The edge*

* THOMAS AQUINAS AND THE ARGUMENT FROM CONTINGENCY. PROVING GOD AS A STRATEGY.

Fides et Ratio

When Anselm proposed his ontological argument for the existence of God, he received a great number of objections. A fallacious and anachronistic deduction would be that all these objections came from atheists. In fact, the great enemy of Anselm was a Benedictine monk, Gaunilo of Marmoutiers. Even today, the refusal for a strictly logical demonstration of the existence of God comes mostly from certain Christians. Because faith does not have to be demonstrated. Faith is faith. There is a famous sentence, ascribed to Tertullian: “Credo quia absurdum”. I believe because it’s absurd. In tougher words: It’s absurd, therefore I believe.

This statement became a theoretical embankment for the flood of Aristotelism, invading Christian Europe from the Muslim world. It became an embankment for the attempt to “translate” Christianity into the Aristotelian paradigm. But finally the flood broke into the official doctrine of the Church, and more than two centuries after the condemnation of 1277, Aristotelism shone over the articles of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The dispute about the Eucharist, for example, was solved in terms of a “real presence” (substantial) fully separated from matter (“species”). The miracle reduced to a mystery. The event happening without contradicting any physical law.

The artificer of this spectacular somersault, the mind behind the perfect marriage of “fides et ratio”, was Thomas Aquinas. With him, the Church entered a new age. On one side, the Church could claim faith not to be in contradiction with rational and physical laws, shielding itself from any rational objection. On the other, the same faith was more than reason, preserving his superior – immaterial but substantial – truth. Tertullian’s concerns were someway integrated in their exceeding: an “edge” is still there, and there won’t be full flattening of the two levels[1].

Then, it was time again for proving God, with a stronger awareness: that we’re not proving the existence of God because we need to know if God exists. In fact, we know it because we believe in the Revelation. We’re proving the rational necessity of God so as to prove the formal consistency of the Revelation and rational laws. Misunderstanding this would be an anachronism: because of course, in the thirteenth century who needed to prove God? Was there anyone who didn’t believe?[2] Then, why did so many thinkers lost their time on a useless demonstration?

Regressus ad finitum

When Thomas Aquinas defines his famous “Five Ways” to God, his concern is more epistemological than theological: he’s improving his philosophical system, showing that reason and Aristotelism aren’t a hazard for true belief. Of course, God is more than what is said by the five ways (again, the edge). That’s why the Revelation is fundamental. But here Aquinas is enquiring into the coherence of rational laws: if the Aristotelian model of the world is right, then it will lead to God. If not, the model is wrong. But since he knows it’s right, and want it to be right, Aquinas’ operation is almost rhetorical.

From an epistemological point of view, the most interesting of the five is the Third Way, the “argument from contingency”[3]. For Aquinas, everything we experience comes from non-being to being, and from being to non-being. That’s what is meant by “contingency”. Then if everything is contingent, the world itself is contingent. That is to say, the world could not be. Then, why is the world? This is the fundamental ontological question: “Why is there something instead of nothing?”. Since from non-being nothing comes, world is possible only if there is something not-contingent, that is to say something that has to be, and could not “not be”: a necessary entity. The “itinerarium” is over, here is God.

As any “Cosmological Argument”, the third way moves from the world to the existence of God. We can consider Aquinas’ argument as a correction of preceding naïve cosmological arguments. Saying that any being has to be caused leads to a vicious circle: “if God had made the world, who had made God?, and who had made who had made God?, and who had made who had made who had made God?, and who had made who had made who had made who had made God?”, etc. Saying that only contingent beings have to be caused, the circle can be stopped on a necessary being. The recursive rule of production cannot be applied on God.

There are some similarities with Aristotle’s Cosmological Argument, the confutation of “regressus ad infinitum” and consequent theory of “Unmoved Mover”: but Aquinas’ one is finely different. Aristotle deals with movement and stillness, that is to say his terms are physical. On the contrary Aquinas deals with necessity and contingency, in ontological terms. The argumentative structure is the same (Aristotle: “a moving world needs an unmoved mover”; Aquinas: “a contingent world needs a necessary ground”), but in fact it’s not the same argument. The God described in Metaphysics is fundamentally a “first mover”, that is to say he ceased to be useful. He gave the first push, then the world can work without it. Physical terms produced God only as an outdated physical task. Aristotle’s God is now useless. Aquinas’ God is necessary: he will never exhaust his function. And his function is ontological as a substance, and epistemological as a concept.

