Monthly Archives: March 2008

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Things are likely to be a bit quiet round here for a week or two. I’ve got a short paper to write for next week’s Society for the Study of Theology conference in Durham, accompanied by a side order of unexpected Head-of-Department fire-fighting stuff to do, and some holiday to take. If any of you are going to be at SST, I’ll see you there.

Pantheism and metaphor

Ch. 1: ‘A deeply religious non-believer’

Anyone who has been keeping up with the comments will know that I have been having an interesting discussion (interesting to me, at least) with Isaac Gouy about (amongst other things) the right interpretation of Dawkins’ comments on Einstein. (See, for example, the comments to this post, and this one.) It is part of a wider discussion about whether I have identified Dawkins’ target properly: whether Dawkins really is attacking any and all belief in God (at least any worthy of the name).

Since the debate has got to the point where a longer discussion of the details of Dawkins’ text is needed, I’ve chosen to write a post – it’s less cramped than a comment, and easier to do formatting and blockquoted quotations and the like. Apologies that this therefore comes a long way out of sequence – and that it is more than a little anal. Isaac and I have reached a point in our disagreement where, I think, there is no substitute for showing in detail how I read a passage that he reads differently. I should point out before I begin that none of the following is concerned with whether Dawkins is right (e.g., about Einstein); it is simply concerned with sorting out the meaning of what he says.

Dawkin introduces Einstein on p.33 of ch.1 (in the revised Black Swan paperback edition of 2007), three pages in to the first chapter. He has just finished the previous section of his discussion with the line:

[I]f the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is ‘appropriate for us to worship.’

He continues:

Much unfortunate confusion is caused by failure to distinguish what can be called Einsteinian religion from supernatural religion. (33-34)

A reasonable initial hypothesis, then, is that the purpose of the section on Einstein is to overcome that confusion by making that distinction clearly.

One might also, tentatively, suppose that to use the word ‘God’ in an ‘Einsteinian religion’ sense is on its way to being ‘completely useless’. Dawkins continues with a few references to other scientists who, like Einstein, have sometimes used the word ‘God’ in a way that ‘invit[es] misunderstanding by supernaturalists…’. So Stephen Hawking is not, despite his use of God-language, a religious man; Ursula Goodenough may sounds religious – she even calls herself religious – but she is actually (says Dawkins) ‘as staunch an atheist as I am. The clear implication is that Einstein should be understood in the same way: as non-religious, as a staunch atheist – and, indeed, Dawkins explicitly refers to him ‘atheistic’. So at this point I can refine my initial hypothesis about the text. Dawkins certainly appears to be saying that the Einsteinian religion side of the Einsteinian religion / supernatural religion distinction is to be understood as atheistic, as only using misleadingly using the word ‘God’, and as only misleadingly called ‘religious’. (A little later, Dawkins says the latter part of this explicitly: ‘Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out not to be so when you examine their beliefs more deeply. This is certainly true of Einstein…’ (35, my emphasis).

Next, Dawkins explains what he means by ‘naturalist’ in this context:

An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural…. If there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world as it is now imperfectly understood, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural. (34-35)

This definition appears to be offered as yet another clarification of the ‘Einsteinian’ side of the distinction – certainly Dawkins has not signalled any change in topic – and sure enough, a moment later, he refers to the ‘poetic naturalism’ common to the scientists he has been discussing, including Einstein. So, we now have supernatural religion on one side of Dawkins’ distinction, and, on the other, ‘Einsteinian religion’ that is not properly called religion, that is atheistic, and that is naturalistic. It is ‘poetic naturalism’ presumably because it is not averse to using high-flown rhetoric to express the awe and wonder that ‘the cosmos provokes’.

At the bottom of p.35, Dawkins introduces one more term as a further synonym for the atheist, naturalist side of the distinction: ‘pantheistic reverence’. He says that ‘many of us share’ such reverence (reminding us that he has already provided a description of his own deeply emotional experience of awe at the cosmos – an experience that he told us then (32) ‘has no connection with supernatural belief’ and for which he thinks ‘religion’ is not the right word (33)). (Incidentally, Dawkins seems happy to use the term ‘quasi-mystical’ to describe his experience; he will later quote Einstein firmly rejecting the word ‘mysticism’ as a description of his approach. ‘Mystical’ and ‘mysticism’ are such slippery words that it is hard to see this as more than a terminological difference – just as Dawkins clearly thinks that Einstein’s willingness to use the word ‘religion’ does not signal any real differentiation from his own position which eschews the word.)

