Reading the Five Ways 6

Reading the Five Ways
6. The First Way

I can’t in good conscience conduct a detailed discussion of Aquinas’ Five Ways without – well – giving a detailed discussion of the Ways themselves. So in the next few sections I will go through each Way in turn. You can, however, quite easily find plenty of more detailed accounts that do exactly the same, and I don’t think what follows is particularly original – or, indeed, particularly interesting. If you’re bored, skip along to part 11, where my own argument about the import of all this for Aquinas (and for us) gets going again. However, for the sake of obsessive completeness, here goes.

The first Way in which Aquinas’ philosophical concepts help him to articulate his vision of an intelligible world focuses on motion – or, to be more accurate, change. He is enabled to see the world as an interlocking system of changes: of movements, of alterations, of flourishing and decay, of comings-to-be and passings-away. And he thinks that whenever you see some such change, you are seeing a form of dependency: you are seeing something that is somehow not simply changing, but being changed. He thinks, in other words, that when faced with any change, you can ask ‘Why?’, and expect an answer other than the change itself – in fact, an answer that will involve some other change. And the fact of such dependency means that all those changes can be arranged into chains, and that Aquinas can launch the kind of argument described above: demonstrating the necessity that the chain have an end-point.

By the way – if you find Aquinas’ philosophical terminology daunting, you might like to know that the First Way has been set (in outline) to music, in the second verse of Abide With Me:

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see:
O thou who changest not, abide with me!

WatchIf you want to get a clear mental picture of what the first Way says about the world, it is worth noting that the chains that Aquinas joins together are not necessarily in themselves temporal (even though each link in the chains is itself a temporal change). Aquinas is not presenting a picture of each new change depending upon some other change that took place some time before. Rather, he pictures the world as something more like a clock: the hands move because the spindle they are attached to moves; that spindle moves because this cog moves; this cog moves because that one does; that one does because the escapement mechanism moves; the mechanism moves because the pendulum moves: the clock as a whole is an ordered set of interlocking movements and dependencies.

This picture may seem clear enough, perhaps even compelling, but to translate it fully into contemporary terms turns out to take some real labour. That’s because our understanding of motion has changed (strange though that might sound), and, even if we restrict ourselves to motion in the most straightforward sense (movement through space), the kind of dependency that Aquinas sees is more evident to us in acceleration (change of motion) than in uniform motion per se. (You may recall that Newton’s First Law – a decidedly non-Aristotelian piece of work – says that ‘Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.’) From acceleration, we therefore quickly enter a conceptual world not of motion–dependent–upon–motion, but of motion tangled up with force, and so with energy, with fields, and with the whole paraphernalia of modern physics. Before very long, we’ve reached territory where the path of Aquinas’ argument becomes rather indistinct.

So, although for Aquinas this first Way is the ‘most obvious’, and although it is still initially easy to grasp, it does rather run into the sand as it crosses from Aquinas’ century to ours. Aquinas’ concept of ‘motion’ is already pretty general, but I think we need to take a further step in the direction of abstraction if we are to keep Aquinas’ show on the road. Fortuitously, that is precisely what Aquinas’ second Way seems to me to do.

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