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Reading the Five Ways 7

Reading the Five Ways
7. The Second Way

The Second Way covers very similar ground to the first. Instead, however, of focusing on ‘motion’ (i.e., change), and the dependency involved in it – i.e., instead of focusing upon the fact that each link in a chain needs to be suspended from some other link above it – Aquinas shifts his focus onto the active causal relationships that hold the chain together – i.e., he shifts his focus onto the way in which the links of the chain hold on to one another.

At the same time, his discussion takes a step that seems to take us towards greater abstraction: ‘cause’ seems to cover a wider conceptual territory than ‘motion/change’. Certainly, when faced with some event in the world, we can ask ‘Why did that happen?’, and the answer we give does not necessarily itself have to take the form of an event or happening.

This is perhaps the Way most clearly connected to my earlier descriptions of Aquinas’ belief in the ‘intelligibility of the world’. Aquinas is, in effect, sketching a world in which it is always possible to ask ‘Why?‘, and always certain that there is an answer – even if that answer should be one that we have not found, and even if for some reason it should bee an answer that we will never find. Once again, the concepts he wields allow him to start articulating the intelligible texture of the world.

This second Way is, I think, easier than the first to translate into the twenty-first century – but it is also true that strange things happen when we try. Suppose I ask, ‘Why is that stone falling?’ and you reply ‘Because it has fallen off the ledge, and is no longer supported by anything, and because unsupported objects that are heavier than air do indeed fall.’ Things will remain fairly straightforward if I go on to ask, ‘Why did it fall off the ledge?’ and get the answer, ‘Because it was hit by this cat.’ It’s easy to imagine us getting into quite a long chain of questions and answers heading backwards from that point. But what happens if, instead, I ask, ‘Why do unsupported objects that are heavier than air fall?’ Your answer will probably cite the law of gravity, and then we’re going to get into all sorts of questions about why the law of gravity takes the form that it does, and why there is a law of gravity at all.

In other words, if we pursue this causal chain, we will rather quickly (at the top of a rather short chain) get into apparently imponderable territory. Even if the details of the law of gravity can be made to drop out of some deeper, more unified theory of the universe, it seems to me that, if I keep asking ‘Why?’ as we travel up this chain, you are pretty quickly going to face the temptation to shrug your shoulder and say, ‘Well, that’s simply the way things are.’ And that, I think, brings us to Aquinas’ third Way.

(You should remember, by the way, that is not quite the direction that Aquinas takes in his second Way: it is, rather, my attempt at translation – at developing a similar argument in our own terms to the one that Aquinas mounts in his thirteenth-century terms. The whole idiom in which I can speak about ‘the law of gravity’ and the like would, I think, be foreign to Aquinas.)

Reading the Five Ways 6

Reading the Five Ways
6. The First Way

I can’t in good conscience conduct a detailed discussion of Aquinas’ Five Ways without – well – giving a detailed discussion of the Ways themselves. So in the next few sections I will go through each Way in turn. You can, however, quite easily find plenty of more detailed accounts that do exactly the same, and I don’t think what follows is particularly original – or, indeed, particularly interesting. If you’re bored, skip along to part 11, where my own argument about the import of all this for Aquinas (and for us) gets going again. However, for the sake of obsessive completeness, here goes.

The first Way in which Aquinas’ philosophical concepts help him to articulate his vision of an intelligible world focuses on motion – or, to be more accurate, change. He is enabled to see the world as an interlocking system of changes: of movements, of alterations, of flourishing and decay, of comings-to-be and passings-away. And he thinks that whenever you see some such change, you are seeing a form of dependency: you are seeing something that is somehow not simply changing, but being changed. He thinks, in other words, that when faced with any change, you can ask ‘Why?’, and expect an answer other than the change itself – in fact, an answer that will involve some other change. And the fact of such dependency means that all those changes can be arranged into chains, and that Aquinas can launch the kind of argument described above: demonstrating the necessity that the chain have an end-point.

By the way – if you find Aquinas’ philosophical terminology daunting, you might like to know that the First Way has been set (in outline) to music, in the second verse of Abide With Me:

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see:
O thou who changest not, abide with me!