On p.36, Dawkins turns to Einstein’s views in earnest. As he does so, he restates his purpose: he us ‘continu[ing] to clarify the distinction between supernatural religion … and Einsteinian religion’. This helps confirm, I think, the reading that I have been giving so far. In the red corner, we have supernatural religion, which is ‘delusional’ (36). In the blue corner, we have atheistic, poetic-naturalistic, pantheistic-reverential Einsteinian ‘religion’ – something that is only misleadingly called religion at all.

Dawkins now gets stuck in properly to saying where he thinks Einstein fits in all this. He has already made that pretty clear, of course, but he now wants to show that Einstein really does belong firmly on the opposite side of the divide from ‘supernaturalist’ religion, despite his use of what looks like real religious language. So Dawkins begins by giving a string of quotations (on pp.36-37) in which, although he uses the word ‘religion’ or ‘religious’, Einstein sounds unambiguously naturalist. So far, so clear.

Those statements, however, include Einstein’s insistence that he did not believe in a ‘personal God’ – and that is where it is possible that a question about interpretation begins to arise. On the one hand, we could think (as I do) that this simply adds another description to the distinction Dawkins is making – so that in the red corner we would now have delusional supernaturalist religion which believes in a personal God – and in the blue corner we would still have atheistic, poetic-naturalist, pantheistic-reverential Einsteinian ‘religion’. On the other hand, we might possibly (despite Dawkins’ earlier assertion that Einstein is atheistic) think that this moves us away from a simple two-place contrast (supernaturalist versus Einsteinian) to something more complex: (1) supernaturalist belief in a personal God, (2) some other kind of belief in God – a non-supernaturalist belief in a non-personal God, (3) atheism. As I have indicated, I think this latter supposition is unfounded.

Let’s keep going a while, however, before we try to answer that question definitively. After having some malicious fun with quotations from Einstein’s religious critics, Dawkins resumes his argument proper on p.39. He makes it clear that Einstein was certainly no ‘theist’, and then asks whether he was something else – a deist? a pantheist? Dawkins immediately points us to the latter, quoting Einstein saying:I believe in Spinoza’s God (39). He makes it clear that the theist and the deist both believe in a supernatural intelligence (i.e., that theism and deism are simply variants of delusional, supernaturalist belief in God) – and then he turns to clarifying what he means by ‘pantheist’. He has already, remember, used the term as synonymous with his kind of atheism, and he has already called Einstein atheist as well as pantheist. Now, he makes his position crystal clear: Pantheists (i.e., the camp in which we find at least Einstein and Spinoza), he says, ‘use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfuleness that governs its working’. Synonym: i.e., they use the word ‘God’ as a way of talking about nature; they are talking ‘naturalist’ talk, but using ‘God’ language – the language of religion – to do so. Dawkins is, recall, offering this as his definition of the term he has just used to describe Spinoza and Einstein (‘Let us remind ourselves of the terminology’, he says – i.e., let us provide definitions for the terms I have just used): pantheists like Spinoza and Einstein are, he is saying, people who use the word ‘God’ metaphorically. He says this quite explicitly: the pantheists’ God – i.e., the God spoken of in the quote he has given from Einstein about Spinoza – is a ‘metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the universe.’ (40)

For a pithy restatement, hethrows in a phrase that has particular resonance for UK readers: ‘Pantheism is sexed-up atheism’. In other words, Pantheism is atheism that has had its linguistic temperature somewhat misleadingly turned up. (There was a long-running dispute in the UK at the time when Dawkins was writing about whether the government had ‘sexed up‘ a particular dossier of evidence on Iraq, ratcheting up its rhetoric misleadingly.)