The substratum of reality

The Third Way is not a physical explanation, but a philosophical one. In fact, it’s meta-physical in the sense that it’s an enquiry on the conditions of physical reality. Aquinas knows that the nature of God is different from that of the world. Everything is perishable, God is not. Everything is in time, God is not. Everything is material, God is not. Then, the step from contingent world to God is a jump outside physical reality, which is the realm of contingent beings. Notwithstanding, this jump doesn’t come from a sudden revelation: it’s a logical consequence of the ontological exam of physical reality. Reason shows the limits of reason, and Aristotelian science proves that physical reality is breeding a contradiction. A model of the world as composed by contingent beings ruled by causality can’t work. It doesn’t work because of the infinite regression of causes. The set of laws ought to be limited. Aristotle understood it, and that’s why he needed a “Deus ex machina” to solve the contradiction of his system. A non-physical (unmoved) entity, allowing physical reality. An exception, for confirming the rule.

Nevertheless, Aquinas’ God is not a “God of the Gaps” – that is to say a conceptual cover for the limits of human knowledge. Actually, the problem is that reality itself shows an enormous gap: the contingent world cannot rationally exist. Then, reality needs to be hung on something solid, a meta-physical entity pumping being inside its lifeless body. This remembers the emanating theory of Being[4], but Aquinas isn’t expressing it in the language of Neo-Platonists, cabbalists, or any other mystics. What he’s saying is rather that God creates the world in every moment, bringing it from not-being to being, supporting it into being “per partecipationem”: “Relinquitur ergo quod omnia alia a Deo non sint suum esse, sed participant esse. Necesse est igitur omnia quae diversificantur secundum diversam participationem essendi, ut sint perfectius vel minus perfecte, causari ab uno primo ente, quod perfectissime est”[5]. In the words of Brian Davies, for Aquinas

to say that God is making things to exist is not to locate what God is doing at a time prior to what is existing because of him. To call God ‘Creator’ is, for Aquinas, to draw attention to what God is bringing about at any time. For him, creation is not an event in time: it is the making to be of things in time for all the time that they exist. Most typically, Aquinas uses the verb ‘to create’ when thinking of God as getting the universe started. But he thinks of this divine activity as almost exactly on a level with God’s bringing it about that anything, at any time, has esse.[6]

God will be the answer to the question, “why is there something instead of nothing?” His necessity is the perennial ontological ground of everything existing. In other words, the substratum of reality[7]. Thus, the argument from contingency is not prominent as a proof of the existence of God. It doesn’t teach us anything really new about God: his necessary existence was out of discussion. What this argument is saying is about the world and its knowledge. It’s claiming the epistemological necessity of God as the guarantee of the legality of a world of contingent beings. This world should be the object of philosophical investigation, and can be completely understood by its means. But still, God is sustaining everything. And if we want to understand why “this world should be the object of philosophical investigation, and can be completely understood by its means” then we need God.

There we can answer our initial question: why did so many thinkers lost their time on a useless demonstration? In fact, Aquinas is not proving fides with ratio, but ratio with fides. Aquinas had to work on two fields[8]. On the first, he had to prove that reason wasn’t contradicting the Revelation, in order to legitimate Aristotelian paradigm. On the second, he had to keep the leading role of Revelation, and not indulge in a complete “reductionism” of reality into a rational model. He had to superimpose the two paradigms, but leaving an edge. That edge is the metaphysical ground of Creation by which he legitimated Aristotelian philosophy, at one time subordinating it and liberating it. It was an ontological, epistemological, and finally political price to pay. This is the great value of Aquinas’ radical work of modernization. The Horse is inside the walls, then Troy will burn.

Raffaele Ventura

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[1] See John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, in particular the part on Thomas Aquinas (§43-44): “The key point and almost the kernel of the solution which, with all the brilliance of his prophetic intuition, he gave to the new encounter of faith and reason was a reconciliation [consistency] between the secularity of the world and the radicality of the Gospel, thus avoiding the unnatural tendency to negate the world and its values while [edge] at the same time keeping faith with the supreme and inexorable demands of the supernatural order”

[2] On “atheism” as an anachronistic hermeneutic point of view, see L. Febvre, Le Problème de l’incroyance au XVIe siècle : La Religion de Rabelais, Albin Michel, 2003. [3] See ST, IÂŞ q.2 a.3 (“The third way is taken from possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence–which is absurd. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.”)

[4] The Fourth Way remembers Plotinus as well, in a more explicit way.

[5] ST, Iª q. 44 a. 1 (“Therefore, everything other than God is not existence but shares in existence. Therefore, one first being, which exists most perfectly, needs to cause all the other things that are differentiated by various sharings in existence and so exist more or less perfectly.”)

[6] B. Davis, Aquinas. An Introduction, Continuum 2002.

[7] Substratum (“hypokeimenon”) was the object of the Aristotle’s First Knowledge, the topic of Metaphysics. The first two books tell the story of the seek of this mysterious substratum, then Aristotle himself propose his uncertain, work-in-progress theory.

[8] Here Aquinas is meant as an historical factor: that is to say that his historical function is not determined by individual purposes, neither conscious nor unconscious.