Goal: To establish what Aquinas meant in these proofs for the existence of God by close reading of the Summa and reference to other texts; and to offer a critical evaluation of their arguments.
Guiding Thesis: “If we take these two Ways together [argument from causa movens and causa efficiens] we find that the distinction between the five ways reflects the distinction between the four causes” (36).
Conclusion: The proofs fail because they are too embedded in medieval cosmology, but this neither confirms nor disproves the existence of God.
Kenny’s argument is set against a series of debates within the philosophy of religion about proofs for the existence of God. Regarding Aquinas scholarship specifically, the question arises of how Aquinas intended these proofs to be read - as a way of giving content to the notion of divinity or as actual philosophical proofs? Kenny sides with the latter position.
More broadly, though, this books considers, and discards several major strains of thought that consider the entire enterprise of constructing a proof for the existence of God nonsensical or pointless.
1). Conventionalist argument: the notion of a ‘necessary being’ is incoherent, therefore trying to prove God’s existence as a necessary being is misguided.
Counter-argument: conventionalists fundamentally misunderstand Aquinas’s project. First, to say God is a necessary being is not to say that ‘God exists’ is a necessary proposition. Second, Aquinas simply means in describing God as necessary that he is imperishable. Finally, the conventionalist argument presumes that necessarily true propositions are all so in reference to human conventions, while neuroscience and so on proves this not to be the case.
2). Verificationist argument: “There is a God” is an incoherent proposition because it is unfalisifiable.
Kenny’s response: if a creator God exists, there’s no way to falsify the proposition “God exists,” because without his existence there would no universe in which to falsify anything.
3). post-Kantians: Many contemporary philosophers think Kant definitively proved the entire enterprise of constructing rational proofs for the existence of God to be misguided and unnecessary.
Kenny: Kant directed his critique at different issues than those with which Aquinas was concerned. I’m not going to tell you which, but trust me; my book isn’t pointless.
4) fideistic response: The existence of God is something that must be taken on faith; to seek rational arguments is to miss the center of religious experience.
Kenny: If we can’t offer rational grounds for believing in God, there’s no reason to do so. Or: yes, this book is about to be 120 pages written by someone with a stereotypically british tin ear for the subject of religion. Enjoy.
The First Way: argument from movement (causa movens)
Basic argument: Observing the world, we see that everything is in motion and, moreover, that everything in motion is moved by something else. All things that move insofar as they are in potentiality in terms of its motion; to move is for something in actuality to bring something from potentiality to actuality. For example, something actually hot, such as fire, brings wood, something potentially hot, to be actually hot. Since it is impossible for something to be both potentially and actually something (hot, for example), it is impossible for something to be simultaneously the mover and the moved. Yet there must be a first, unmoved mover to set off this entire chain of motion we see in our word. This we label God.
Kenny begins by trying to contextualize the term motus. Though he remains by the translation, “motion,” the modern idea of change is actually much closer to the original meaning. Change, however, had three separate subcategories:
- Change of quality (from hot to cold, for example)
- Change in quantity/size
- Change in place (local motion)
Aquinas, therefore, uses the term motus in these three sense, but not in a way that might include mental events or propositions that change from true to false or vice versa. However, the bigger problem regarding the text is that in Latin there is no simple way to distinguish between “it is in motion” and “it is being moved,” which will later return to cause problems.
Kenny then asks, “what does it mean to say something is in motion?” He offers four potential explanations.
1). Motion encompasses change in quality, quantity, space, and mental events. Thinking, after all, is sometimes described as being moved by an object.
Kenny’s objection: However, as man can think himself, or move himself, this interpretation would undermine Aquinas’s argument.
2)motion includes creation and destruction of substancesKenny’s response: that would make the First Way question-begging(?3) The thesis could depend on a metaphysical understanding of motion.
Kenny: True, in part, but doesn’t answer the question of what objects are being moved.
4) the phenomena in question are exclusively metaphysical, the change from potentiality to actuality.
Kenny: this conflicts with the very mundane examples Aquinas gives of motion.
Kenny’s interpretation: Aquinas really just means that certain things move from place to place and others grow and shrink. (No kidding....)