The case seems clear: Dawkins is not distinguishing pantheism from atheism. He is not going back on his earlier claim that Einstein was an atheist, nor his earlier use of the word ‘pantheism’ to describe a form of atheism. He is continuing to do what he told us he has been doing all along in this section: clarifying his distinction between supernatural religion and Einsteinian religion. And, with apologies for the repetition, that distinction clearly runs like this. On the one hand, there is delusional, supernatural religion that (normally? always?) asserts the existence of a personal God – a ‘supernatural intelligence’ – and that comes in at least theist and deist forms. On the other hand, we have atheist naturalism, which at least sometimes comes in the form of poetic naturalism – i.e., one that tries to express the awe and wonder that the cosmos produces – and that poetic naturalism at least sometimes comes in a form willing (misleadingly) to use the word ‘God’ to express the awe and reverence it feels. Dawkins can use ‘pantheism’ to refer to the whole of poetic naturalism (as on p.35, where he includes himself, as one who feels reverent awe at the cosmos, amongst the pantheists), but he can also (perhaps more characteristically?) use it to refer simply to this latter subset: the atheist naturalists willing to use the word ‘God’ to express or convey this reverent awe. The pantheists are using the word ‘God’ as a metaphor, as a poetic synonym for nature – they are, after all, atheists.

Dawkins next, on p.40, illustrates his point with further quotes from Einstein in which Einstein uses the word ‘God’ for himself (rather than as a borrowing from Spinoza). These are examples of Einstein ‘using “God” in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense’, Dawkins tells us – i.e., they are simply examples of what he has been describing for the last two paragraphs as pantheism. We, the readers, might want to make a distinction between these Einstein quotes (e.g., ‘God does not play dice’) where the word ‘God’ is simply being used as a dispensable figure of speech (Dawkins, rightly I think, says that ‘God does not play dice’ can be translated as ‘Randomness does not lie at the heart of things’), and cases where atheists use God language to express the awe and wonder they feel at the cosmos – but Dawkins clearly feels no need to make such a distinction in this context.

Finally, Dawkins makes it once again abundantly clear – as if we needed reminding by this point – that he regards it as deeply misleading to use the word ‘religion’ to describe this Einsteinian side of the equation. and just as misleading to use the word ‘God’. He clearly regrets Einstein’s choice of terminology, even if he accords the content of Einstein’s views ‘deserved respect’.

So, let me summarise. In the red corner, we have supernatural religion, which is properly called religion, which really asserts the existence of God – and which is delusional. And in the blue corner we have ‘Einsteinian religion’ which is actually (a form of) naturalist atheism, which is not really religion, which uses the word ‘God’ only poetically and metaphorically – and which we can call ‘pantheism’ if we really want to. ‘Metaphorical’ and ‘pantheistic’ uses of the word ‘God’ are not two different uses of the word God: all pantheist uses of the word are metaphorical, and the only metaphorical uses Dawkins has considered are pantheist.

I simply can’t see any other coherent way of reading the section.

All this means that, certainly at this point in his argument, ‘supernaturalist’ does not, for Dawkins, name a variety of religious belief in God. It is simply his name for religious belief in God. He excludes from it at this point only forms of belief in God that are not properly called belief in God at all – because they use the word God only metaphorically, and are in fact forms of atheism. Later on, he will also exclude religions like Confucianism and Buddhism (59) – because, presumably, they (at least as normally understood) don’t include belief in God at all, and so are simply irrelevant to what he is saying – hence he says that ‘there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life)’ (59, my emphasis).

When Dawkins explains, therefore, that he is ‘talking only about supernatural Gods’ (41), and when he says that he is ‘not attacking any particular version of God or gods [but] God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural‘ (57, my emphasis) the only things that the word ‘supernatural’ is ruling out are any versions of belief in ‘God’ which are really forms of naturalist atheism – forms where the word ‘God’ is only used poetically, metaphorically, and utterly misleadingly. I can simply see no way of reading those statements as meaning that he is excluding from his attack some forms of religious belief in God, some form of belief in God that uses the word ‘God’ appropriately and that desrves to be called religious.

So, when it comes to the question of God (and ignoring discourses or philosophies or so-called religions that say nothing about God): on the one hand we have atheism (which can sometimes, misleadingly, borrow the language of religion, specifically the word ‘God’, even though it is not anything to do with religion). On the other hand we have religion properly so called, which is the realm of supernaturalist belief in God, the realm of delusion – and Dawkins’ target. The latter is defined both negatively (as any discourse about God that is not really naturalist atheism in disguise) and positively (as belief in a supernatural intelligence, as belief in a personal God – and, later, as belief in a delusional form of quasi-scientific explanation). When it comes to the question of God, ‘supernatural’ for Dawkins is synonymous with ‘religion’, ‘religion’ is synonymous with ‘supernatural’.

