04 August 2015

Does God Exist? (Part 1)

About 18 months ago I did a full treatment of the fourth of St. Thomas's "Five Ways" of demonstrating God's existence, for my blog, Tollat Summam, which was the first draft of a commentary on the first few questions of the Summa.  I'm currently re-drafting the commentary, amending the various inadequacies of the earlier version, and have, for the past month and a little more, been stuck on Ia q.2 a.3, which is incredibly dense.  Thus far I have constructed expositions of the first three ways, which, while still in need of some further tweaking, are at least satisfactory.  The Third Way in particular was extremely difficult to work through.  The Fourth Way is more difficult than the Third, so now that I come to it, I feel a little dismayed.  ("More? Really?" some part of my psyche seems to say.)  The five ways are foundational for the subsequent questions in the first half of the treatise de Deo Uno (Ia qq.2-26).  To skip any of them, or do them imperfectly with the intention of substantial later revision, would invite massive difficulties in the way of pedagogical re-ordering and the re-composition of sections of text.  In this post I would like to give a quick run-up to the fourth way, for my own purposes.  However, I suspect that what follows will be useful to others as well.

I. The Notion of Theology
St. Thomas begins the Summa by defending the existence and scientific character of theology.  Theology is weird as a discipline for two primary reasons: first, its subject is incapable of being really defined in the present life and seems superfluous when one considers merely the mundane lines of inquiry suggested by the ordinary sciences; secondly, its data are largely non-empirical.  When theology works off of experience, it does so in a highly speculative way, but much of its content is incapable of empirical verification, and is based on faith in divine revelation.

Because of the weirdness of theology, the first difficulty the theologian has in doing theology is specifying what exactly he's talking about.  Is one talking about anything at all?  What is signified by the word "God"?  Is there anything signified by the terms of this discourse?

II.  The Idea of Proving God's Existence
Thomas has a habit of asking "is there such a thing" before he asks "what sort of thing is it".  This habit seems strange, but it makes sense once one acclimates oneself sufficiently to his thought.  Why?  Because Thomas is interested in scientific investigations and demonstrations, and science concerns the nature of existing things.  It is no use to define an abstraction and then subsequently try to pidgeonhole things into it.  One should start by looking at what is, and then try to figure out what it is.  This spares one a host of problems caused by rationalizing prejudices and what the phenomenologists might call "totalizing intentionality".

So, when Thomas demonstrates the existence of God, he is saying "what is" that we're going to be talking about.  The goal is to jump-start the rational investigation of the Divine Essence by showing a number of indirect ways of specifying what aspect of reality we're looking at.  The five ways act as the substrate upon which all subsequent discussions in the first eleven questions of the Prima Pars are built.  "Hoc dicimus Deum" may seem like a cutesy conclusion to a complex metaphysical argument, but St. Thomas's saying, which is the general conclusion to his demonstrations, serves two purposes: first, it grounds the indirect evidence in the common usage of the name, making clear that what ordinary people would call "theology" is in fact being done in the investigations performed—"We're talking about just that sort of thing here too."  The second function of the "hoc dicimus" is to serve as a definition of the term as used in subsequent investigations.  When St. Thomas uses the word in qq.3-11, what he means is "this sort of thing", i.e. an unmoved mover, which is a first efficient cause, which is absolutely necessary and permanent, which possesses maximal actuality and perfection, and which orders the natures of unintelligent things toward their fruition.  The goal, and this is extremely important for properly reading his text is not apologetic, but illuminative.  The goal is not primarily to answer the protests of atheists, but to ground the discourse of theology by identifying its subject.  We can think of qq.3-11 as bookended by two major investigations.  On the front end (q.2), there is the question of what in reality we are talking about as theologians; on the back end (qq.12-13), there is the equally ticklish question of how our petty minds could know—and how our theological talk could be capable of analyzing—such a reality.

