Etienne Gilson puts it this way:

To say that an existing thing requires an extrinsic cause of its existence is to say that it does not contain it in itself. From this point of view, the proofs of the existence of God consist in constructing a chain of causes which binds all beings which are by another to the one being who is by itself. Beings by another, which have not in themselves the wherewithal to exist, are those same things whose essence … is distinct from their existence, as opposed to being by itself whose very essence is to exist. We can say, therefore, that all the Thomistic proofs for the existence of God amount, in the last analysis, to a search beyond existences which are not self-sufficient, for an existence which is self-sufficient and which, because it is so, can be the first cause of all others. (The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, pp. 80-81)

What is this ontological insufficiency of which Bauerschmidt and Gilson speak? The material entities of the universe, considered both individually and as a totality, might not and need not have been: they do not contain within themselves the metaphysical necessity of their existence. They are, in this precise sense, contingent. Rocks, snails, antelopes, mosquitos, meteors, quarks and quasars—we may describe their natures, but of each we are forced to distinguish between their essence and their existence. Existence is not included in their definition. Regarding none of them do we find ourselves declaring, “In every possible world they had to be.” Human beings are “rational animals,” Aristotle tells us; he does not then go on to say, “and they must also exist.” Contingent beings are incapable of providing a metaphysical explanation for their actuality, for the fact that they exist instead of not existing.

At the end of all our scientific investigation and analysis, we may still ask of the world, why? In the five ways, explains Bauerschmidt, Aquinas “wishes to demonstrate that what we know about the world still leaves us with the question ‘Why is there anything at all?’ and that the answer to that question is what people commonly call ‘God.’ This is, in a sense, a fairly modest project. Thomas is simply trying to demonstrate that the question ‘Why?’ is legitimate not simply in reference to this or that thing, but in reference to everything; and it is legitimate because it is a question that has an answer (in the way that a question like ‘Is the sofa sad?’ does not)” (Holy Teaching, p. 50, n. 25). Why?—is there any question more human, more universal? Have you not stood outside late at night and looked up at the stars in wonder? And if at that moment you did not know with certainty that there was a God, did you not at least hear the universe posing the question, Why is there anything, why not nothing? But how do we know that there is an answer? and if we do not know the answer through syllogistic reasoning, then how?

In his classic works He Who Is and Existence and Analogy, Eric Lionel Mascall advances what I find to be a satisfying Thomistic position. He agrees with Gilson and Bauerschmidt that the purpose of the five ways is to illumine for us the radical contingency of the universe:

As I see it, the ultimate function of the Five Ways is to make it plain, by calling attention to five outstanding features of finite being, what the fundamental characteristic of finite being is. And that fundamental characteristic is a radical inability to account for its own existence. In other words, finite being is being in which essence and existence are really distinct; in which, therefore, existence is not self-maintained but is received from without and, in the last resort, is received from a being whose existence is not received but is self-inherent. The Five Ways are therefore not so much five different demonstrations of the existence of God as five different methods of manifesting the radical dependence of finite being upon God, of declaring, in Dom [Mark] Pontifex’s phrase, that the very essence of finite being is to be effect-implying cause. (Existence and Analogy, p. 71)

Thomas presents each of his five ways in the form of demonstratio quia—an argument that moves from a perceived effect to an unperceived cause. Where there’s smoke, there’s … if not fire, then some other something causing the smoke. An effect implies a cause. To know the world truly, therefore, is to know it as an “effect-implying cause.” But Mascall is not convinced that the five ways succeed as arguments. Consider the following syllogism (modus ponendo ponens):

Major premise:  If there is a contingent being, there is a necessary being;
Minor premise:  But there is a contingent being;
Conclusion:         Therefore there is a necessary being.

The argument is valid, says Mascall, but also misleading: “For it is only through perceiving contingent being that we can be brought to affirm the major premiss; and the minor premiss having thus been given, the conclusion is given too” (The Openness of Being, pp. 111-112). Everything hinges, therefore, on our apprehension of beings in their radical contingency: “If we perceive finite beings as they actually are, we shall perceive them as the creatures of God. And if we do so perceive them sub ratione creaturarum, we shall in perceiving them recognize the existence of the God whom we cannot perceive” (He Who Is, p. 74). The reality of God is given in the recognition of beings as creatures, or as Mascall elsewhere expresses it, in the “contuition of God-and-the-world-in-the-cosmological-relation” (The Openness of Being, p. 111). We grasp Creator and creature in one cognitive act, or we do not grasp them at all. Ultimately, we must speak not of logic but of sight. If the five ways of Aquinas work, it is only because they have helped us to apprehend reality as it truly is:

We can, of course, put the argument from finite to infinite in a syllogistic form, but when we do so we are not so much describing the process by which we have passed from the recognition of the finite to the affirmation of the infinite as convincing ourselves that the transition was not in fact unreasonable. The transition itself was made in the recognition that being whose essence is really distinct from its existence declares by its very existence the creative activity of God. In other words the primary requirement if we are to pass from the recognition of the finite to the affirmation of the infinite is not that we shall be skilled in the manipulation of Aristotelian logic but that we shall grasp in its ontological reality the act by which finite existents exist. And then we shall affirm God by recognizing him. We shall affirm him not, as ontologists affirm, in his naked reality, but as the primary agent of the act by which finite beings exist; in Dr. [Austin] Farrer’s phrase, we apprehend him in the cosmological relation and not in abstraction from it. There is one act of intellection in which we recognize both the real distinction of essence and existence in the finite existent and also its dependence upon the being in which essence and existence are identical. (Existence and Analogy, pp. 78-79)

Is Mascall’s proposal of a contuition of God in the cosmological relation a plausible reading of Thomas Aquinas? Philosopher Peter Geach thinks not. “I cannot make any sense of this metaphysical vision,” he comments; “neither, I suspect could Aquinas” (God and the Soul, p. 77). He also argues that the Neo-Thomist understanding of necessity and contingency is alien to the thought of the great scholastic. According to Aquinas, contends Geach, “contingent beings are beings liable to corrupt, break up, or the like, and necessary beings are beings with no such inner seeds of their own destruction” (p. 77). By these definitions, tomato plants and human beings are obviously contingent; angels and souls, necessary. Perhaps Geach is correct about Thomas, yet Mascall’s proposal of metaphysical contuition makes sense both of Thomas’s rational certainty in the existence of God and of that experience of wonder intrinsic to our humanity. “It is not how the world is that is mystical,” states Wittgenstein, “but rather that it is (Tractatus 6.44).

The contuition of the Infinite in the why of the world—have we here reached that point where metaphysics and theology meet in mirthful union?

 

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24 Responses to St Thomas Aquinas and the Contuition of Divinity

  1. Karl says:

    A trite point, perhaps, but I have seen an amazing number of Christians offer up Aquinas as proof of the existence of God without realising that even if his arguments are viewed as correct, this does not necessarily establish the truth of a Christian God.

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    • thomas says:

      I’ve never seen a Christian assert that Aquinas demonstrates doctrines such as the Trinity or the Incarnation on philosophical grounds. I have seen Christians offer Aquinas as an example of someone who demonstrates the existence of an infinite God who freely created the world, who is good and wise, who transcends our understanding, yet sustains everything in being, and so on. And Aquinas actually does proceed to demonstrate just these points in the Summa.

      The consequences that follow upon the assertion of subsistent being gets one in some ways very close to the Christian notion of God, without getting all the way to doctrines like the Incarnation.

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  2. brian says:

    Even if one accepts Geach’s historical judgement, that does not mean one cannot draw out the implications of Aquinas’ method of inquiry and mode of proof. I think Mascall is correct that one is fundamentally dealing with an existential recognition of contingency. Aquinas makes us of medieval syllogism, but his way of proceeding is mainly not the kind of logical, analytic methodology one would associate with Abelard, for instance. Aquinas is always about the experience of reality and the need to make judgements. Judgement involves an encounter with the real and reflection upon the implications of encounter. It does not begin with an abstract premise and then reason from there.

    As per Karl: A lot of Christians feel beseiged by intellectual skeptics who routinely accuse people of faith of being irrational fideists. No doubt, many of them have heard something of Aquinas’ five proofs and try to allude to such as an authority to establish the rationality of their belief. I have sympathy for them, even though it is quite evident Aquinas is establishing a metaphysical, not a theological proof. Still, in my view, Aquinas is not terribly interested in the five ways. He is merely giving a brief argument to prepare the way for his more substantive inquiries which are devoted to the specifically Christian God. Further, retrospectively, one can see from a position of faith that the TriUne God who creates freely ex nihilo offers the most compelling theo-logic for creation; it’s intrinisic giftedness, non-necessity, yet perdurance — against all metaphysics that would deem creaturely being some form of defatigation or odd evanescence destined to be absorbed into the Absolute.