McCabe on atheism, creation and explanation

Herbert McCabeHerbert McCabe (1926-2001) was a Dominican theologian and philosopher who taught at Blackfriars in Oxford. Reading him is always challenging and refreshing: he had what in older Oxbridge parlance would probably have been called a good mind – a very good mind. Anyway, here are some quotes from his God Matters collection, which say more clearly some of what I have been trying to say in response to Dawkins.

[I]t seems to me that what we often call atheism is not a denial of the God of which I speak. Very frequently the man who sees himself as an atheist is not denying the existence of some answer to the mystery of how come there is anything instead of nothing, he is denying what he thinks or has been told is a religious answer to this question. He thinks or has been told that religious people, and especially Christians, claim to have discovered what the answer is, that there is some grand architect of the universe who designed it, just like Basil Spence only bigger and less visible, that there is a Top Person in the universe who issues arbitrary decrees for the rest of the persons and enforces them because he is the most powerful being around. Now if denying this claim makes you an atheist, then I and Thomas Aquinas and a whole Christian tradition are atheistic too.

But a genuine atheist is one who simply does not see that there is any problem or mystery here, one who is content to ask questions within the world, but cannot see that the world itself raises a question. (7)

When we have concluded that God created the world, there still remains the scientific question to ask about what kind of world it is and was and how, if ever, it began…. Coming to know that the universe is dependent on God does not in fact tell us anything about the character of the universe. How could it? Since everything we know about God (that he exists and what he is not) is derived from what we know of the universe, how could we come back from God with some additional information about the world? If we think we can it is only because we have smuggled something extra into our concept of God – for example, when we make God in our own image and ask ourselves quite illegitimate questions like, ‘What would I have done if I were God?’ (8)

Dawkins on Anselm

Ch. 3: Arguments for God’s Existence

Dawkins and AnselmDawkins’ misrepresentation of Anselm is as interesting as his misrepresentation of Aquinas. Here, too, I agree that Anselm’s argument does not provide a successful proof of the existence of God (in the sense that Dawkins is discussing), so it’s not that I disagree with Dawkins’ conclusion. Nevertheless, his way of arriving at that conclusion is instructive.

Let’s get the uninteresting aspects out of the way first. Dawkins’ primary weapon is ridicule. He explains the argument in such a way that it is impossible to see how anyone could be convinced by it for a moment. He then notes that Bertrand Russell said both that it is quite difficult to work out why the argument does not work, and that he himself, in 1894, had become convinced that the argument did in fact work – though Dawkins has already made it impossible for us to see how either of these claims could be true. He is tempted to attribute the latter, in particular, to Russell being exaggeratedly fair-minded, over eager to find worth in something clearly worthless. I rather suspect that, if the quotes form Russell show us anything, they show us that the argument must be more interesting, and more complex, than Dawkins’ ridiculing summary suggests: Dawkins has again substituted derision for argument.

However, he is quite explicit about his reason for this, and that’s where the more interesting aspect of his account lies. He makes it clear that, as a scientist rather than a philosopher, he simply can’t begin to imagine that an argument that draws on no empirical data- that deals simply in words, in logic – could prove something factual about the universe. And that, I think, confirms the impression I was left with by his treatment of Aquinas: that, for Dawkins, the question of the existence of God is the question of the existence of some particular thing – one thing amongst all the things that exist: some kind of empirical reality. He is understandable unwilling to believe that a purely philosophical argument could establish, without any kind of looking the existence of such a thing.

What if, however, the question of the existence of God were more like a question about the conditions for the existence of all particular things? Would it be more plausible to think that a philosophical/metaphysical argument might be capable of establishing the necessity of something more like that? Some people have thought, for instance, that it is possible to prove philosophically that the universe could not be infinitely old; I happen to disagree, but it is, I think, easier to see why someone might think that something like that might be susceptible of purely philosophical proof, than why someone might think that the existence of the planet Jupiter might be susceptible of such a proof. What if the God that Anselm and Aquinas talk about is not best understood as a particular thing, a specific empirical reality, and instead is something that in some respects is more like a basic condition for all particular things?

Note that I am not saying that I think Anselm’s argument works – at least, not if we take it as a proof of the existence of God in the sense we’re discussing. But might it be possible down this route to see why it is interesting, and why versions of it have (however briefly) convinced people as brilliant as Russell?

Once again, we come down to differing understandings of the word ‘God’ – and to the inadequacy of Dawkins’ version of ‘supernaturalism’ to cover some of the things that ‘God’ has meant.