WatchIf you want to get a clear mental picture of what the first Way says about the world, it is worth noting that the chains that Aquinas joins together are not necessarily in themselves temporal (even though each link in the chains is itself a temporal change). Aquinas is not presenting a picture of each new change depending upon some other change that took place some time before. Rather, he pictures the world as something more like a clock: the hands move because the spindle they are attached to moves; that spindle moves because this cog moves; this cog moves because that one does; that one does because the escapement mechanism moves; the mechanism moves because the pendulum moves: the clock as a whole is an ordered set of interlocking movements and dependencies.

This picture may seem clear enough, perhaps even compelling, but to translate it fully into contemporary terms turns out to take some real labour. That’s because our understanding of motion has changed (strange though that might sound), and, even if we restrict ourselves to motion in the most straightforward sense (movement through space), the kind of dependency that Aquinas sees is more evident to us in acceleration (change of motion) than in uniform motion per se. (You may recall that Newton’s First Law – a decidedly non-Aristotelian piece of work – says that ‘Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.’) From acceleration, we therefore quickly enter a conceptual world not of motion–dependent–upon–motion, but of motion tangled up with force, and so with energy, with fields, and with the whole paraphernalia of modern physics. Before very long, we’ve reached territory where the path of Aquinas’ argument becomes rather indistinct.

So, although for Aquinas this first Way is the ‘most obvious’, and although it is still initially easy to grasp, it does rather run into the sand as it crosses from Aquinas’ century to ours. Aquinas’ concept of ‘motion’ is already pretty general, but I think we need to take a further step in the direction of abstraction if we are to keep Aquinas’ show on the road. Fortuitously, that is precisely what Aquinas’ second Way seems to me to do.

Reading the Five Ways 5

Reading the Five Ways
5. Using Aristotle

AristotleAquinas is able to see his world as an intelligible one because he looks through a lens polished by certain concepts. Those concepts help him articulate the world’s intelligibility.

That is, Aquinas has learnt a set of concepts that allow him to see how one link can be connected to another link, and which therefore help him to see what was previously a pile of unconnected and heaped rings as a collection of coiled chains. He has learnt those concepts in large part from Aristotle – though they have since Aristotle’s time been through a long process of transmission that has refined and rearranged them, and Aquinas himself is by no means uncritical of his inheritance. Those refined Aristotelian concepts provide, in Aquinas’ thirteenth century, an astonishingly powerful way of asking and answering questions about the world.

Aquinas in his Five Ways uses this set of concepts to give content to his basic intuition about the intelligibility of the world. Each Way in its different idiom says: Look, here are the kinds of ways in which the world is linked together into an intelligible whole; here are some of the basic ways in which unruly facts are joined together into chains that we can grasp and tug; what happens when we follow those chains upwards?

Now, Aquinas’ context is not ours, and we no longer habitually use Aristotelian scalpels to conduct our vivisection of the world. That’s not simply a matter of ‘science’ having moved on: a lot of the concepts that we’re talking about are not, in our terms, ‘scientific’ at all: they’re metaphysical, and the ways in which metaphysics has moved on are much less obvious than the ways in which ‘science’ has moved on. Nevertheless, things have moved on, and any attempt to make contemporary sense of Aquinas’ Five Ways is bound to involve some kind of translation. That is, it is bound to involve trying to understand how his arguments worked in terms of the concepts and intellectual practices of his own day, and then see whether we can reconstruct some kind of similar argument using the concepts and intellectual practices of our own.

That’s not because Aquinas was backward, and we are not; it is because he, like us, lived in history. Anyone reading my words, or Richard Dawkins’, in 750 years time (now there’s a thought) will have to perform some similar form of translation if they want to follow and judge our arguments, and there is no way we can predict the ways in which our lines of thought will lie at a tangent to their patterns of common sense and intellectual discourse.

Reading the Five Ways 4

Reading the Five Ways
4. The intelligibility of the world

ChainImagine that you were walking across a foggy field, and suddenly found an iron chain dangling in front of you. The fog prevents you from seeing very high, but it is clear that the bottom link of the chain is dangling a foot or more above the ground. You can see that the bottom link is suspended from the second, the second from the third, and so on up to about the fiftieth – which is as far as you can see. You know, however, that the fiftieth link up must itself be suspended from something – and the chain seems securely suspended when you tug sharply downwards on it. Curious (and foolhardy), you climb a little way up the chain, and find that the fiftieth link is indeed suspended from the fifty-first, the fifty-first from the fifty-second, and so on and so on, as far up as you feel capable of climbing. You let yourself carefully back down to the ground.

