Reading the Five Ways 16

In my earlier explorations of Aquinas’ Five Ways (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15), I made the following suggestion for what the argument would look like if addressed to an atheist (having earlier argued that atheists were not the primary addressees).

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?’ … 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’.

I’m not quite so convinced of that point now – or rather, I think I put it a little too strongly. It seems to downplay at least the fourth and fifth ways, which lead Aquinas to more positive characterisations of this ‘X’, because they lead him in some sense to attribute, respectively goodness (or, better, perfection) and intelligence to this X that undergirds the world. Nevertheless, that weasel phrase ‘in some sense’ remains a necessary part of that sentence – and I think it means that I can still more-or-less keep hold of my point: Aquinas has yet to discuss what on earth we might mean by attributing such things to the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover, of the other ways, and is yet to connect that to the fuller language of Christian theology, with its descriptions of God in personal terms. Nevertheless, the ‘X’ is not as bare as my earlier comments might have suggested, and the leap to calling it ‘God’ not quite as foolhardy.

Note that this is simply a claim about what Aquinas was up to with the Five Ways, not a claim about whether they work. I’m still of the opinion that they can only really be retrieved as a proposal for a metaphysical articulation of Christian claims about creation: a way of naming the world’s contingency and of reading that contingency as God’s gift, and of reading the mystery of God’s life as deeper than such contingency. But precisely because I am interested in that kind of retrieval, I think the Fourth and Fifth ways – particularly the Fourth – much more interesting and suggestive than their evident weakness as arguments addressed to contemporary atheists might suggest.

One Thought on “Reading the Five Ways 16

  1. Isaac Gouy on August 11, 2008 at 2:21 am said:

    > Note that this is simply a claim about what Aquinas was up to with the Five Ways, not a claim about whether they work.

    Eventually I found my way to “The Five Ways” Anthony Kenny, which seems to make detailed specific arguments for why the Five Ways do not work even in their own terms – in one case we read “no counterexample was used which might not have been observed in a medieval kitchen”, in another the error of logic was noticed by a sixteenth-commentator.

    Would it matter if the Five Ways are false arguments?

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