Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Is God is an instance of Divinity?


1. In the third article, Thomas asks whether God is identical with his Essence or Nature, or merely an individual instance of that Essence.  We can perceive at this point a progression in the articles of this question.  Most things we observe are bodies, and so the most natural assumption would be that God is a body.  Failing that, God must at least be the sort of thing that participates materially in a form.  Once that has been excluded, Thomas begins to introduce us to the profound strangeness of the Godhead, by showing that God and his Godhead are identical.

2. Against the identity of God and his Essence (Godhead or Divinity), St. Thomas proposes two objections.  First, that because we say that Divinity is "in" God, and nothing can be "in" itself (since this would seem to confuse the categories of substance and accident), God cannot be identical with his Divinity.

3. The second objection is noteworthy, because it contains the first appeal in the Summa to the principle "omne agens agit sibi simile", Every agent acts to its own likeness.  This means that in acting every agent imposes its form on other things, to the extent that the perfection of its act and the receptivity of the thing receiving the act allow, and therefore that the effects of every act bear some likeness to the agent which caused them.  The objector cites this principle, and the fact that God made man in his image, to conclude that if in man essence and supposit (i.e. the particular individual, "this man") are distinct, they must also be distinct in God.

4. For the Sed Contra, St. Thomas cites Christ's discourse at the last supper in John, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." Since Christ identifies himself with life itself, Thomas sees this as warrant for identifying God and his Godhead.  He elaborates beautifully in his comment on this verse (Cf. Commentary on John, paragraph 1868).

5. The argument in the corpus is fascinating, and somewhat difficult.  The key to Thomas’s reasoning is that forms which enter into composition with matter are individuated by that matter, so that in such forms the individual supposit and the essence of the species (of which the supposit is a member) are always distinct.

6. For example, an apple is such a thing as could not exist immaterially, since it belongs to the form to be united with matter: the removal of matter from the form would be the destruction of the form as well.  Thus every apple is distinct from “apple-ness”, because each apple supplies the material principle lacking in the form, and thus exceeds the mere form in its determinacy and reality.  As Thomas puts it, “the essence or nature includes in itself only those things which fall into the definition of the species.”  This is to say that in particular species of things, the essence of the species is limited to the form which constitutes the species.  The particular qualities of the matter to which this essence is added, and the particular accidents which might be added to the essence once it is received in an individual, are not part of the essence.  Thus in individual material things there is always more than the essence of the species to which they belong.

7. Among those forms that are not received in matter, the case is rather different.  In this case the matter is not needed to receive the form, since the form has actuality in itself apart from being individualized in a particular recipient.  Furthermore, such a form does not need to be individualized, because it is distinct by being itself, and not by being instantiated in this or that quantity of matter.  God, however, is clearly one of these sorts of forms, and therefore in him essence and supposit are not distinct.  Thus God is the same as his Godhead, his Life, and whatever other forms can be truly predicated of him.

8. In response to the first objection, Thomas clarifies that although God’s “divinity” is spoken of as though distinct from himself, this is merely to ease the way for the human mind.

9. To the second objection, Thomas answers that the likeness of the creator in the creature is imperfect and diverse.  This suffices to explain the difference.

Outline of Article:

—Godhead is said to be "in" God.
—Humanity, the image of God, differs from individual humans.

Sed Contra
—I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

—Among material things form is received or super-added to the thing.  The matter receives additional actuality from the form, but the form requires the matter in which to be actualized.  But in God, the form or essence subsists, and therefore is individualized not by its reception in matter, but simply by being itself.

—This language is based on an analogy to human nature.
—The likeness between creator and creature is imperfect.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Matter and Form in God


1. In the second article, Thomas asks whether God is composed of matter and form. We will pause here to lay out some basic considerations on matter and form for the reader.

2. Aristotle famously distinguishes four "causes" (Greek: aitiai) or ways of explaining things.  One can think of these four causes as different ways of answering the question "why is it?"  The efficient cause answers the question "What brought this thing into being?" The final cause answers the question "what perfects this thing? what is it for?" The formal cause answers the question "what is it that makes this thing itself? what makes it different in kind from other things?" The material cause answers the question "what is this thing made of? What are its parts?"