If you were anything like Aquinas, even though you can’t see far into the fog, you would think it clear that had you been able to go on climbing, you would at some point have had to reach something which was not simply another link in the chain: some method or means of suspension of a different kind. You would think that the discovery of yet another link, or of any number of links, would not really count as an answer to your initial question: ‘Just what is holding this thing up?’

So, if you were anything like Aquinas, you would think it clear that at some point (you cannot say how far up) you must be going to encounter something that, unlike any given link in the chain, does not require you to ask what it is suspended from. You might speculate: perhaps it will be the outstretched arm of a crane which itself is resting upon the same floor from which you have climbed; perhaps it will be a wire strung between two nearby buildings. Or perhaps something more unusual: is the chain as a whole held up by some bizarre magnetic field? Or is it – I don’t know – held up by gravity at the Lagrange point between the earth and the moon? Who knows. Any kind of explanation which allows us to stop asking what the next link in the chain is suspended from will do.

The alternative would be that at some point you would simply come to the top of the chain, and find that your grasping hands closed on empty air, not because you have missed something (some other explanation, some other form of suspension) but because that is all there is, arbitrarily and incomprehensibly.

Or perhaps you would find that you could simply climb on up forever, which is another kind of arbitrary incomprehensibility. One link is no explanation, two links is no explanation, a million links are no explanation: to carry on discovering more links provides no explanation, even though one carry on forever.

So, either the world is radically incomprehensible – or, if the world is at all intelligible, then at some point there must be some kind of answer to the ‘What is this suspended from?’ question that does not simply consist in the identification of a set of higher links – an answer of a different kind. The assumption that there must be some such an answer – even if the fog should be so thick, or the chain so long, that we will in fact never discover it – is the assumption that the world is intelligible: that, at some level, the world makes sense.

In putting forward at least the first three of his Five Ways, it is this intelligibility of the world that provides the ground upon which Aquinas takes his stand.

There are two connected senses in which his ‘proofs’ trade on that intelligibility. In the first place, faced with the baffling complexity of things – their strange interlockings, the odd patterns of action and interaction that knot them together – he believes that we have a strategy to pursue to make sense of them. We can ask Why? – and we can go on asking it, doggedly and persistently, worrying away at the world like a terrier until it yields answers. We can be like a three-year-old, refusing every to stop with any partial or questionable answer offered to us, instead always and again asking, ‘But why?’ We may not yet be able to answer some of those questions. There may be some why questions that we will, in fact, never answer – questions whose answers are in some way beyond our capacity. But we can always go on asking, with a basic trust that even if we don’t know it yet there must be some kind of answer.

In the second place, however, Aquinas believes that things only truly become intelligible, and we only truly provide explanations, if the chain of answers that our questioning tugs on is suspended from some kind of end point. It may be beyond our present understanding; it may remain beyond our understanding – but if the world is at all intelligible, there must be some such end point. We trade upon that assumption, Aquinas thinks, every time we go around insistently tugging on chains.

Remember, however, what I said in the last section about the emptiness of the Five Ways. Aquinas says nothing in this section of the argument that tells you what this end-point must be, except what is bound up with the very idea of an end-point: it must be (in terms of my chain analogy) a something from which things are suspended that is not itself suspended from anything, a something that does not need to be suspended from anything: the chain can only stop at an unmoved mover, a first cause, a something whose existence depends on nothing but itself. In other words, the only content that he provides at this point – the only thing that he thinks the Five Ways prove – is that there is some kind of end-point which isn’t itself just another link in the chain.

(Yes, I realise that it looks like Aquinas does say more than that – but I’ll come back to that in a later section.)

Note two final things at this point. First, Aquinas’s assumption is not about our power to understand the world fully, to trace the chain all the way back to the source. Fundamentally, his assumption is about the world, not about our minds. Everything connects: the world is articulated – and that is why we can go on asking ‘Why?’.

Second, the full intelligibility of the world requires a transition from one kind of question to another. In Aquinas’ terms, the world’s intelligibility is a matter of both physics (the science of the chain links) and of the science of what comes beyond physics: metaphysics.