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  3. Tom says:

    I read this quickly, so I might be misunderstanding the point. I agree that the argument…

    MajP: If there is a contingent being, there is a necessary being;
    MinP: But there is a contingent being;
    Con: Therefore there is a necessary being.

    …is at best a place to start a conversation, not finish one. But as a beginning, it’s convincing apart from one’s comprehending the radical contingency of things in the fullest sense (that Mascall advocates). Yes, the full truth of our contingency is only appreciated in a transforming way (as ‘seeing’) when contingency is experienced in light of the necessary absolute, personal love that grounds it. And that fuller understanding of contingency isn’t in the above syllogism. Fair enough. But the syllogism is a helpful (necessary?) place to start. An unbeliever who understands contingency in a way less, say, theologically informed than Mascall wants will still be delivered to posit some absolute existence that grounds all things. That positing isn’t an act of worship, but it would tell one that all the contingent features of one’s existence (consciousness, teleology, intentionality, moral appetite, aesthetic valuation, etc.) derive from that absolute existence. That’s a truth worth establishing, even if it’s a truth that begs exploration into further truths. Do we want to dismiss this syllogism, then, because it doesn’t make explicit those deeper distinctions which a fuller understanding of necessity/contingency makes? If I’m missing the point forgive me.

    Tom

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Tom/Brian,

      The problem with the syllogism is that it contains a form of circular reasoning. As such it fails as incontrovertible proof for the existence of God. But it is not intended to be such. The question about the existence of God is at this point not the right question to ask.

      This is where intuition comes in, the quest for intelligibility in the face of the existence as we encounter it.

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  4. brian says:

    Tom,

    I would not argue for dismissing the syllogism, but I doubt it has any strong persuasive appeal in and of itself. Many people seem to accept the existence of the world as a kind of surd given. They do not “feel” it’s contingency, even though like everyone else they have an experience of transience and mortality. None of this means it isn’t “a truth worth establishing,” of course.

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    • Tom says:

      I agree that’s how most people think of the universe. I think folks fail to feel it for want of intentional contemplation on the contingency of everything in the observable universe. But maybe I’m misunderstanding the syllogism. I thought of it as exposing the contingent material universe as not being a kind of surd given but as precisely the opposite, i.e., nothing in the observable universe, not even the universe considered as a totality, is a surd, but it does betoken some other necessary existence (something not ‘universe’).

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      In his wonderful little book The Christian Universe, Mascall suggests that “our urbanised technocratic civilisation has atrophied a faculty which is really natural to man, so that we have now become incapable, without a great deal of deconditioning, of seeing something that is really just under our noses and which was plain as a pikestaff to our ancestors” (p. 48).

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  5. Morgan Hunter says:

    I’ve always wondered whether mathematical objects should be classified as metaphysically contingent or necessary. Their existence seems to be in a strong sense logically necessary–few seem to agree with Descartes that God could have made the laws of mathematics different than they are! Nevertheless, it seems that the metaphysical Absolute that grounds all being ought to be simple, like the Neoplatonic One underlying the variegated forms. Does it make sense to imagine mathematical objects just existing without God somehow sustaining them in being?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      That’s a really interesting question. These “Closer to Truth” interviews may be a good place for us to begin: “Did God Create Abstract Objects?

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      • Morgan Hunter says:

        Thank you so much for the link! I checked it out and was rather disturbed to see that the most common positions seemed to be either a simple nominalist declaration that abstract objects have no real existence or an acceptance that God in fact has no real “power over” abstractions because they can neither act nor be acted upon. This difficulty might be an occupational hazard of rejecting classical theism, as it seemed like the philosophers interviewed there all came from the analytic tradition. In The Experience of God Hart mentioned mathematical objects briefly, but I wish that he had more fully elucidated what the classical theistic tradition says about their relationship to God…

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Nope, nor does the question.

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      • Morgan Hunter says:

        Interesting! I’d love to hear more…in what way would you say that mathematical objects and other abstractions are dependent on the God of classical theism?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      It would appear that the argument for God based on a contuition of the world’s contingency does not work when thinking of numbers and mathematical equations–at least I do not see how it works. When contemplating 2+2=4, I do not find myself asking “why?” On the other hand, I do not see why its logical necessity makes belief in God difficult or why God cannot be the author of its necessity. But that is no doubt because I have not studied the matter.