3. Of these four causes, the final and efficient causes are easiest to understand to the contemporary mind, perhaps because we are so immersed in techne that the notions of purpose and making are obvious to us.  Formal and material are more difficult.  The danger in a society the predominant metaphysics of which is materialist reductivism, is to assume that "material cause" means simply "atoms and subatomic particles", and that form refers either to the simple arrangement of these atomic particles, or to some mystical essence that these particles are imbued with to give them different qualities.

4. In reality, matter and form are always defined relative to each other.  Matter is simply "that which receives a particular form", and form is simply "the act of a thing which makes it what it is".  Imagine you are building a multi-tiered wedding cake. You begin with eggs, flour, sugar, etc.  These are the matter for your batter.  They become the batter by being mixed together.  Here the combination and proportion of the ingredients is the form added to them to make them what they are.  The batter in turn is matter for each cake layer, and it receives a certain form by being baked, to become cake layers.  After the layers have baked, and the frosting and filling have been prepared, the layers, frosting, and filling become the matter for the cake as a whole, and the form is their arrangement relative to each other.  When the whole cake is finished, we can ask "what is its matter?" and this question will have multiple possible answers.  The proximate matter is the cake sheets, frosting and filling.  More remotely, the matter is cake batter.  More remotely still, the matter is eggs, flour, and sugar.  But even more remotely we might say that the matter is protein and carbohydrates, atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, mass-energy.  Notice that as we choose to answer "what is it made of" with more and more remote material causes, the answer tells us less and less about the cake.  If you ask what wedding cakes are made of, and I say "mass-energy", I have told you almost nothing at all about them.

5. Consider the same series of questions, except applied to the formal cause.  If I bring you a wedding cake, and you ask "What is it?", I can answer this in various ways.  I could say that it is a wedding cake, or that it's three sheet cakes with raspberry filling and vanilla frosting, or that it's a gallon of cake batter, some berries, butter and sugar.  I could say "it's eggs, sugar, and flour", or "it's a collection of organic compounds" or "it's mass-energy".  Notice, though, that saying "it's mass-energy" tells me nothing about what the cake is.  The table it's resting on is also mass-energy.  What distinguishes the cake from other things?  What makes it different from other blobs of mass-energy, other sets of organic compounds, other sets of eggs flour and sugar, other gallons of cake batter?  What makes the cake whatever it is?  That's its form.

6. One further word.  The Thomistic maxim is "forma dat esse".  Form gives being to a thing.  What does this mean?  It means that every particular form which is added to a thing, every new act or new characteristic to which its matter is determined, makes that thing itself, and gives it its particular act of existence.  If we remove from an object its various forms, one by one, we will eventually be left with nothing at all.  This is why "prime matter", i.e. matter totally undetermined, form-less matter, does not exist on its own.  Existence is, in a manner of speaking, the form of all forms. One of the greatest difficulties for the average person in understanding formal causation is the belief that being belongs exclusively to the atomic parts of things.  If forms are separable from these atomic parts, the forms do not exist. On,y matter exists.  What we miss in this thought is the fact that the matter receiving a particular form already has its own form, and that the form added is dependent on the form of the matter in order to be realized. Normal agents are not capable of communicating forms ex nihilo, but only giving additional act to ore existing substances.  This doesn't make form purely accidental, but shows us that the communication of form is dependent on the power if the agent and the receptivity of the recipient.

7. Turning, then, to the second article of this question, we find that St. Thomas proposes three objections against the immateriality of God.  First, that God is described as having a soul, but the soul is the animating principle or form of a body. (The soul or act of life is what differentiates a living body from a corpse.)  Therefore God must be composed of matter and form.  Second, that God is described as having emotions (wrath, etc.), and emotions are acts of the soul under the influence of the passions of the body.  Third, that matter is the principle by which things with a given form are individuated from each other (this penny differs from that penny by its matter, not by its form).

8. For the Sed Contra, Thomas points out that to be composed of matter and form is to be a body, which, it has already been established, God is not.