Dawkins on Aquinas, again

Ch. 3: Arguments for God’s Existence

Aquinas and DawkinsJust in case you can’t be bothered to work through my posts on the Five Ways (I won’t hold it against you), here’s a quick summary of what I think is wrong with Dawkins’ presentation of Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God. It is not, by the way, that I think Dawkins gets to the wrong basic conclusion: I too think that the Ways don’t quite work as a proof of the existence of God. But I find Dawkins’ mistakes in presentation interesting.

First, the minor points. I would have liked Dawkins to have the grace to acknowledge that the mysterious Fourth Way might have made more sense in Aquinas’ intellectual context than it does in ours – and to have done the minimal research required to know that the examples he (Dawkins) gives are not the kinds of gradation Aquinas was talking about. Once again, Dawkins is all too eager to represent a religious thinker as incoherent buffoon. I would also have liked him, purely for the sake of conceptual hygiene, to note that the Fifth Way is not quite the standard design argument (it’s not about things ‘looking designed’, but about apparently purposive action) – even though it is, I think, very nearly as vulnerable to Darwin.

The major point, though, is that Dawkins simply misses one major strand of Aquinas’ argument. Dawkins’ main complaint is that Aquinas arbitrarily invokes God as the end of the regress that the first three ways point to. Whereas, in fact, Aquinas argues at great length about what would count as an end to those regresses – and Dawkins doesn’t even hint that he’s aware of that part of Aquinas’ account. Far from simply asserting, Aquinas argues, in detail and at length – and Dawkins has missed that completely. (As for his aside about omniscience and omnipotence: well, if he had read on in Aquinas’ account, he’d know that whatever the silly little argument he offers is about, it isn’t about the God discussed by Aquinas.)

Aquinas, by the way, would clearly have thought Dawkins’ own answer – that we can terminate the regress with the big bang singularity or some other natural phenomenon – quite as vacuous as Dawkins’ thinks his, and that the supposed analogy with the natural termination to the divisibility of matter was wholly beside the point. To say that we can’t, in fact, go on dividing matter for ever is not quite the same as saying that at some point we can’t go on asking Why? Dawkins, in Aquinas eyes, is giving up on the intelligibility of the universe.

Note two things. First, I think this is a place where Dawkins fails to see the necessity for philosophy. That is, he thinks that the regress is going to be answered by a scientific discovery, by some physical concept – whereas I’m with Aquinas in thinking that once we get to questions like, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing’, we are inevitably beyond physics, and in the realm of metaphysics.

The second, I think that Dawkins regards Aquinas’ argument as an obvious failure because, unlike Aquinas, he is operating with a picture of God as one particular kind of thing – one of the things that there is – which is therefore clearly just as contingent, just as question-begging as any other particular thing. Aquinas and Dawkins don’t just disagree about whether God exists; they disagree about what ‘God’ means.

Reading the Five Ways 15

Reading the Five Ways
15. On not following Aquinas

With this fifteenth post, I come to the end of my little exploration of the Five Ways. [Edit: not quite.] I’m not sure why I embarked on it, to be honest. I think I simply wanted to see what I really made of a famous theological text that in the past I have tended to dismiss.

Well, it turns out that I’m still not convinced by the Five Ways when they’re playing the role most often assigned to them – i.e., when they are held to be ‘proving the existence of God’ in the most straightforward sense of that phrase.

I hope I’ve made it clear that I have various problems with the details of the Ways. The fifth leaks like a Whitehall department; the fourth relies (in its present form) on presuppositions not now widely shared; the first needs work to translate it from medieval to modern physics (even though it is not simply a physical argument); and the third as it stands is formulated very strangely. Nevertheless, I hope I’ve also made it clear what form I think the basic argument behind the Ways takes, and that I think it can at least be put forward plausibly

However, I do not think that the job will be done even by a more detailed reconstruction of the Ways around the more basic argument that I have sketched. On the one hand, I am not absolutely convinced that the metaphysical grammar assumed by the Ways is unavoidable. There may, for instance, be other ways of formulating the question that make different kinds of answer work, or that make it less clear that Aquinas’ answer does the job required of it, or that make the question itself less compelling. That I can’t see such alternatives is unsurprising: I am no metaphysician.