Having established that, Kenny then goes on to consider the different interpretations of the phrase, ”Whatever is in motion is moved by something else.” One could read it as a temporal claim, that there are an endless series of things stretching back in time, causing each other. But in that case, the catalyst might have ceased moving long before the object in question did, so in a trivial sense, the world would be populated by unmoved movers. Therefore, Kenny argues, we ought to take this to mean that everything in motion is being moved by something simultaneously in motion.
Problems, however, immediately arise. There seem to be a number of things that aren’t moved by anything, such as the running dog or growing plant. Additionally, that which is not being moved may simply be at rest; something unmoved does not need to have been eternally unmoved.
Aquinas answers with a distinction between motion per accidens and motion per se. Motion per accidens is caused by something else, motion per se is everything else. In order for motion per accidens to do the sort of philosophical work Aquinas needs, there can’t be a symmetrical relationship between part and whole; I can’t say I move my fingers and my fingers move me while preserving the infinite regress necessary to get us to a first mover. Aristotle tries to solve this difficulty by saying my parts are moved by my soul. However, this will not get us to God, as the Aristotelian notion of a soul will equally suffice as an agent.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that my notes on this book are absurdly long and detailed, particularly given that it’s only secondary lit., so I’m just going to cut to the reasons Kenny thinks the First Way fails.
- Aquinas is trapped in the Aristotelian origins of this proof. Aristotle did not believe in a creator God; rather, his Unmoved Mover was simply the efficient cause of the motions in the universe. Aquinas fails to prove that the efficient cause needs to be anything outside of this world.
- In order to conform to the actual world, Aquinas cannot insist that the relation between cause and effect is asymmetrical, that one ball hits another without being moved in turn. Lacking an asymmetrical relationship, there is no possibility of an infinite regress of movers.
- Kenny thinks even if a infinite regress were to happen, it would not be absurd.
- The argument only shows that movement can only originate in a being who is not moved in that particular manner, but does not have to be unchanging in all respects. (A fire can’t be potentially and actually hot in order to make wood burn, but just because it is unmoved regarding temperature, there’s no reason to think it might not be moved regarding location).
The Second Way: argument from efficient causality (causa efficiens/agens)
Basic argument: In nature, we observe efficient causality, but we also observe that it’s impossible for something to cause itself, because that would require it being prior to itself. We also see that eliminating a cause eliminates its effects, so if you eliminate the first cause by positing an infinite chain of efficient causes, you then eliminate all of the intermediate causes, as well as the final effect. Therefore, as we clearly observe that there are final effects and intermediate causes, we need to posit a first cause. This we call God.
Here, Kenny, rather belatedly, brings in Aristotle’s doctrine of the four causes, which breakdown thus:
1: material cause (causa materialis): the material out of which an object is made
2: formal cause (causa formalis): the form/pattern the object takes
3: efficient cause (causa efficiens) : origin of change or state of rest
4: final cause (causa finalis): telos of thing
In contrast to Aristotle, Aquinas splits causa efficiens into two overlapping, but slightly different phenomena: causa efficiens/agens and causa movens. The two are essentially the same phenomenon. The real difference is that causa movens, as described in the First Way, deals with the effect or body acted upon, while causa efficiens/agens, the subject of the Second Way, deals with the agent responsible for producing change. Aristotle was willing to describe all examples of causa efficiens as a type of movement that initiates change in preexisting material, because he believed in an everlasting material universe. However, Aquinas, who was committed to creation ex nihilo, believed that God was an efficient cause that could act without necessarily being a mover. HE also believed there could be change or effects that could not simply be re-described as movement in substance from one form to another. Therefore, he makes this distinction within efficient causality.
Kenny’s main argument in the book is that if one understand the first two Ways to correspond to this split within efficient causality, then each of the Five Ways maps on to the Four Causes.
Kenny spends some time arguing that the formal structure of the Five Ways is sound, but as that discussion involved a series of incomprehensible logical equations, for me, at least, the reason why escapes me. If anyone wants to clarify, that would be great.