9. In the Corpus, Thomas advances three arguments against the material composition of God.  First, he points out that God is pure act, without any potency, as shown in the First Way.  Since matter is by definition in potency to receive a particular form, If God were composed of matter and form he would be in potency.  Second, he points out that the perfection of material things is participated, through their reception of various forms.  To the extent that the matter receives the form, the composite has the perfection of the form.  But as shown in the Fourth Way, God does not receive his perfection from anything, and hence cannot contain matter for the reception of some higher form.  Rather, he is his own form.  Third, he points out that because form is act, and matter is potency to receive act, whatever is pure and perfect act will be pure form without matter, and such is God, since he is the first agent and the ultimate efficient cause.

10. The replies to the first and second objections are, as in the previous articles, guidelines for the interpretation of scripture.  God's soul is spoken of simply by way of analogy, to direct our minds to the acts of God which we associate with our souls (knowing, for example).  Emotions attributed to God represent the effects of his acts: thus wrath is a symbol of the divine punishment for sin, not a description of an emotional state in God.

11. In reply to the third objection, Thomas concedes that among things that share common forms matter is the principle of individuation.  Thus two identical coins are distinguished by the particular bits of metal of which they're made.  Further, among forms that are shared in this way, it is matter which actualizes the form by receiving it. "A coin in general" does not exist, because coin-ness only subsists in particular individuals.  But if a form is self-subsisting, then it does not need to be received in matter in order to be actualized or individuated, because it has both of these from itself.  Such is God.

Outline of Article

—God's soul is referenced in scripture.
—God's emotions are described in scripture.
—Matter is the principle of individuation in things.

Sed Contra: God is not a body.

—Matter is in potency, but God has no potency.
—Matter participates in form, but God does not participate in a higher perfection.
—Form is proportionate to act, and matter to potency, but God is pure act.

–God's soul refers to his operations.
—God's emotions refer to his effects.
—Matter is the principle of individuation for material forms, but self-subsisting forms are their own principles of individuation.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Interpreting References to God's Body in Scripture


1. Having demonstrated that God exists, St. Thomas proceeds to discuss the divine essence. Recall that the order of investigation is: Existence (q.2), Essence (qq.3-14), Operations (qq.15-26), Inward Processions (qq.27-43), Outward Processions (qq.44-119).

2. Within his discussion of the divine essence, he divides the topic into three parts: what God is not (qq.3-11), how he is known to us (q.12), and how we name him (q.13).

3. In discussing what God is not, Thomas systematically excludes characteristic features of creatures from God: composition (q.3), imperfection (qq.4-6), finitude (qq.7-8), mutability (qq.9-10), plurality (q.11).

4. The of these questions concerns the simplicity of God, whether God is composed of different parts.  Thomas uses the divine simplicity as the middle term in a variety of other more significant deductions, so while readers might be inclined to skim past this question, it is in fact one of the most important in the Summa.

5. In the first article, Thomas asks whether God is a body.  Against God’s incorporeality he puts forward five objections.  All of the objections are from metaphorical references to God in scripture.  The first is from the references to his three-dimensionality (height, breadth, depth).  The second is from references to his visible likeness (“let us make man in our image”).  The third is from references to God’s body parts (arms, eyes, hands).  The fourth is from references to his posture (sitting, standing).  The fifth is from references to his location (wherefrom and whereto).

6. In the Sed Contra, he cites Jesus in John’s Gospel, telling the woman at the well that God is a spirit, and therefore must be worshipped spiritually, and not just in one place.

7. In the Corpus, he offers three arguments:  First, that no body causes motion without being moved, as is obvious from experience, but God is an unmoved mover, as already shown. (Note that the standard translation of this first argument is incorrect.) Second, that act is prior to potency, because potency can only be realized by the introduction of some prior act.  Since God is the first being, if he had potency, it would require a prior agent to be actualized.  Therefore he is without potency.  And since all bodies are in potency to locomotion, God cannot be a body.

8. Thomas’s third argument is from God’s nobility.  Bodies are nobler on account of their union with souls, but this shows that souls are in themselves nobler than bodies.  God is the most noble being, so he could not be a body.  This argument makes modern readers uncomfortable, but Thomas takes for granted the obviousness of degrees of nobility in things, and that the living is higher than the nonliving.  These are not difficult assumptions to accept, in themselves, but the argument would not be readily accepted by contemporary skeptics, for example.

