St Thomas Aquinas and the Contuition of Divinity

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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 to offer an opinion. But even 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, we ask our­selves, why not nothing? Must there not be a transcendent Creator? But how do we know that there is an answer, and if we do not know the answer through syllogistic reasoning, then how?

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In his classic works He Who Is and Existence and Analogy, Eric Lionel Mascall advances what I find to be a satisfying 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, 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” (Openness, p. 111). We grasp Creator and creature together in one cognitive act. Ultimately, we must speak not of logic but of a kind of sight. We contuit the world with God and from God and in that moment contuit God. 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, 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, I think, 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?

(19 September 2016; rev.)

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21 Responses to St Thomas Aquinas and the Contuition of Divinity

  1. Thomas says:

    I tend to agree with Geach’s criticism here. Mascall, like many of the existentialist Thomists from Gilson and Maritain to Owens and Knasas, tends to think of the essence/existence distinction as a kind of perception or intuition. They insist it’s a matter of seeing what’s there. But, of course, philosophers tend to see the world in accordance with their own presuppositions.

    So while the existence and nature of the world is there to be seen for certain Thomists, Kantians and modern physicalists see something quite different. Philosophers see in the light of their prior suppositions, and insisting on “developing a way of seeing” can often be a demand to accept those presuppositions without argument.

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  2. Robert Fortuin says:

    I really doubt Aquinas would recognize Mascall’s contuition. Not sure then that it is a plausible reading of Aquinas, but I can see it as one possible appropriation of the Five Ways. However, in stretching a fabric there is a point beyond which its original pattern is no longer recognizable.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      It is certainly possible that Gilson, Mascall, and Bauerschmidt are wrong in their deep reading of the five ways, but as I’m not an Aquinas scholar I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt … until I don’t. 😎

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Let me also throw into the discussion this Herbert McCabe passage:

        “If I may very briefly summarize what I have said so often elsewhere: Aquinas’s Five Ways, as I read them, are sketches for five arguments to show that a certain kind of question about our world and ourselves is valid: ‘Why the world, instead of nothing at all?’ This is a question, in Aquinas’s jargon, about the esse of things, their being over against nothing, not just their being over against some alternative or over against potentiality. Aquinas wishes to say two things: (1) that here we have a valid question and, (2) that we do not know how to answer it; or (1) God exists, and (2) God is an incomprehensible mystery.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          How do you see McCabe’s take differing in substantial ways from Mascall’s “contuition”?

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            I honestly don’t know, Robert. McCabe seems to be content with the fact that the question “Why does the universe exist rather than nothing?” is meaningfully asked. Mascall seems to want a clearer apprehension of the contingency of being. To apprehend this contingency is to immediately apprehend the existence of Creator. Creator and creature are correlative. But don’t quote me. I’m really flying by the seat of my pants. I’ve been away from this topic for four years.

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  3. no evidence of a god being necessary at all. Aquinas simply needed to try to pretend his god was required to keep power in the church.

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    • arthurjaco says:

      Oh, you’re an Aquinas scholar, now?
      You’ve read him so extensively you even know his motives?

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      • Jonathan Barker says:

        Such may or may not have been the case with Aquinas but it certainly is quite obviously the case with the likes of Edward Feser and most/all of the other true believers that dominate his website. So too with most/all modern day Thomists.

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        • arthurjaco says:

          Although I do agree with you that many quite despicable people hang out on Feser’s blog, I am not sure why they would “need to try to pretend God is required in order to keep power in the (Catholic) Church”, Jonathan.
          In fact, rather than “pretending” that God is required (to explain the fact that anything exists at all), I’m pretty sure that people who hang out over there are all *convinced* that He is required…
          Anyways, this conversation is pointless, and it is pointless because (among other reasons)
          Schadenfreude didn’t even care to back up her assertion at all, presenting it as if it were an undeniable fact when it clearly isn’t – thus providing us with further evidence that her bad faith knows no limit (or maybe she’s trolling?)
          I offer therefore *not* to argue any further over this quite ridiculous matter, if you don’t mind.