On the other hand, it seems to me possible to give up altogether on the intelligibility of the world in the strong sense I have used here: to declare the question posed by Aquinas unanswerable, or even unaskable. The mind may revolt at such constraint – but maybe the way things are simply is revolting.

So, no, I do not think the Ways provide a knock-down proof of the existence of God, in the sense that they absolutely compel any reader to follow them all the way to the end.

Nevertheless, I do think that the Ways both pose a real question and provide an answer to it, and so make a coherent and powerful proposal for making sense of the world. That proposal is not simply a proposal about some additional fact to be bolted on to one’s existing view of things: it is a proposed articulation of the most basic ways in which the world might be intelligible. (And even the fourth and fifth ways might be part of such a proposal, even if they don’t work as any kind of probative argument.)

Furthere, it seems to me not to be obvious that one can do better than this proposal; that does not simply go without saying.

More than that, though, the Ways lead on (as I have been trying to suggest in the last few posts) to a theological grammar that has a great deal of power. It seems to me that any theology that claims that God is creator needs to take seriously the way of articulating that claim that Aquinas offers: the way in which he gives us concepts with which to speak about the distinction and the relation between God and creatures; the way in which he grounds God’s mystery in the very fact that God is creator, the way in which he re-reads contingency and mutability as creatureliness and gift, and so on. There’s a good deal here that is theologically rich and interesting, and even if my own attempts at theological articulation end up traversing this terrain from rather different directions, I don’t think Aquinas’ Ways can be dismissed simply as a bit of ‘philosophy’ with nothing to say to ‘theology’.

Reading the Five Ways 14

Reading the Five Ways
14. Absolute Dependence

The demonstration of the Five Ways involves God being made evident to the inquirer indirectly. That is, the Ways do not make God clearly graspable and definable; they make God evident only by making the character of the world evident. The Ways teach the inquirer to see the world as an ordered whole, a cosmos – as held together by webs of interdependence. And the Ways teach the inquirer to see this whole cosmos as utterly dependent upon a mystery from which it flows – so that, as it were, she begins to see that the world is patterned by lines of perspective, whose vanishing point remains tantalisingly out of view.

The Ways point to a basic reorientation of one’s understanding of the world. The inquirer who fully internalises the Ways will begin to see the movements and actions of things in the world as the expression of an Activity flowing through them; she will begin to see contingency not simply as mutability and decay but as creatureliness, and as the marker that finite things are gifts; she will begin to see the world as coming from and going to mystery. She will, in other words, begin to see the world as creation.

It strikes me that we are not a million miles from Schleiermacher at this point, despite the vast differences in idiom and philosophical machinery. I’m thinking of Schleiermacher’s discovery of the feeling of absolute dependence woven in to all his active and knowing engagements with the world. Of course, Schleiermacher’s emphasis falls more on this dependence as the thread that holds together the subject in the world, and Aquinas’ emphasis falls more on this dependence as a thread that holds together the world known by the subject, and so (to use the terms in a rather clumsy fashion) Schleiermacher is more psychological where Aquinas is more metaphysical. Nevertheless, there’s a similar intuition at the heart of both accounts, and both Aquinas and Schleiermacher are fundamentally theologians of creation.

Reading the Five Ways 13

Reading the Five Ways
13. The Five Ways as Foundation

I said before that

Aquinas’ central intention in these three articles is … to show how a bridge can be built from knowledge of our world to knowledge of God…. Much of the rest of the Summa then consists of driving all sorts of freight over that bridge, in both directions…. [T]he Five Ways are foundational to his whole project not in the sense that without them he would have to give up on Christian faith, nor in the sense that they everything that follows is unpacked directly from this starting point, but in the sense that the failure of this bridge would mean that the Summa would have to take an utterly different form.

I want to unpack that comment just a little.

It seems to me, as I have said, that the prime point of the Ways in context is not to demonstrate to the sceptic that God exists (though Aquinas certainly thinks that the arguments have the power to do that). Rather, they yield a grammar. Someone who has worked through the Ways (and through the material that immediately follows them) should start manipulating in new ways claims about God and God’s ways with the world.

(In fact, because (a) belief in God is not truly at stake for Aquinas in the Five Ways, and because (b) the Ways lead inevitably to discussion of the manner of God’s existence, there is a sense in which (as I once heard Nicholas Lash say), Aquinas asks ‘Does God exist’ in the same way that one might ask ‘Does the number 2 exist?’ – that is, he asks in what sense it is proper to use ‘existence’ language of God.)