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      • Morgan Hunter says:

        The difficulty for me is caused by the argument I have heard ( from a mathematician) that the so-called physical world (our universe) is just one mathematical object among others and so it and its contents are not any more contingent than 2+2=4. It only seems different because we are embedded in it and so experience it ‘from the inside’. This seems to be a disturbingly convincing counterargument to the case for God’s existence based on the world’s contingency. Intuitively, however, I find myself agreeing with Robert Fortuin that accepting the universe as a brute mathematical fact seems unsatisfying….

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        • Jonathan says:

          I have heard a very different opinion from a mathematician, a topologist to be precise. The tricky part lies in saying what a ‘mathematical object’ is. As a Christian, I have no difficulty allowing that the universe is a mathematical object, but like I say, much hinges on what that means. In any case, the universe cannot be a mathematical object “among others,” but at the very lest the totality of all mathematical objects. I would say that word, “object,” when applied to the universe as a whole, is a one-word argument for the transcendent.

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          • Morgan Hunter says:

            I’d love to learn what the topologist thought…although given my mathematical illiteracy I might not be able to make much of it! The argument I heard was that the universe (in a narrowly physical sense) can’t be the totality of all mathematical objects because there are all kinds of mathematical objects that aren’t physically instantiated but can be logically conceived of. I’ll have to digest your final sentence about the very concept of the universe as an object implying the transcendent…

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Unsatifying and unintelligible, better yet: unsatisfying because unintelligible.

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  6. Robert Fortuin says:

    Morgan,

    Utterly. There is no-thing which has its own existence for its cause; furthermore, classical theism rejects the identification of God with abstractions and objects, mathematical or otherwise. The prototypes to which realism points, if at any rate realism is to have meaningful signification, are ultimately grounded in and contingent upon the absolute existence of God. This is referred to as ‘causal participation’ – every effect must in some way resemble its cause. That is to say that truth and beauty in abstractions and mathematical objects is an analogous reflection of the Truth and Beauty which is God.

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  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    The following quotation from David B. Hart is germane to the substance of my article:

    A man out for a stroll in the forest unaccountably coming upon a very large translucent sphere. Naturally he would immediately be taken aback by the sheer strangeness of the thing, and would wonder how it should happen to be there. More to the point, he would certainly never be able to believe that it just happened to be there without any cause, or without any possibility of further explanation; the very idea would absurd.

    But, what that man has not noticed is that he might ask the same question equally well about any other thing in the woods too, a rock or a tree no less than this outlandish sphere, and fails to do so only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we’re accustomed.

    What would provoke our curiosity about the sphere would be that it was so obviously out of place; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place. The question would no less intelligible or pertinent if we were to imagine the sphere either as expanded to the size of the universe or as contracted to the size of a grain of sand, either as existing from everlasting to everlasting or as existing for only a few seconds.
    It is the shear unexpected ‘thereness’ of the thing, devoid of any transparent rationale for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature but of its very existence.

    The physical order confronts us at every moment with its fortuity. Everything about the world that seems so unexceptional and drearily predictable is in fact charged with an immense and imponderable mystery.

    How odd it is, how unfathomable, that anything at all exists: how disconcerting that the world and one’s consciousness of it are simply there, joined in a single ineffable event.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      That is exactly right Fr Aidan. Hence the question ‘does God exist?’ or ‘how can I prove that God exists?’ is not the right question to ask, at least at this stage of the process in the quest for intelligibility of the sheer fortuity of existence (i.e. the attempt to intelligibly answer the question as to why there is something rather than nothing).

      Fr Norris Clarke’s remarks on this point are quite apt:

      According to St. Thomas’s metaphysical method—and any sound metaphysical method, it seems to me, which seeks to achieve knowledge of some being beyond our experience—it is a fatal error to accept the demand so habitually made by analytic philosophers and others that one must define what he means by “God” before undertaking to establish His existence. This stand is not an evasion; it is a question of proper method. It is impossible philosophically to give any definition of God that can be shown to make sense before actually discovering Him as an exigency of the quest for intelligibility. The meaning of “God” emerges only in function of the argument that concludes to the need of a being to which we then can appropriately give the name “God” or not, according to our culture and religious tradition. The philosophical meaning of God should be exclusively a function of the way by which He is discovered. Hence a properly philosophical approach to the existence of God should not ask, “Can I prove that God exists?” but rather, “What does the world of my experience demand in order to be intelligible?” Following out this exigency rationally, we “bump into” God, so to speak, as a being all of whose properties are defined exclusively by its needs to fulfill its job of satisfying the exigencies of the quest for intelligibility. Hence any philosophical “proof for the existence of God” has already taken the statement of the question from some non-philosophical source, usually religion.

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