9. In the replies to the objections, Thomas gives the spiritual sense of each category of scriptural sense.  Briefly: The dimensions of God signify his knowledge, eternity, knowledge, love, incomprehensibility, power, omnipresence, etc. The image of God in man signifies his superiority over all other animals by virtue of intelligence.  The body parts of God signify various actions (the eye for knowledge, the hand for power or judgment, etc.), likewise with his posture.  Finally, descriptions of God’s place are used to symbolize the disposition of the soul or the adversion of the mind, which can be closer or further from God spiritually by its actions.

Outline of Article

—God is described in scripture as having various corporeal qualities: dimension, image, body parts, posture, location.

Sed Contra:
—John 4:24, "God is a Spirit"

—Bodies do not cause motion without being moved.
—Bodies are in potency to motion, but God as prime mover is not in potency in any way.
—Bodies are less noble than spirits, and God is the noblest being.

—The references in scripture to God's corporeality symbolize various acts, qualities, and dispositions of God, or of creatures to God.

The Insufficiency of Nature to Explain Nature

60. The second objection is from the sufficiency of nature to explain everything we observe.
     A. What is able to be completed by fewer principles is not done by many.
     B. Supposing God does not exist, natural things can be reduced to natural principles, and intentional things are reduced to principles that are human or voluntary.
     C. Thus it is not necessary to suppose that God exists.

61. His response to the second objection appeals primarily to the fifth way: the determinacy of natural ends depends on the direction of something supernatural, i.e. God.

62. However, the second half of his reply is in a way a summary of all five ways put together: all things mobile and defectible must be reduced to some immobile and necessary first principle.

Outline of Article

—There is evil in the world.
—Nature is adequate to explain natural things.

Sed Contra:
—I am that am.

—All motion must be reduced to some immobile first principle.
—In any chain of efficient causes, the efficacy of the intermediate depends on the efficacy of the first.
—If there were nothing utterly permanent, nothing would exist; but if there is one necessary, there must be a first necessary.
—The degrees of being and perfection must be traced to a first principle which is supremely perfect and subsistent being.
—The directedness of natural things is explicable only on account of a designer who gives direction to all natures.

—Creatures are distinct from God.  God wills the good, but allows evil.
—Answered in Corpus

The Problem of Evil

52. Now that we have run through the five proofs of God's existence, we turn to the objections and replies.  The first objection is from the existence of evil in the world.  It runs as follows:
     A. If either of two contraries were infinite, the other would be totally destroyed.
     B. The name “God” designates an infinite goodness.
     C. Therefore if God existed, it would be impossible to discover evil in the world.
     D. Evil is readily discoverable.
     E. Therefore, God does not exist.

53. The objection follows from a certain idea of “infinity”.  If a principle were actually infinite, then it would by definition have no limitations.  But if it had a contrary, then wherever the contrary was, the principle would not be.  Thus by the extent of the contrary, we could define the limits of the principle.

54. Because God signifies not just an infinite goodness, but also the supreme principle of all existing things, a defect in any creature would seem to imply a defect in God, since the existence and nature of everything is an extension of the act of God, and a defect in the effect is traceable to a defect in the cause.

55. In his reply to the first objection, Thomas cites St. Augustine, summarizing the basic answer to the problem of evil: God does not will, but only allows evil, and this because he can bring goodness out of it.

56. Thomas’s reply is very brief and only implicitly addresses the main point of the objection.  The objector’s argument fails on account of a failure to recognize the kind of infinity present in God.  God’s goodness is infinite not by extent but by its perfection in itself.  (Saying “There is infinite goodness.” is different from saying “There is an infinite blueberry.”)  Thus there is no contradiction between the infinite goodness of God and the existence of evil in things other than God.

57. However, there does seem to be a problem explaining how an infinitely good God can be the creator of a universe in which there is evil.  Evil, after all, is the absence of a good due to a thing by nature.  If it is God’s act which causes the universe to exist, then a perfect act should yield a perfect effect, and there should not be any evil at all.