The more pertinent aspect of this chapter seemed his discussion of what efficient causality did and did not entail for Aquinas. In some respects, it’s the type of causality closest to what we recognize as causality. Yet, since Hume, we have been trained to think of a cause as an event. For Aquinas, in contrast, an efficient cause is “a substantial agent.” The paradigmatic example of efficient causality, at least in Aquinas’s sense, is not flipping a switch and light coming on, but, rather, that of a man siring a child. Thought of in those terms, we see why Aquinas thinks it incoherent to imagine something causing itself, in the same way it seems incoherent to think of a man give birth to himself. However, efficient causality did not entail for Aquinas the belief that every event has a cause. Aquinas is not a determinst; he leaves room for contingency in his world view.
Kenny claims that Aquinas did not see anything incoherent in the idea of an infinite series of men stretching backward in time and begetting each other. So far as that goes, one could conceive of man as the uncaused cause, and never reach God. However, Aquinas does not think human reproduction is a self-sufficient linear chain of efficient causes, endlessly reproducing itself. Rather, he thinks human reproduction involves another, external cause acting upon it, in this case the sun. Man is begotten both by man and the sun.
So what does this mean? Kenny claims Aquinas is not saying that the sun is a necessary condition for man to beget man, in, I suppose, the same way air and a habitable planet would be. Equally, he is not saying that that a whole series of events existed in the past, leading up to man in his role of begetter. Rather, he is making reference to medieval cosmology, which believed that the sun co-cause of the generation of the child. In this cosmology, man acts as a tool of the sun, or the heavens more generally. The sun, in its presence and absence, controls generation and corruption on earth.
Efficient causality, then, not only stretches backward in times, to all of the previous men who have fathered children; it also stretches upward towards the heavens, and depends on the cosmos God created.
Take away: The thought seems to be that the heavens lead to a creator God and some sort of meta-plan/control in a way that a series of efficient causes, stretching back in time, do not. God has much more of an obvious role with reference to the sun than solely in reference to a chain of men begetting men. However, as we no longer subscribe to medieval cosmology, we have no reason for tracing efficient causality back to God, rather than stopping with man as the uncaused cause.
The Third Way: Possibility and Necessity (causa materialis)
Basic Argument: It is possible for some things not to be. Everything which might not have been at some point was not. But if everything had the possibility of not being, nothing would ever be, since everything finite begins in something else. Therefore, there must be some sort of self-sufficient, necessary being at the origin. This we name God.
There are several different strains of the argument that God is a necessary being. For Leibniz, for example, God is a necessary being whose essence involves existence. This is following a thought posed by Avicenna, who believed, “A necessary being is a being such that the supposition of its non-existence entails a contradiction.” A contingent being, in contrast, could be imagined not to exist without any contradiction.
In his early work, Aquinas uses Avicenna’s definition of a necessary being, but later shifts from this tendency to define necessity in terms of existence and essence to the definition of Averroes, who defined a necessary being as one that cannot cease to be the case, that cannot cease to exist. A necessary being, therefore, is defined in terms of unalterability and imperishability. As result, Aquinas considers a large number of things as necessary in his mature work, such as angels and men. Therefore, one ought not consider the scale to be God as the only necessary being on what end, and everything else as contingent on the other. Rather, there’s a gradation, starting with things that have the possibility of being and not being which are genuinely contingent, to cause necessary beings, like men and angels, to God as the uncaused necessary being.
From here, Kenny raises four basic questions about the meaning of the Third Way.
1: What does Aquinas think has the possibility of being and not being? Individuals or species?
2: Is the class of things that has the possibility of being and not being the same as the class of things subject to generation and corruption?
3: When Aquinas speaks of the possibility of being and not being, what does he mean? Does he simply mean the logical possibility?
4: Finally, when did or do things have the possibility of being and not being? Now? In the past? Always?
Kenny begins with question 4, the issue of tense. It only makes sense, he argues, to claim something might not have existed once it comes into existence. Had I not been born, it would have been nonsensical to claim that I might or might not have existed, because there was no me to make reference to. So logically, my possibility of not existing would be the possibility of ceasing to be.
