Reading the Five Ways 3

Reading the Five Ways
3. The emptiness of the Ways

In the first article, when arguing that ‘the awareness that God exists is not implanted in us by nature in any clear or specific way’, Aquinas uses the following analogy. ‘[T]o be aware of someone approaching is [not necessarily] to be aware of Peter, even if it should be Peter approaching.’ (1a.2.1 ad 1) In the terms of that analogy, the Five Ways are arguments that say, ‘Stop! Listen, someone is approaching!’ rather than arguments that claim to demonstrate who it is who is approaching. Rather than answering a question, the Five Ways pose a question that is only answered by subsequent Questions – and then only in rather indirect ways.

The article before the Five Ways article, which asks whether the existence of God can be made evident, explains this in some detail – though in rather abstruse terms. It explains the kind of ‘demonstration’ that is about to be offered.

Aquinas begins with one kind of ‘demonstration’. Suppose we are trying to demonstrate that Columbine will bring Arthur out in a red rash. Columbine is a cat, we might say, and all cats bring Arthur out in a red rash, so Columbine will indeed bring Arthur out in a red rash. Such a demonstration (Aquinas calls it a ‘demonstration why’ – a demonstratio quae) works because we have access to some kind of definition of the subject of the demonstration: we know what Columbine is. Such a demonstration involves, in fact, the arranging of what we already know – of what is already familiar – into an ordered whole.

In the Five Ways, however, we are faced with a different kind of demonstration – a ‘demonstration that‘ (demonstratio quia). Arthur has suddenly come out in a red rash, we say; there must be something – some rash-causing thing, some irritant – that has caused it. More slowly: we note that Arthur is red; we recognise that this redness is the effect of some cause; we decide to use the word ‘irritant’ to name something that causes this kind of redness; we infer that there must be some such irritant, because Arthur has indeed gone red – and we can then go on to ask other questions about this irritant. We don’t know what kind of thing the irritant is, except that it is a redness-causing thing. To say ‘there is an irritant’ is in an important sense empty: it does not tell us what we’re looking for (cat hair? an embarrassing joke? dust mites? sulphur dioxide? stress? the realisation that his flies are undone?), simply that we are indeed looking for a red-making thing of some kind. This kind of demonstration does not arrange what we already know; it shows us the limits and gaps in what we already know, and challenges us to fill them.

Just so, the Five Ways (when we finally get to them) are in effect going to say: looking at the world raises certain kinds of question. Let’s call the answer to those questions, whatever it is, ‘x’. X must exist, even though (at this point in the argument) we have no knowledge of what x is, other than it is the kind of thing that answers these questions. As Aquinas puts it in 1a.2.2 ad 3 ‘God’s effects, therefore, can serve to demonstrate that God exists, even though they cannot help us to know him comprehensively for what he is.’ As I said earlier, they are a way of saying ‘Listen! Someone’s coming’ rather than a way of telling us precisely who is coming.

It is only in the next set of Questions, after the Five Ways, that Aquinas will turn explicitly to asking ‘what manner of thing’ this x is, asking what would have to be true of x for x to count as an answer to the questions that the Five Ways have raised. Anyone who treats the Five Ways on their own, and then tells you that they are question-begging, is (on one level) absolutely right; that’s the point. On another level – well, you might want to choose a different guide.

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