58. Here Thomas’s reply enters.  God does not will evil directly but allows it in creatures.  The difference between “willing” and “allowing” occurs here, and will recur later on when Thomas discusses divine providence (q.22).  What is willed proceeds directly from the agent and participates in its own act.  What is allowed is known by the agent, but proceeds from the act of another.  The acts of creatures are really distinct from the act of God.  This point is essential.  The acts of creatures participate in God’s act to the extent that they are good.  To the extent that they defect from the good, they do not participate in God’s act, and are not willed by God but allowed by him.  But also, to the extent that they defect from the good, they lack reality, i.e. simply speaking they are not.

59. This distinction shows how it is possible to say at the same time that there is evil, and that God is perfectly good, and that God does not will evil.  But the question remains: why does God allow evil?  Here Augustine enters: God allows evil so that he can bring goodness out of it.  The answer is vague and inadequate, but because it attempts to search the divine will, which is inscrutable, it must remain that way.  The essential thing is that God does not will evil, and that there is no contradiction between the existence of God and the defects observed in creatures.

The Existence of God (Fifth Way)

40. The short form of the fifth way is:
A. Many natural things that lack knowledge nonetheless act to achieve the good always or the greater portion of the time.
B. From this we conclude that they act for an end, and that they achieve their end not by chance but by intention. 

     C. But whatever lacks intelligence cannot tend toward an end unless directed by something intelligent. 

     D. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed toward their end. 

41. A version of the argument from design was in former days one of the most obvious and compelling arguments for God's existence. One hardly needed to work out the metaphysical details to convince of the existence of God someone who had stood in awe beneath the sphere of fixed stars and marveled at the regularity of their motion, or stared out into the sea by night as the tide receded and returned. The mind leaps readily from these things to the divine. 

42. But, the story goes, Darwin has forever destroyed the Fifth Way, by showing how chaotic processes can lead to the emergence of order in natural species.  This is partially correct, though other factors have contributed to the decline of the argument: the technological world has separated the city-dwellers of the world from nature, blotting out the stars at night, and pushing back the wilds, so the experience of awe (or at least, awe before the natural order of the universe) is no longer present in our daily lives.

43. Still, even if it is conceivable nowadays that there should be emergent order without a designer, the Fifth Way reaches deeper than the appeal to a designer.  The argument from design is, in the forms we know today, insufficient to prove the existence of God, even without Darwin.  The mere existence of complex forms that function well does not establish the existence of a transcendent God: the designer might be just another thing, a demiurge fashioning these forms and mechanisms out of pre-existing matter.

44. Thomas’s thought runs deeper than this, however, and so we can read into his fairly straightforward statement of the argument a fuller line of thought that depends not just on the appearance of design in nature, but the universality and nature of final causes, across all existing things.

45. The key to reading the Fifth Way is to see it as a reflection of the first.  The First Way looked at the motions of the natural world, observed that every motion requires a mover, and asked “What governs and sustains these natures?  What moves all things to act as they act?”  The Fifth Way looks at the motions of the natural world, observes that things tend to act toward things, and asks “What directs these tendencies?  What gives tendency to nature in the first place?”  

46.  We observe in the world a multitude of natural things: things which consistently act and cease to act according to inner principles.  The ball comes to rest when its momentum has been exhausted by friction and its tendency toward the center of the earth has been counterbalanced by the resistance of the soil to compression.  In every individual thing’s act and cessation from act we observe the operation of these principles, and in each case the terminus is some state of rest.

47.  The question, then, is what governs the motion and rest of natures?  Why do things come to rest?  This question is applicable not only to natural substances and unintelligent life forms, but also to humans.  What fixes the ends of nature, and directs each particular action toward that moment of fruition in which the agent rests?  If there is purposiveness in nature, and if the natural motions of things tend toward a more perfect harmony, there must be a reason for this.  Or, to apply the thought to something living: if there is purposiveness in the oak tree, such that its springtime foliage is really an end and perfection, not relatively but absolutely, then there must be a reason why the nature of the parts tends toward the perfection of the whole.  There must be a reason why nature tends toward perfection at all.