For Aristotle, the world and heavenly bodies have always existed, so this doesn’t make much sense for him, not in a strong sense, at least. In contrast, for Aquinas, souls and matter were created, which means it’s possible for them to be destroyed and cease to be. But here’s the catch; souls will keep on existing until or unless God destroys them. This means that the possibility of ceasing to be is not their possibility; it’s all dependent on God.
From this, Kenny concludes that Aquinas is not talking about humans or other necessary beings, and he’s not talking about logical possibility when he says some things have the possibility of ceasing to be. Rather, he’s talking about the actual power of ceasing to be. In essence, things have the possibility of ceasing to be if they have the possibility of changing forms, such as water turning to ice, etc. Humans cannot change form since their souls aren’t made out of any sort of matter than can change form.
Ultimately, then, when Aquinas speaks of things possessing the possibility of ceasing to be, he’s speaking of creatures that are subject to generation and corruption. Generation and corruption are a subset of “coming to be and passing away.” If something, like man, is instantly created, it is not generated; rather, it can only be generated if it comes from some preexisting matter. Generation also isn’t necessarily related to animals; a house can be generated out of bricks. Similarly, annihilation is not synonymous with corruption; corruption is when an animal dies and turns into dust.
To sum up, the premise of the Third Way is that there exist generable and corruptible beings (i.e. those which exist in other forms and which can survive in altered forms their own destruction). Kenny find this premise sound.
He then breaks down the Third Way into its constitutive parts.
1: whatever has the possibility of not being, at some time or other is not.
2: If everything has the possibility of not being, then at some time or other nothing is.
3: If at some time or other nothing is, then there is nothing now.
4: It is not the case that there is nothing now.
5: Therefore, not everything has the possibility of not being.
Kenny then produces a series of objections. To begin with, the first premise is questionable. One could logically imagine something with the possibility of not existing nonetheless existing eternally. Next, to pass from statement 1 to 2 is to commit the “quantifier-shift fallacy” - in essence, to equate “each thing at some time is not,” to “at some time or other, everything is not.” Moreover, even if it were true that at some point nothing will exist, there’s no reason to assume that such a point might not come at a future date, or even that there might be an endless succession of overlapping contingent beings. The proof is predicated on the idea of infinite time. Finally, even if one accepts the bulk of Aquinas’s argument, there’s no reason one could not imagine the everlasting being that assures continued existence to be matter.
Fourth Way: Gradation in Things (causa formalis)
Basic argument: Things exist in degrees; for example, something can be relatively hot or relatively good. Things tend to be more x (hot, good, etc), as they approach the source of this quality. (A stone in a fire is hotter than one in the forest, for example). We see that things can be relatively good, therefore we have to conclude there is something better, something absolutely good that they can approach in perfection. This is God.
Essentially, this is Aquinas’s flirtation with Platonism. I am going to skip Kenny’s exposition of the Platonic Forms, under the assumption we all know the narrative. Instead, I want to begin with Aquinas’s relation to Platonism. In many points in his work he is extremely critical of Platonism. He claims to think that the Idea of an entire species - zB, absolute man - is nonsense, but nonetheless subscribes to some sort of essentialized definition of things. So while there is no Idea of man, existing in the ether, there is humanity, which is divided among a series of finite individuals. Thus, Form is individualized and has a specific history. Put otherwise, there is no such thing as Wisdom, but there is “wisdom of,” as in “the wisdom of Socrates.” (This, on a side note, reminds me of Heidegger’s stance toward Being).
Nonetheless, the Fourth Way is very clearly Platonic in many ways, and is predicated on the assumption that all individual goods exist in some relation to God, in the same way Plato thinks exists between particularized goods and the Idea of the Good. God, in this way, is essentially the Platonic idea of the Good or of Being.
First, to say that “this is good” is essentially a performative statement, and not a statement with any objective truth value. Second, “good” is far too generic of a term, and it’s not clear that putting the goodness of a husband on the same scale as the goodness of a horse makes any sense at all. Third, the question arises whether or not the “Good” is a maximum ideal or something actual. If it’s an ideal, there’s no reason to think it actually exists, any more than there’s reason to think that the “largest thing” actually exists. If the “Good” is supposed to be an actual thing, there’s no reason to think the best thing can’t be man or something other than God. If the best thing is supposed to be God, we need Plato to fill in the gap, and posit the Good as some sort of Idea that man participates in and resembles.
