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Reading the Five Ways 9

Reading the Five Ways
9 The Fourth Way

The fourth Way is the hardest for a modern reader to make sense of, because it relies upon aspects of Aquinas’ worldview that don’t have strong echoes for a typical modern audience.

Like the first three Ways, the fourth relies upon a form of intelligibility that Aquinas thinks we find in the world. We properly arrange things into hierarchies of ‘more’ or ‘less’ (things are taller or shorter than one another, heavier or lighter, nobler or less noble, better or worse, and so on). And Aquinas takes it as read that there are certain crucial hierarchies which work in a special way – where to say a thing is ‘more x’ or ‘less x’ is to compare it to some reality which is fully x.

I say that Aquinas ‘takes it as read’. He doesn’t argue for this point; he simply states it, using Aristotelian terminology to articulate a basic conviction that he thinks his readers will (perhaps inarticulately) share.

sunWe are not those readers, and this claim sounds very strange in our ears. You can get a sense for it, though, by thinking about heat. You can, perhaps, imagine a worldview in which all heat in the world was believed ultimately to be derived from the sun, either as a direct result of the sun’s heat warming something up, or because the sun’s heat had somehow been stored in things to be released when they were burnt (or by some other process). If you saw things in this way, you might well regard claims about things on earth being more or less hot as involving the placement of those things somewhere on a scale that ran all the way up to the sun: ‘heat’ would, for you, mean ‘likeness to the sun’.

Aquinas is, of course, not really interested in whether this is true of heat. Rather, he speaks of truth, goodness and nobility. He suggests to his readers that at least these attributes – which, as we shall see, are rather special – work in the way he is describing. Nevertheless, he still doesn’t argue the point: this is, as I read it, Aquinas trying to draw out and articulating aspects of what he thinks his readers will already know. That is, he thinks his readers will readily agree that one of the ways in which the world is intelligible is that the things in it are arranged into hierarchies of value, being more and less good, more and less true, more and less noble, etc. And he thinks he can rely upon his readers to agree, without much fanfare, that things in the world are more or less good, noble and true to the extent that they resemble some reality that is superlatively Good, or superlatively Noble, or superlatively True.

He then does two things – and it is at this point that he is, I think, actually trying to build something on the ground he shares with his readers, rather than contenting himself with uncovering that ground. First, he tells his readers that these attributes are indeed rather special. There is, Aquinas believes, an intimate connection between goodness, truth, nobility, and being. He believes (with Aristotle’s support) that the scale on which things are more or less true (or good, or noble) is intimately tied up with a scale on which their existence, their being, is more or less fully realised. That is, he believes that things that are less true (or good, or noble) are in some sense deficient in being. So the scales of goodness, nobility, truth, and being are not independent scales (mutually perpendicular axes marking out a conceptual space in which the objects of the world sit) but aspects of a single scale. And what is true of the individual aspects of this scale must a fortiori be true of the scale itself. Things are (and so are good etc) to a greater or lesser degree, precisely to the extent that they resemble a reality that fully is (and so is fully good etc).

Second, he reminds his readers (again, with Aristotle’s help) that, in this sort of hierarchy, the superlative reality (e.g., the sun) is not simply the standard by which all other things are measured (e.g., as more or less hot) – it is the cause of their position on that scale (i.e., things are more or less hot because the sun has heated them to some degree or another). So if there is indeed a fully-realised being which is wholly True, wholly Good, wholly Noble (as his previous point suggested), that being will be the cause of whatever nobility, whatever goodness, whatever truth, whatever being there is. And that, at last, is the point where Aquinas has been headed all along with this fourth Way: to the idea of a fully realised being which is the cause of all other being. Where he ends up, in other words, is not that different from the point that the previous three Ways led to.

The compressed argument of this fourth Way is addressed to those who already think in an explicitly or implicitly Aristotelian way. In fact, Aquinas does not argue very much at all in it. He simply refers the reader to a few ideas of which they ought to need no convincing (the idea that certain kinds of hierarchy of value involve relation to a superlative that is the measure of the hierarchy, the idea that the superlative of such a hierarchy is the cause of whatever in other things approximates to it, and the idea that being is closely related to goodness, truth and nobility). And the only argument he mounts consists in putting these ideas together, rather straightforwardly, to yield the conclusion he has been aiming at.

Now, for those of us who do not automatically share his starting point, it might nevertheless be possible to argue for this way of seeing things – to demonstrate that (despite our doubts) there is truth in the ideas on which Aquinas builds in this Way. For a modern readership, however, in the absence of such a demonstration, these ideas are likely to seem like they belong somewhere on the road between implausible and nonsensical. For this reason the fourth Way is, I think, the hardest of the Ways to resurrect.

Reading the Five Ways 8

Reading the Five Ways
8. The third Way

Somewhere in TimeIn the 1980 film Somewhere in Time, a young actor is handed a pocket-watch by an elderly female stranger. He later discovers that she had been a famous actress decades before, and (this being cinema) discovers a way to travel back in time to meet her as a young woman.

When he finds her, he gives her the same pocket watch that she (decades in the future) will give back to him. The watch therefore ‘loops’ around in time. There’s no point at which it is manufactured: it simply is. And yet there is something deeply odd about that, and you can’t help feeling that the watch’s existence is unintelligible.

If, when watching the film, you feel that sense of unintelligibility, Aquinas (like an old-style cinema usherette) will be there to offer you some concepts for making sense of that feeling. (But please remember: the concepts that he offers have nothing to do with Paley’s design argument: that was a different watch altogether).

The watch, Aquinas would say, is contingent, in that it is quite possible that the world could have contained no such watch; it is possible for the watch not to be. And yet the watch is, and therefore there must be some reason why it is – even if (in this imaginary case) we can’t quite get that question into a straightforward causal and temporal form.

This is brilliant stuff – but there is a real problem in Aquinas’ way of weaving these concepts into his third argument. He sets up the idea of contingent existence (the existence of things that need not exist, whose existence requires explanation; things whose existence depends on something other than themselves) – and so seems to have set up the possibility of yet another kind of ‘chain’ linking the facts of the world into intelligible order. But in the event, Aquinas does not run a version of the argument he has used in the first two Ways. Instead, he says

a thing that need not be, once was not; and if everything need not be, once upon a time there was nothing. But if that were true there would be nothing even now, because something that does not exist can only be brought into being by something already existing. (1a.2.3)

I’ll leave the translation, interpretation and criticism of that version of the argument to the experts (you know, the people who actually know what they’re talking about). It seems to me that, instead of following the details of Aquinas’ presentation, we can take this third Way as a regression just like the first two – and, if we do, I think it provides the most powerful argument of the three, because it asks the most basic ‘Why?’ question of all. Faced with some reality in the world, it doesn’t ask, ‘Why does this change in the way that it does?’ nor ‘Why does it act in the way that it does?’ but ‘Why is it there at all?

The third Way recognises that nothing in the world is sufficient in itself to answer all the questions we might have about it – so some of our questions will always take us beyond the object in question. And it recognises that the world itself is insufficient to answer all our questions about it. The world leaves us asking, at very least, Why is there something rather than nothing? – and (to Aquinas at least) the world does not seem itself to be capable of providing any answer to that question.