III.  The general form of these demonstrations
In q.2 a.2, Thomas lays down the principles which must be used in any demonstration of God's existence.  He distinguishes between demonstrations propter quid—demonstrations of a reasoned fact—and demonstrations quia—demonstrations of fact.  A demonstration propter quid proceeds from something which is objectively prior, to another thing (fact, effect, event, end, being) which is consequent upon it.  These demonstrations give us a fact, but because they give us something which is the basis of the fact, we understand the fact better: it is understood with at least some of its reasons for being so.  Demonstrations quia on the other hand, proceed from an observed consequence to the inference of the existence and, indirectly, the nature of the cause.  Such and such a thing happened, and therefore whatever caused it must belong to the genus of things whose proper effect such and such a thing is. Inferences of this variety are weaker, because the precision with which the cause is specified in the demonstration depends on the uniqueness of the effect and the kind of nature necessary to produce it.  Because we cannot know God directly through our senses, and because nothing is objectively prior to God, it is impossible to demonstrate his existence using a demonstration propter quid.  Any demonstration therefore, must proceed to God by identifying him through his proper effects.  The key, then, for forming any demonstration of the existence of God is to identify a feature of the known world which cannot be explained without recourse to some being which is outside the order of mobile, contingent beings.  Genuine demonstrations of this kind cannot take the form of "God of the gaps" arguments, because the latter simply point to the lack of an explanation, where any number of alternative and reasonable explanations are theoretically conceivable.  A "God of the gaps" argument says "no one has explained the mechanism behind this material phenomenon, therefore God did it".  A genuine demonstration of God's existence says "the nature of this observed feature of the universe cannot be explained by anything other than a radically transcendent cause."  All of St. Thomas's arguments have this latter form.

IV.  The First Way
The first way is based on the nature of motion (i.e. transformation or change, not strictly locomotion).  Motion is the reduction of potency to act.  Everything which undergoes motion is in potency to that which it is becoming, and therefore cannot actually be what it is becoming in the way it is becoming it, since potency and act are mutually exclusive by definition.  But potency is not self-actualizing.  In order to become, something must be caused to become by something which already is.  Therefore whatever undergoes motion must be moved by something other than itself.  But, to consider the chain of movers which are presently actualizing any particular thing in a given moment, it is impossible that this essentially subordinated simultaneous chain of movers should be infinite and without a first cause, since then every mover would be in potency to that which it is becoming, and the entire change would be an instance of self-actualizing potency, or non-existence causing itself to become real.  Therefore in any change, there must be some first mover, which is not in any way moved, and forms the basis of motion.  "God" is the word used for such an unmoved first mover.  So, when we speak of "God" we speak of this sort of thing, which evidently exists.

V.  The Second Way
The second way is based on the order of efficient causes.  Evidently some things cause other things in such a way that their ability to act as causes is dependent on some higher thing.  For example, one giraffe begets another giraffe, but this ability of giraffes to reproduce is essentially dependent on the activity of whatever caused giraffes to exist as a species.  Every successive generation of giraffes is merely a mediator or communicator of the form of giraffe to some other thing.  Now, nothing in a particular species or genus can be the cause of absolutely everything of that kind, because obviously then it would have to be cause of itself.  Therefore whatever kinds of things are caused to exist must refer back to some other kind of thing which caused them to exist.  And when we consider this chain, again we realize that it cannot go on to infinity, because in this case all of the accidental "mediator" causes which are transmitting their forms or kinds to each other, cease to function as mediators, there being no ultimate origin or reason for the particular nature or existence which  they pass on.  So in any series of efficient causes there must be something which is first, which is uncaused, ungenerated, and which acts as the cause of other kinds of things.

VI. The Third Way
The third way is, like the second way, focused on the fact that things are generated, but deals mainly with the question of permanence and the possibility of nonexistence.  Thomas asks whether it is possible that everything is generated and corruptible, and nothing has the absolute permanence which he calls "necessity".  If everything were this way, then the fundamental matter and primary stuff of which the universe is composed would have not existed at some point in the past.  Because nothing comes from nothing, if absolutely nothing had existed in the past, nothing would exist presently, which is absurd.  And had there been some prior cause in the past which created the whole mess of stuff of which the universe is composed out of nothing, such a thing would necessarily exist of its own nature (being able to cause existence simply and absolutely), and therefore could not be contingent.  So there must be something which is necessary and always exists, either conditionally (based on some other thing's necessity) or of its own nature simply.  But if there is a conditionally necessary being which depends on some other conditionally necessary being, etc., we can be sure that there is not an infinite chain of dependent necessary beings, because, taken as a simultaneous composite, the chain would not suffice to explain its own necessity.  Therefore there must be some necessary being, which is absolutely permanent and the existence of which is due to its own nature and nothing else.

02 August 2015

William Buckley, Michael Davies, Malachi Martin, and Joseph Champlin Analyze the State of the Church in 1980

I've been recommended the episode of Buckley's Firing Line linked below several times in the past, but only just ended up watching it now.  It is fantastic.  Do watch it.


So good.

01 August 2015

Cutting the Gordian Knot in St. Thomas's Third Way

[Having languished over this little bit of argumentation for about two weeks now, I have finally clarified it to my present satisfaction.  Here is a summary of my results.]

