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.

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