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’.

One Thought on “Reading the Five Ways 15

  1. Isaac Gouy on May 6, 2008 at 5:30 pm said:

    > 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 …

    Well it was just an assumption.

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