So what does it mean to be the truest, the noblest, the best of things? Aquinas thinks it means to be the thing with the most being (82). To be is ens shining through esse, which I think means that actual existence (esse?) is the activity of being shining through. Early Aquinas thinks it’s possible to understand essence without existence. (I can understand what a phoenix is without it existing). Therefore, under this logic, if God is subsistent existence, to know he exists is to know his essence. Kenny finds this absurd and tautological.
Kenny tries to make sense of what it means to say one knows God by turning to the distinction Aquinas makes in types of knowledge. One can either know what the words mean, or give a more detailed, scientific explanation. Aquinas often says that before you can ask whether something exists, you have to know what the word means, but before you begin investigating its nature or essence (knowledge #2?), you need to know that it exists.
Regarding the Five Ways, this means that before formulating proofs of God’s existence, we need to know what the word “God” means. The Five Ways each articulate a different meaning (etc., unmoved mover). But what God actually is (knowledge in the second sense), we can never know in this life.
What we do know at this point is that God is identical with his esse, or actual existence. Esse, according to Aquinas, is “only attributed to self-subsistent things.” There are two types of esse; unique, substantial esse (Socrates is a man), or accidental esse (ex: Socrates is white). There is a third type of esse, “esse est,” (Socrates is) which is reducible to the first type, substantial esse.
It is impossible for esse to exist without form. So when we say “esse est.” the implication is that something, some predicate, is the essence of the substance in question. “Socrates est,” therefore means that “Socrates is a human being,” or , “Socrates is capable of performing the operations characteristic of human nature”; Socrates, in essence, is alive. Applied to God, this means the statement “God est” means “God is performing a divine life.” Traced back, that leads us once again to our only really piece of knowledge about God; his existence is essence, esse.
Once again, Kenny tries to figure out what that actually means. What is esse? In Aquinas, esse is the fundamental predicate of everything. Everything is, has being. Additionally, everything produces esse as a common effect. So ginger, for example has its proper effect of producing whatever it is that ginger produces (the gingering of the ginger, a la Heidegger?) Additionally, though, ginger causes something to be hot. In this sense, all things cause something else “to be” something or other as a common effect, as a secondary effect, in light of a higher cause. However, unlike all other things, God causes being as his primary, proper effect. God is the thing that produces being.
Take away: Essentially, Kenny argues, this leaves esse empty of content. Since we can’t add anything to the proposition “God is,” and “God est esse” is meaningless or tautological, to say “God is” is either to offer a fragment or to offer an ill-formed formula whose variable expression offers no possibility of substitution. While God may be the Platonic Idea of Being, this tells us nothing.
The Fifth Way: Direction of Things (causa formalis)
Basic argument: Kenny sees this as an argument from design. Certain things, which lack awareness, act for the sake of an end, as proven by the fact they always act for what is best. Things which lack intelligence cannot act toward a goal unless something intelligent directs them. Therefore God, the intelligent being toward which everything in nature is directed as a goal, must exist.
Per usual, Kenny begins by raising some questions which seem slightly unnecessary given what we know of Aquinas’s project. First, are these things acting for their own good or that of the universe? He claims it’s probably the former. Second, does each thing have its own intelligence or is everything directed by a single intelligence? This question isn’t worth addressing.
Aquinas offers several different proofs of teleology in nature, starting with the foot is made for walking, leaves are made to protect fruit, etc. He also offers a priori proofs that any agent, even unconscious, must act for ends. He defines an “end” as “that toward which the drive of an agent tends,” regardless of whether or not the agent succeeds. Actions can either terminate in a product, such as a house, or in an action itself, as with thought. In all cases, though, the agent acts toward an end. It beats the shit out of me why this constitutes an a priori proof, though.
Anyway, Kenny claims Aquinas has four more such “arguments.”
2: Impossibility of acting forever: A final end is one which, after achieving, the agent stops striving. As action can’t go on forever and an infinite action is inconceivable, there must be a final action?