48. This question shows us why the Fifth Way cannot point toward a demiurge: if there is a designer which directs nature toward fruition, then it must not itself be the sort of thing the nature of which is directed toward fruition.  In other words, the designer of the Fifth Way cannot change, and cannot be distinct from its own perfection.  

49. St. Thomas applies this reasoning specifically to unintelligent natural substances, because it is easiest to see that their acts, though suggesting intention, are not in themselves intentional.  However, since Darwin, the limitation of the argument to unintelligent substances is no longer particularly advantageous.  We can reframe it as follows:

50. In nature we observe that each thing tends toward its proper end and perfection, and that things tend to do this effectively, all or most of the time.  But within things, the individual nature does not intend, but only disposes.  This is true not only of unintelligent agents, but also of humans.  Though particular desires and intentions may align with the working out of nature, those desires and intentions are themselves determined by the nature of which they are an expression.  Therefore we must ask why it is that nature is directed at all.  But to direct or design belongs to intelligence, which lays ahead of things their intended courses and brings things to pass harmoniously.  Therefore if there is direction in nature, there must be some intelligent being which is the source of nature’s direction, and which is itself undirected.  This is what we call God.

51. The argument is not watertight, but draws on the reader’s presumed belief that natural things are actually directed toward ends.  Implicitly this belief is nearly unavoidable. This is, for example, the way metaphors are framed to explain biological processes, almost universally. Appeals to the real “superiority” of surviving species are endemic in discussions of Darwinian evolution.  Thus social darwinism, etc.  However, explicitly the claim that nature tends toward perfection is readily denied by educated people.  Thus the Fifth Way is out of season for a while.  Its day will come again.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Existence of God (Fourth Way)

26. The short form of the fourth way is as follows:
     A. We observe in things that there are differences of perfection: some are more or less true, good, noble, etc.
     B. But “more” and “less” are said of different things inasmuch as in different ways they approach something that is the maximum.
     C. Therefore there is something that is most true, and best, noblest, and consequently something that is maximally being, since things that are maximally true, are maximally beings.
     D. But what is called maximum in any genus, is the cause of everything in that genus.
     E. Therefore there is something that for all beings is the cause of their existence, and goodness, and whatever perfection, and this we call God.

27. The fourth way is perhaps the least intuitive of the five to the contemporary reader.  Several difficulties present themselves:  first, the second premise does not hold of “more” or “less” as applied to differences of quantity.  I do not know that one hundred is greater than seven by comparing each to infinity.  Second, Thomas seems to leap from the notion of a supreme perfection which is the basis of comparisons, to the actuality of such a perfection.  Ironically, his argument seems to make the error attributed to Anselm in Q.2 A.1.  Third, the claim that “the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus” seems plainly false.  The most excellent chicken is not the cause of all chickens.  Excellence in most genera of material things emerges through a confluence of accidents, not by the propinquity of a platonic ideal.  We will address each of these concerns in turn, and then provide a reconstruction of the argument that makes explicit some of the metaphysical background.

28. The problem of quantitative comparisons is easily solved and illuminates a deep feature of Thomistic metaphysics.  The brief solution is to say that purely numerical comparisons are not comparisons of form, but of the potency to some collection of matter to receive a form, and that while properly formal comparisons can be converted to numerical comparisons, such conversions are always analogical and subjective (i.e. can be constructed in multiple ways), but most importantly are dependent, as Thomas says, on the comparison of individuals to a common ideal.  Thus the “more” and “less” Aquinas speaks of are not really quantitative, but primarily concern degrees of formal participation or perfection.