The Ways should prevent the theologian from taking claims about God as if they were straightforwardly, unproblematically descriptive claims. After all, our language is fitted for talking about the world precisely in insofar as it is intelligible – insofar as it can be gripped by thought, brought under concepts, arranged, and spoken. The Ways, as I have been stressing, show that the strings of such intelligibility must be snipped in the case of God, even though it is that intelligibility that itself demands reference to God.

The Ways provide a pair of scissors for snipping the cords that tie our language about God to our grasp.

They also, however, set out the way in which language about God can work. As it were, having knocked over any language about God which tries to stand on its own two feet, they allow it to get up again provided that it can stand upon God’s creation – upon the patterns of God’s ways with the world. The Ways suggest a certain kind of decoding of theological language: claims about God will always be claims about God as the Mystery who has done this or that with the world – ‘God as the beginning and end of creatures.’ (For us, even talk about God’s immanent life is and can only be talk about the life of the God who creates, guides and saves the world.)

These ground rules do not say everything that needs to be said about God. They do not implicitly contain the whole content of theology. They do, however, provide rules by which any theological content can be stated, arranged, and manipulated – how it can form the basis of arguments, rather than remaining as the expostulations of unreasoning faith. The Ways are, for Aquinas, a necessary first step; they make theology possible.

Reading the Five Ways 12

Reading the Five Ways
12. The Ways to mystery

The Five Ways begin with the intelligibility of the world, and end with the assertion that something must end the chains of question and answer that constitute that intelligibility. Implicitly (in a way that his later arguments will make explicit), the same Ways that demonstrate the necessity of some such answer at the same time show that this answer is bound to be deeply incomprehensible. In other words, the Ways are arguments that lead from intelligibility to mystery.

My invocation of ‘mystery’ is here not meant to be any kind of hand-waving resignation of intellectual responsibility. The mysteriousness that stands at the end point of Aquinas’ arguments is a direct consequence of those arguments. When, in the ensuing discussion of the ‘manner of being’ that God is, Aquinas makes his explicit case for the mysteriousness implicit in the Five Ways, he is extremely precise about what kind of mystery he means: he shows that the Ways unavoidably lead us to characterise the answer they point to by a series of negations: this ‘X’ that the Ways point to is not a body, is not composed of form and matter, does not allow us to distinguish its essence from its existence, and so on. Those negations do not simply mean that the ‘X’ we are talking about is unlike anything we have met before; they make it impossible to give any kind of direct, positive description of ‘X’ at all. Without making the nature of X in any way self-contradictory, the Ways snip the cords that hold our ordinary language together. The Ways are, for Aquinas, a rational demonstration that the pinnacle of rational understanding – the heart and summit of our attempt to make full sense of the intelligible world – must be mystery.

I am reminded of a remark by Karen Kilby, in her paper, ‘Mathematics, Beauty and Theology’:

one of the beauties of some theology [is] that it aims to advance our knowledge not by letting us comprehend God just a little bit more, but by making us more aware of the incomprehensibility of God. Theology is at its most elegant … when the mystery of God and the clarity of the theology are directly, rather than inversely, related. Theology does not at its best, or at least at its most beautiful, acknowledge the mystery of God by vagueness in its formulations or half-heartedness in its assertions, nor does it achieve intellectual seriousness by in the end knowing quite a lot about God; at its most elegant, the more precise it is, the more effective it is in presenting us with the ungraspability of God. Part of the attraction of thinkers like Aquinas … is the way in which considerable intellectual resources and rigor are devoted to bringing to clarity the mysteriousness of God…

Reading the Five Ways 11

Reading the Five Ways
11. ‘This is what everybody understands by God’?

Where do these Five Ways get Aquinas? Assuming that the world is ultimately intelligible, in the senses described, there must be some way in which the chains of ‘Why?’ questions stop, some answer that they reach which is an answer of a different kind. We can give this ‘answer of a different kind’ various abstract names: the unmoved mover, the uncaused cause, the necessary being on which all contingent being rests, and so on – and to do so is to do no more than to spell out what an ‘answer of a different kind’ means. We are, Aquinas has argued, looking for an answer that is not itself question begging – and all we know at this point is that there must be some such answer, not what it is, or (in Aquinas’ words) what manner of being it is.