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  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I should have anticipated this happening. Let me be very clear. Hostile anti-theists are not welcome to comment on Eclectic Orthodoxy. Henceforth your comments will be blocked or deleted.

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  5. keithnoback says:

    I don’t think that the validity of this question of existential necessity can be established, or rationally rejected. But is it apropos of anything, if it leads to an incomprehensible mystery (granted)?

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Keith,

      “is it apropos of anything” you ask. Well yes, on my view the question is to lead one on to further exploration, as Aquinas did (he didn’t stop at the 5 ways, these inquiries were but a preamble, as you likely well know). Furthermore, the incomprehensibility of this “uncaused cause” isn’t a stop point, a place which arrests one’s search. It is rather to lead one on, and one could say, to ask further pertinent and pesky questions until one reaches a grander vision. Of course one can stop asking questions at any time, and give in to defeat and self pity, but such a path is of losers and those that are given to the excesses of pathos of complaint and defeat. To such we happily don’t belong, naturally, and so we press on with questions and inquiries into mysteries (and take heed to those who have gone before us). In short, incomprehensibility is our given, why settle for that? The quest of life, as I see it, is to transcend the obvious.

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    • Thomas says:

      It depends on whether the mystery is intrinsically incomprehensible, or just incomprehensible to us.

      If the existence of the physical universe is a well-posed question the final answer to which cannot be given within the universe, it must be found in a transcendent being. In that case, there is a sufficient answer, but not one we can fully comprehend.

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      • keithnoback says:

        I admire your optimism Robert. I suppose I am a pessimist. I think ‘incomprehensible’ is one of those terms which cannot be qualified and retain its meaning. I also think that it does apply in the situation.
        If you are asking for an event which cannot be characterized as we characterize other events, and therefore something which must deify explanation lest it get sucked in to the realm of mundane events and subsequently require its own grounding necessity in turn, then I think you are asking for something incomprehensible.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Keith – my optimism stems from the Paschal revelation: the mystery laid bare, no longer hidden.

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        • Thomas says:

          > an event which cannot be characterized as we characterize other events

          Explanation is not characterization. And we characterize events differently all the time. Each empirical science has its own set of categories which may not be shared by any other science. It would be quite silly to insist on using the categories relevant to the social habits of tree frogs to explain electrostatics. It makes no more sense to insist we explain transcendent causes as we do imminent causes.

          And of course “incomprehensible” can be qualified; we do it all the time. Abstract algebra is incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t had basic mathematics, but it is luminously intelligible in itself. All things save sin are intrinsically comprehensible. The question is whether we have developed the capacity to comprehend them, in which case they are not comprehensible to us.

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  6. JBG says:

    Thomas: “It depends on whether the mystery is intrinsically incomprehensible, or just incomprehensible to us.”

    How could one even tell the difference?

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    • Thomas says:

      We do this in practice all the time. If I’m attempting to learn, say, linear algebra, I’d be wrong to think that, because I cannot currently understand it, it is incomprehensible. Every time we learn, we make this distinction, usually (though not always) easily.

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      • JBG says:

        Linear algebra is not known to be incomprehensible to the human mind, since many people comprehend it.

        Take a postulate that no human mind has ever comprehended. How would one differentiate between an inherently insoluable problem and one that is just insoluble to the human mind?

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        • Thomas says:

          We do that all the time across different disciplines. There is no solution to the halting problem nor is there a general solution to polynomials that have a coefficient higher than the fifth degree. Many other examples could be cited. “What balance of the four humours makes humans healthy?” Etc.

          More broadly, if the universe were not intelligible as a whole, it could not be intelligible in any of its parts. But any act of inquiry presupposes things can be intelligible. The price of rejecting a cause for the universe as a whole undermines every particular attempt to understand anything at all.

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