Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Aquinas' "Summa Theologica"

Saint Thomas Aquinas. "The Existence of God", 1265-74. In Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 4th ed., edited by John Perry et al., 80-82. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

The Summa Theologica (Question 2, Article 1) responds to Saint Anselm’s Ontological Argument as such:
1. Someone hearing the word “God” may believe that God may have a body and not understand it to mean that which nothing greater can be thought.
2. Just because God may be meant to mean that which nothing greater can be thought, it does not entail that He actually exists.

Aquinas then responds to two arguments against the existence of God:
The Problem of Evil
1. God is infinitely powerful (omnipotent).
2. God is infinitely good (benevolent).
3. A benevolent and omnipotent God would not allow evil to exist.
4. Evil exists.
5. Therefore, God does not exist.

Aquinas argues that God is infinitely good and would allow evil only if He could bring good out of evil. The difficulty with this response is the problem of pointless evil. If Bambi is caught in a forest fire that no one witnesses and dies a horrible, painful death then it seems like pointless evil if we define suffering as evil. If animals have no souls, then what good comes from their pain? Unless humans (the only creatures that have souls) either experience or witness suffering, then there can be no test of faith questioning the benevolence of God.

Argument from Naturalism
1. If we can account for something based on a few original causes (prima causa) we should not use many.
2. We can account for everything without appeal to God via naturalism.
3. Therefore, there is no need to say God exists.

We must trace whatever nature does back to a first cause because nature works for a definite end under the direction of a higher agency. This response is also problematic because it begs the question regarding the purpose of nature, direction, and higher agency. Naturalism, by most definitions, seems to exclude supernatural causation.

Aquinas response and argument for the existence of God consists of the Quinquae Viae or the “Five Ways”.
1. The argument from change – objects that have potentiality for change cannot actually change without some other force. Everything that changes is made to change by something else. If we regress this principle to a first cause, we conclude that the first cause is not changed by anything. This is what we understand to be God.
2. The argument from causation – efficient causes come in series and we cannot find anything that is its own efficient cause because that would entail that it came before itself, which is logically impossible. Efficient cause cannot go back to infinity, which means that there is a first efficient cause. This is what we understand to be God.
3. The argument from possibility and necessity – some things can either exist or fail to exist. If something can fail to exist then at some point it has failed to exist. A regress again leads us to conclude that at some point, nothing existed. For something to begin to exist, there must be something that already exists out of necessity. We must therefore conclude that there exists something necessary that does not owe its necessity to anything else but causes the necessity of other things. This is what we understand to be God.
4. The argument from the gradation of things – some things are found to be better, truer, or nobler than others. Something is said to have more or less of a quality according to its distance to its maximum. The greatest thing, according to Aristotle, is the cause of everything of that kind. Therefore, there is something that is the cause of being, goodness, and perfection. This is what we understand to be God.
5. The argument from the governance of the world – all things, even those lacking consciousness, act for a purpose.

Premises 1-3 do not conclusively proof the existence of God over naturalism. One could argue that you can substitute “Big Bang” for “God” in these premises as well. There will always remain, however, the question of where matter came from in the first place when it comes to the Big Bang even if you believe in a cyclical, no loss of matter hypothesis.

Premises 4-5 are problematic if you do not assume the existence of God in the first place. It is hard, once again, to get away from the subjectivism as in Anselm’s argument and his idea of “greater”. If we cannot objectively define “greater” and “lesser” without human convention then this will always be a problem. This is a better argument than Anselm but more is required.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcomed.

Best Wishes,

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