Reading the Five Ways 2

Reading the Five Ways
2. Who is Aquinas trying to convince?

The Five Ways do not appear right at the beginning of the Question ‘Whether there is a God’. They come in the third article, and it is important to read the other two on the way.

The first article argues that it is not self-evident that there is a God: we are not innately aware of God, and (against the claims of theologians like Anselm – of whom more another time) the existence of God does not follow simply from the definition of the word ‘God’. (Alongside these two denials, there is a third (1a.2.1 ad 3), of an argument about the undeniability of the existence of truth. This seems to me to be one of those many occasions when Aquinas has included an argument in an article simply as a make-weight, or as a jeu-d’esprit. I can’t see that either the posing or the refutation of this argument contributes materially to the article.)

The second article, working within the space opened up by the first, argues against those who say that the existence of God, not being self-evident, should simply be accepted on faith. No, says Aquinas, it is possible to demonstrate the existence of God. It is not directly evident that God exists, but it is possible to make it evident by looking at the world that God has made.

The third article then tries to fulfil the promise that this second article has made: it aims to show us how the existence of God is in fact demonstrable, by working from things we know about our world.

If these three articles are taken together, I don’t think it is quite right to say that the existence of God is at stake in Aquinas’ third article, even though that is how the third article itself is apparently framed. By this I simply mean that if Aquinas’ arguments in the Five Ways should fail (and if he should be unable to repair the failure) he would be failing to fulfil the promise made in his second article, and so would be thrown back on the idea that God’s existence can only be accepted by faith. After all, his argument in the second article is not that there was something wrong with accepting God’s existence on faith, simply that something more than that was possible and appropriate. (At one point in the second article he says, in the course of making a slightly different point, ‘there is nothing to stop a man accepting on faith some truth which he personally cannot demonstrate, even if that truth is such that demonstration could make it evident.’ I am suggesting that, for Aquinas, there is nothing to stop him accepting on faith the existence of God, should he fail to demonstrate it, even if that is because it is finally indemonstrable.)

If this is right, the Five Ways matter to Aquinas not, I think, because his belief in God rests upon them, but rather because a certain way of pursuing rational understanding of God rests upon them. To put it another way: Aquinas is not, I think, directly addressing those who think that the only possible way in which belief in God could properly arise is if the Five Ways (or some argument like them) work and so give reason to believe to people who should otherwise firmly reject the idea of God. He is addressing those who think that there is no need for such a demonstration, because they already believe in God and see no need for further supports.

I am not suggesting that the Five Ways are not meant as a real demonstration of the existence of God. That is, I am not denying that the Five Ways are an attempt at a demonstration that starts from the kind of knowledge of the world that might be shared by the other kind of addressee – a sceptic or atheist, for instance. Nevertheless, I am suggesting that if we are to extract from the Five Ways an argument addressed to a sceptic or atheist, we will have to do some translating. That’s going to have to remain as a cryptic comment for now, but I promise I will unpack it further when the time comes.

I think, by the way, that we can already give an initial answer to one of the questions I posed in the last section, about the precise sense in which Aquinas’ argument begins with this material on God’s existence. Aquinas’ central intention in these three artices is, I think, to show how a bridge can be built from knowledge of our world to knowledge of God; that’s what it means to show that God’s existence is demonstrable. Much of the rest of the Summa then consists of driving all sorts of freight over that bridge, in both directions (remember once again Aquinas’ overall purpose for the Summa is to ‘make God known … as the beginning and end of all things.) If this is right then the 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.

3 Thoughts on “Reading the Five Ways 2

  1. Isaac Gouy on May 6, 2008 at 4:34 pm said:

    > He is addressing those who think that there is no need for such a demonstration, because they already believe in God and see no need for further supports.

    aka preaching to the choir

  2. Preaching to the choir? Yes, if by that you simply mean ‘addressing the people for whom the book was written, in order to tackle their questions’. No, if you means that he was writing simply to confirm his readers’ prejudices, or to bask in his agreement with them. He addresses those who think that God is not demonstrable because there is no need for such demonstration, and argues that there God is indeed demonstrable, and that it matters that God is demonstrable. He disagrees with them, and he argues with them.

  3. Isaac Gouy on May 9, 2008 at 12:29 am said:


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