29. That solution is rather dense, however, and requires some unpacking.  Let’s begin by asking the extreme question, the question posed by reductive materialism.  Is every greatness or lessness of form based on a difference of material quantity or quantifiable intensity? The answer is “no”.  Though differences may be quantifiable, usually the formal greatness or lessness of a thing is based on the proportion or harmony between its parts and acts in tending toward its end. To say, for example, that this singer's voice fell flat is not to say that there was an inherent defect of quantity in any part of the song, but that the form of the whole was defective by its lack of harmony. And this defect is not essentially quantifiable, though one might devise a way of associating a number with it. But how would we devise a way of assigning a quantity to the defect in the song? We could only do it with reference to an imagined or potential ideal performance. In other words, even when a defect of quality or form can be expressed by a quantity, the meaningfulness of the quantity assigned to it is dependent on a prior understanding of some qualitative ideal. This eliminates the objection from the lack of an absolute maximum in quantitative comparisons, because quantitative comparisons are essentially different in kind from qualitative or formal comparisons.  The “more” of quantity is one of POTENCY with reference to many, and is grasped ordinarily with a view to the exercise of art, or the increase of another thing's substance (or, generally, the imposition of some form). The “more” of quality is one of ACT and is grasped with a view to an individual thing's essence and perfection.

30. So, even if comparisons like “more human” or “better tulip” can be reduced, by means of particular material differences (whether these “material” differences are of physical matter or merely of the matter out of which an abstract form is constituted—e.g. this man is more learned by virtue of a greater number of known facts), they are essentially not differences of quantity but differences of perfection.

31. All of this is very difficult for the modern mind, because the dominant academic metaphysics is neo-pythagorean, and teaches us that matter and number are the only realities.  Thomas thoroughly rejects this view.

32. The conclusion (C) of the first part of the argument is the next point of difficulty.  On a superficial reading, St. Thomas seems to be committing several errors here: first, he is begging the question in the fashion of St. Anselm.  Second, the truth of this conclusion would seem to presuppose an innate knowledge of the Godhead which Thomas denies (otherwise how could we compare things?).  Third, the conclusion seems to obviate the rest of the argument.

33. All of these difficulties suggest that the text shouldn’t be taken at face value, and requires a re-reading.  Evidently, Thomas must not be claiming that our ability to compare good things to each other presupposes knowledge of the divine essence.  What is he saying, then?  Consider a dog show.  In the case of each entrant, the judges form an assessment by comparison to an ideal: each particular defect is noted, and the comparison of defects enables them to rank the dogs according to their overall perfection.  Do the judges have an innate knowledge of the ideal dog?  Need they have seen the Platonic Dog in order to judge the competition?  No, only a broad experience of the diversity of dogs is necessary.  But note: if we exclude the notion of an ideal dog from the judges minds, they will no longer have a means by which to compare the perfections of the individual entrants, and a decision becomes impossible.  In order to compare things according to their forms, it is necessary for the forms to be common among the things compared: the recognized community of form is the basis of the comparison which enables them to be ordered as greater or lesser. But where there is a community of perfection, it must be possible for their to be a common ideal, even if it is never made explicit.

34. So then, when Thomas says that “there must be something which is most true… etc.” It makes sense to suppose that he is talking about the necessity of a common form for comparison to take place.  I.e. if one is better than another, there must be at least a notion of the “best” to which they can be compared.  Read this way, (C) takes us smoothly into the next stage of the argument.

35. Once we begin to think about the genuine community of forms in things, we should ask what the cause of their shared forms it.  Among all the diverse things in the world, so many are alike.  How has this happened?  Setting aside the nominalist position that the community of forms is in the mind only and not in things themselves, the only rational explanation for the community of forms in things (and therefore, the diversity of forms as well, since diversity is impossible without likeness), is the unity of form in the causes of things.  

36. This logic is operative throughout the physical and biological sciences: where phenomena are similar, the underlying principle is generally believed to be the same.  A wide variety of animals nurse their young—therefore they must be descended from a single ancestor.  All of these supernovae produce similar spectra and intensities of light, therefore they must all result from the same internal processes.  In fact, the principle that common forms have common cause is held as true throughout all the disciplines.