3: Likeness between cause and effect: There are two types of agents: natural and intelligent. The intelligent agent acts by forming an image of his goal and trying to realize it. There must be something similar for the natural agent, where the likeness of the effect preexists in the agent.
4: Faults in nature: There can only be faults where things are directed towards ends. So it only makes sense to talk of a monstrous birth if there is some norm it deviates from. This is an Aristotelian argument.
5: Non-fortuitous production of the good: In nature, we find the best consistently happening. One could call it luck if the best happened randomly, irregularly, but consistency implies order and agency.
Kenny thinks all of these arguments are faulty, but begins by trying to clarify their meaning. What does it mean, he asks, to attribute purpose to inanimate objects? Short answer, they have tendencies. But there’s no reason to look at this teleologically, rather than simply saying that water has a tendency to freeze, for example.
Regarding the impossibility of infinite action, Kenny thinks that to say an agent can’t aim to an infinite series of aims is already to impute ends/aims to that agent. All we see, in a Humean sense, is a series of things happening that are sometimes interrupted by or punctuated by periods of rest. We don’t actually observe finite, purposeful actions.
Again, regarding argument three, Kenny says we can’t actually know like is acting in order to bring about like; again, it could be a meaningless tendency. He finds the argument that it only makes sense to speak of monstrosities within reference to teleology sound, but too limited to be helpful. All that proves, Kenny thinks, is that some systems can be understood teleologically. I think this also patently a bad argument. A “monstrous birth” is only a mistake from the perspective of someone trying to impose order and stasis on a system or species. From an evolutionary perspective, freaks and flaws simply look like part of the system.
Kenny then goes into a long tangent about current notions of teleology, most notably Charles Taylor’s argument in The Explanation of Behavior that the question of whether or not teleological systems exist in nature is an empirical one, not a philosophical one. He thinks philosopher have wrongly dismissed teleology with the assumption that such a system would have to be regulated by an unobservable entity, whereas he thinks something is teleological simply if one can understand behavior X in terms of its function in the system producing effect Y (homeostasis, possibly). Basically, Kenny decides that it makes sense to consider mechanical things as most basically teleological (as in a watch); with inanimate things, the mechanistic explanation is most basic; and with animal things, it could be both.
Regarding Aquinas’s argument, though, Kenny claims that he undermines himself in a passage where he claims that while the nest-building instinct looks like intelligence, it’s obviously not, because intelligence allows for deviation in behavior, while such normal adaptive behavior doesn’t; all birds build the same nest. Since only humans are capable of deviations in behavior, i.e., of intelligence, we have to ascribe the apparently intelligent behavior of the animals to another force, such as God.
Kenny then argues that if normal adaptive behavior calls for intelligence, it’s much more logical to ascribe it to animals than to some disincarnate God. I’m not sure why he thinks Aquinas has “sawn off the branch he was sitting on,” though. Yes, it is more logical to think of animals having some sort of primitive intelligence than thinking they’re machines directed by some disincarnate God if one ascribes intelligence to normal, regular adaptive behavior. But as Aquinas specifically limits his notion of intelligence to irregular adaptive behavior, he still seems relatively solid. Of course, what constitutes intelligence is a philosophical (maybe semantical) question, as we see from Kenny’s assertion at the end that it doesn’t make sense to think of the sort of disincarnate, infinite intelligence God would have as connecting meaningfully to the term. Still, I’m not sure it’s good form to redefine another philosopher’s terms and then, by applying your new interpretation of their vocabulary to their system, claim that they have proved themselves wrong.
What this is getting at is that I think the spirit of this book is absolute bullshit. The context was nice, thinking of the 5 Ways in terms of the 4 Causes was helpful, the reference to other texts was also helpful, but on the whole this desire to demolish, to hold Aquinas up to some modern standard, to assume some stance of superiority that allows Kenny to read Aquinas for all of his mistakes and none of his virtues - all of the ways, in short, that Kenny points out that Aquinas failed to be a good “sophisticated” modern - is absolutely representative of anglo-analytic philosophy at its worst. Smug bastard.
Take-away: Anthony Kenny is a jackass.