Admittedly, it looks on a casual reading like Aquinas claims rather more than this. The first Way finishes, ‘Hence one is bound to arrive at some first cause of change not itself being changed by anything, and this is what everybody understands by “God”.’ The second way finishes, ‘One is therefore forced to suppose some first cause, to which everyone gives the name “God”.’ The third way simply finishes, ‘One is therefore forced to suppose something which must be, and owes this to no other thing than itself; indeed, it itself is the cause that other things must be.’ The fourth Way, however, finishes, ‘There is something therefore which causes in all other things their being, their goodness, and whatever other perfection they have. And this we call “God”.’ And the fifth: ‘Everything in nature, therefore, is directed to its goal by something with understanding, and this we call “God”.

There are two slightly different ways of understanding what is going on here. One might (and I think with somewhat lesser plausibility) think that Aquinas is here directly addressing the person who believes in God but not in God’s demonstrability. ‘Look,’ he would be saying, ‘I’ve shown that “demonstrability” reaches as far as the existence of a first principle, an unmoved mover, a something on which all else depends… are you really going to tell me that this something is different from the God you already believe in? No, of course you are not: that would be an absurd refusal to use “God” in the way that all believing people do – as the creator of the world, who depends on nothing for his own existence. So, see, your God is demonstrable.’

A more plausible interpretation, I think, is that Aquinas is simply saying, ‘Let’s use the word “God” as a placeholder to name the “something” that these Ways point to, on the basis that “God” has always been the term used for the unmoved mover, the first cause, etc.’ In other words, by using the word ‘God’ here, he is making no further assumptions about what kind of reality this “God” is. The introduction of the name ‘God’ at this point is not an argument; it adds nothing (except some handy terminology) to the conclusions reached by the Five Ways.

Now, in the next section of the Summa, still without going beyond what is strictly contained in the endpoint reached by the Ways, Aquinas will go to go on to ask what it means for something to be an unmoved mover, first cause, and so on. And then, still later, he will go further, and ask whether and in what senses this reality can have applied to it the descriptions that Christians apply to God. In other words, although he thinks he has demonstrated that ‘God’ exists, he does not at this point think he has demonstrated what this God is, or whether it is the same reality as the ‘God’ named in Christian faith.

Of course, were the Five Ways directly addressed to atheist or sceptical readers, this strategy would need to be spelt out rather more clearly. Aquinas would need, perhaps, to do more to justify using the word ‘God’ as a placeholder, perhaps introducing it rather later; and he would need to do more to point out the way in which he is building an argument for the connection between this ‘God’ of the Five Ways and the God of Christian faith (rather than making that connection with a question-begging assertion). The Five Ways are, however, written primarily with an eye to those who already believe in God, but who need to be convinced of God’s demonstrability (and so of the possibility of a certain kind of rational discourse about God) – and so Aquinas’ does not bother to pick his terminology, or to signpost his route, in the best way to assuage sceptical doubts.

If, then, we are to translate Aquinas’ argument into a form suitable for an atheist audience, we might delete his claim that ‘everybody’ will happily use ‘God’ to name the end-point to which the Five Ways point. We might, instead, simply say: ‘Let X be whatever it is that answers these questions without begging further questions. X is the unmoved mover, the uncaused cause, the self-existent cause of existence and so on. Now, what manner of reality must this X be?

(Note, by the way, that we have not shown that each of the Ways leads to the same reality, or that any one of them leads to a single, unique reality. So ‘X’ might name a whole set of realities – and that is one of the possibilities we will have to consider when asking what manner of reality X is.)

All this means, to repeat the point once more, that the Five Ways are radically incomplete on their own. Only if you carry on into the much longer and much more detailed arguments in Questions 3 to 11 of the Summa – the doctrine of divine Simplicity, and what follows from it – do you find Aquinas discussing the kind of reality that his proofs have demonstrated. And so only if you carry on into that material can you judge whether Aquinas is right to call it ‘God’.

It is probably worth saying here that if the arguments in Questions 3 to 11 show anything, it is that any reality that answers the questions posed in the Five Ways (without itself begging further questions) is going to be a very, very strange reality indeed – and one that is extremely difficult to talk about directly. Whatever ‘X’ is, it is not a reality that fits easily into any of our categorisations, or onto any of our lists: it is not in any sense going to be just one more ‘thing’ (albeit a rather special thing) in the list of things that there are. But that’s another story.