Reading the Five Ways 8

Reading the Five Ways
8. The third Way

Somewhere in TimeIn the 1980 film Somewhere in Time, a young actor is handed a pocket-watch by an elderly female stranger. He later discovers that she had been a famous actress decades before, and (this being cinema) discovers a way to travel back in time to meet her as a young woman.

When he finds her, he gives her the same pocket watch that she (decades in the future) will give back to him. The watch therefore ‘loops’ around in time. There’s no point at which it is manufactured: it simply is. And yet there is something deeply odd about that, and you can’t help feeling that the watch’s existence is unintelligible.

If, when watching the film, you feel that sense of unintelligibility, Aquinas (like an old-style cinema usherette) will be there to offer you some concepts for making sense of that feeling. (But please remember: the concepts that he offers have nothing to do with Paley’s design argument: that was a different watch altogether).

The watch, Aquinas would say, is contingent, in that it is quite possible that the world could have contained no such watch; it is possible for the watch not to be. And yet the watch is, and therefore there must be some reason why it is – even if (in this imaginary case) we can’t quite get that question into a straightforward causal and temporal form.

This is brilliant stuff – but there is a real problem in Aquinas’ way of weaving these concepts into his third argument. He sets up the idea of contingent existence (the existence of things that need not exist, whose existence requires explanation; things whose existence depends on something other than themselves) – and so seems to have set up the possibility of yet another kind of ‘chain’ linking the facts of the world into intelligible order. But in the event, Aquinas does not run a version of the argument he has used in the first two Ways. Instead, he says

a thing that need not be, once was not; and if everything need not be, once upon a time there was nothing. But if that were true there would be nothing even now, because something that does not exist can only be brought into being by something already existing. (1a.2.3)

I’ll leave the translation, interpretation and criticism of that version of the argument to the experts (you know, the people who actually know what they’re talking about). It seems to me that, instead of following the details of Aquinas’ presentation, we can take this third Way as a regression just like the first two – and, if we do, I think it provides the most powerful argument of the three, because it asks the most basic ‘Why?’ question of all. Faced with some reality in the world, it doesn’t ask, ‘Why does this change in the way that it does?’ nor ‘Why does it act in the way that it does?’ but ‘Why is it there at all?

The third Way recognises that nothing in the world is sufficient in itself to answer all the questions we might have about it – so some of our questions will always take us beyond the object in question. And it recognises that the world itself is insufficient to answer all our questions about it. The world leaves us asking, at very least, Why is there something rather than nothing? – and (to Aquinas at least) the world does not seem itself to be capable of providing any answer to that question.

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