Reading the Five Ways 7

Reading the Five Ways
7. The Second Way

The Second Way covers very similar ground to the first. Instead, however, of focusing on ‘motion’ (i.e., change), and the dependency involved in it – i.e., instead of focusing upon the fact that each link in a chain needs to be suspended from some other link above it – Aquinas shifts his focus onto the active causal relationships that hold the chain together – i.e., he shifts his focus onto the way in which the links of the chain hold on to one another.

At the same time, his discussion takes a step that seems to take us towards greater abstraction: ‘cause’ seems to cover a wider conceptual territory than ‘motion/change’. Certainly, when faced with some event in the world, we can ask ‘Why did that happen?’, and the answer we give does not necessarily itself have to take the form of an event or happening.

This is perhaps the Way most clearly connected to my earlier descriptions of Aquinas’ belief in the ‘intelligibility of the world’. Aquinas is, in effect, sketching a world in which it is always possible to ask ‘Why?‘, and always certain that there is an answer – even if that answer should be one that we have not found, and even if for some reason it should bee an answer that we will never find. Once again, the concepts he wields allow him to start articulating the intelligible texture of the world.

This second Way is, I think, easier than the first to translate into the twenty-first century – but it is also true that strange things happen when we try. Suppose I ask, ‘Why is that stone falling?’ and you reply ‘Because it has fallen off the ledge, and is no longer supported by anything, and because unsupported objects that are heavier than air do indeed fall.’ Things will remain fairly straightforward if I go on to ask, ‘Why did it fall off the ledge?’ and get the answer, ‘Because it was hit by this cat.’ It’s easy to imagine us getting into quite a long chain of questions and answers heading backwards from that point. But what happens if, instead, I ask, ‘Why do unsupported objects that are heavier than air fall?’ Your answer will probably cite the law of gravity, and then we’re going to get into all sorts of questions about why the law of gravity takes the form that it does, and why there is a law of gravity at all.

In other words, if we pursue this causal chain, we will rather quickly (at the top of a rather short chain) get into apparently imponderable territory. Even if the details of the law of gravity can be made to drop out of some deeper, more unified theory of the universe, it seems to me that, if I keep asking ‘Why?’ as we travel up this chain, you are pretty quickly going to face the temptation to shrug your shoulder and say, ‘Well, that’s simply the way things are.’ And that, I think, brings us to Aquinas’ third Way.

(You should remember, by the way, that is not quite the direction that Aquinas takes in his second Way: it is, rather, my attempt at translation – at developing a similar argument in our own terms to the one that Aquinas mounts in his thirteenth-century terms. The whole idiom in which I can speak about ‘the law of gravity’ and the like would, I think, be foreign to Aquinas.)

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