37. Our difficulty is not in accepting that common forms have common cause, but in accepting Thomas’s claim that “In any genus, what is called maximum is the cause of everything in that genus.”  Thomas uses the example of fire and heat: among hot things, fire is the hottest, and it is the cause of all other heat.  The temptation to scoff at Thomas’s supposedly benighted view of chemistry must be avoided if we are to understand his point.  In what way does fire differ from other hot things?  Where other things are hot having received their heat, fire is the one hot thing which does not appear to receive its heat, but generates it.  Other things, when hot, cool.  Fire, when hot, produces more heat.  Fire has within itself, in other words, from a phenomenological perspective, the essence of heat: it is capable of communicating this form to other things without losing it itself.  It is the maximum not simply by comparison, but in essence, having the fullness of the form of heat.  Thus among all hot things, every heat can be traced eventually to fire, since the distinguishing feature of fire is not to have received its heat from another.  And by virtue of this fact fire is fittingly called the maximum in heat.

38. We will skip over the question of what other genera follow Thomas’s rule, because though it is difficult to find other legitimate applications, it is relatively easy to see that it must apply in the case of the most general genera: being, goodness, truth, etc. If we grant that being and goodness are forms which are common to all existing things, even if only analogically speaking (i.e. by similarity of form and not by identity of form), we can proceed as follows.

39. Whenever a form is common among several, its presence in the various individuals must ultimately be reduced to a single principle, or their likeness will be left as an arbitrary and brute fact. And that principle must be adequate to explain the extent to which the form is present in each individual. Which means that since being is common among all the things of the world, in all their diversity, the being of everything must be reducible to a single principle. This principle of all existence would have to be the sort of thing which did not receive its form (since then it would simply be common with all the other things of the world), but is the cause of the form in others.  Thus it would have to be being itself, subsisting in itself, and would therefore be identical with the notion mentioned above which is the basis of the comparison of things in their perfection.  And so the maximum which is thought of as the basis of a comparison of perfection between like forms, is also the maximum which is the universal cause of all perfection, and which subsists in itself as the pure, perfect, unreceived form.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Existence of God (Third Way)

22. The short form of the Third Way is as follows:
     A. In nature we observe that things are generated and corrupted, i.e. that they can be and not be.
     B. But that which is generated at some point is not.  Whatever can be and not be, does not always exist.
     C. Therefore if everything is of this sort, then everything must have come to be at some point.
     D. [Implicit: But if it came to be as the addition of a form to some preexisting matter, then either the matter always was, which would violate our premise, or it came to be out of some other matter, etc.]
     E. Therefore if Everything is merely possible, i.e. is capable of being and not being, and therefore is generated out of something else, then there must have been a time when nothing (neither present things, nor the matter of which they are made, nor any matter at all) existed.
     F. But if there were a time when nothing existed, then nothing would presently exist.
     G. This is absurd, since clearly things exist presently.
     H. Therefore there must be something which is not merely possible, but necessary, i.e. something out of which other things are generated but which is itself ungenerated.
     I. But this thing or set of things either has its existence simply on its own account, or on account of another necessary principle.
     J. But the regress of necessities cannot go on forever.
     K. Therefore there must be a first necessary being, which is the ground of its own existence and necessity.
     L. This is what we call "God."

23. There are two significant difficulties in reading the Third Way.  The first is that modern readers, acquainted with the arguments of post-Enlightenment rational theology, expect the Third Way to be a version of the cosmological argument (I.e., a reduction of the principle of sufficient reason to a reason which is its own necessity.). This expectation, when it is not met in the text, tends to make Thomas's argumentation seem bizarre and opaque.  

24. The second difficulty is in recognizing the importance of Thomas's initial reference to generation and corruption in properly framing the argument.  Here I owe a debt to James Chastek for giving a sound interpretation of the text.  Thomas's conception of possibility revolves around the fact that things are and are not at different points in time: in other words, that they come to be out of certain things, and decompose back into the matter of which they were made.  Chastek's insight is to see that the line "if everything were possible not to be, then at some time there could have been nothing in existence" is not best parsed as a statement of modal logic, but as a gesture toward a universe without any underlying principle of material conservation.  

25. Thomas's thought is not that, because everything presently existing must at some point not have existed in the past, there must have been a time when nothing existed.  That would be a faulty inference. Rather, he is saying that if everything were simply contingent, such that everything were generated at some point, including the matter out of which everything is made, down to the most fundamental and basic stuff of the universe, then there would have been a time when nothing existed at all.  From this point the argument is easy to follow.