St. Thomas's Third Way seems obviously fallacious.  Here's the text, divided (by me) into two parts:

  1. The third way is taken from the possible and the necessary, and runs thus. 
  2. 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. 
  3. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. 
  4. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. 
  5. 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. 
  6. 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. 
  7. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. 

  1. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. This all men speak of as God.

Part B is relatively straightforward, but Part A causes lots of trouble.  Our first problem is in line 3: "that which is possible not to be at some time is not".  One common line of interpretation understands this to mean that everything which is possible happens at some point in time.  This is patently absurd, however.  Consider for example an infinite past which consists merely of one ice cube floating through space, toward another ice cube, then passing near it, and floating away from it.  In such a universe there could be an infinite past without every possible state of being having occurred already.

The correct interpretation of line 3 returns to the thought in line 2, which is about generation and corruption.  Thomas's understanding of "possible not to be" in this case is related to a thing's being generated and corruptible.  If something is, and is possible not to be, then it must be generated and corrupted.  And therefore it must at some point in the past not have existed, and will again in the future not exist.

Next he says that "if everything were possible not to be", i.e. if everything were the sort that is generated and corrupted, "then at one time there could have been nothing in existence", and therefore "even now there would be nothing in existence".  One line of interpretation takes him to be making an immediate deduction here: "if everything were possible not to be, then at some point nothing that presently exists existed, and if this were the case nothing would exist presently".

This line of interpretation is, again, ridiculous, because it neglects the possibility that there were previous things which were generated and corrupted, which generated the presently existing universe.  Thomas does not address this objection, presumably (if we are generous, as we should be) because he sees it as obvious and easily dealt with.  The response to the objection is, that such prior generating causes would have had to generate the stuff of the presently existing universe ex nihilo, and this action, because it requires an unlimited power to give things existence, is incompatible with something whose existence itself is contingent.  Therefore if we are to sustain the assumption of a purely contingent universe, we cannot admit a necessarily non-contingent creator in the past, and have to assume that the universe was utterly void of existence at some point, prior to the generation of all presently existing things, their parts, and their fundamental matter.  This is absurd, however, because it would imply that nothing presently exists (since nihil ex nihilo fit).  And so there must be at least something which is permanent and at least conditionally necessary.

Then follows the second half, which is as straightforward as the first and second ways.

Notes on Word Processors

Last night I signed up for a trial of Office 365, the Microsoft software subscription service, so I could try out Office 2016 for Mac before its official release. Over the years I've switched between various word processors.

Back in the days of Mac OS 9, I was an occasional user of AppleWorks (and ClarisWorks before that). MS Word was obviously superior to these at the time, just as it remains superior every successive Apple word processor.  

Late in high school I experimented with LaTeX, which has a kind of beauty and conceptual purity to it, but which is not easily customizable, and requires one to de-bug text, which can be enormously annoying (normal proofreading is bad enough).  Also, I tend to be a little obsessive about formatting and design, and adjustments are not very easy to do in LaTeX without a lot of tinkering under the hood.  

During college I used MS Word for the most part, but also did a lot of drafting in Google Docs, which had the (then newfangled) guarantee that you would never lose your work from crashes.  I also experimented with a web-app called "Write or Die", which encourages you to keep writing by playing horrible sounds and flashing unpleasant colors on the screen if you stop for more than a few seconds.  This was a great help in forcing myself to focus and simply put down ideas I had already worked out. 

In graduate school I used Write or Die periodically, but mainly MS Word. In my first year, I experimented with hand-writing papers, including one extended composition written entirely by hand over the course of a day and a half, and another lengthy essay written in a single evening. (Typing does not always increase the speed of composition.)

Write or Die made me accustomed to listening to Hanson's "Mmmbop" while writing (it was one of their punishment tracks).  In my second year of graduate school, I wrote a significant portion of my MA Thesis on Foucault and Aquinas listening to that song.

Two years ago I tried a minimalistic "markdown" text editor called iA Writer.  This application and its relatives promise to make focusing easier, but their formatting idiosyncrasies prevent me from wanting to write anything in them.  Who wants to have to fiddle with conversion from mark-down to normal rich text?  Also, the focus factor really wasn't there any more than in any of the simple standard plain text editors.

A little over a year ago I splurged on Srivener.  I'd been working on a book project, and wanted to keep it organized.  Scrivener makes organization very easy, and it has a nifty two-window feature that makes it possible to put source material in one pane and your draft in the pane immediately next to it.  

This summer I finally realized that Scrivener, for all of its doodads and organizational tech is more of an impediment to organization than a help.  The way it divides up and funkly formats your text makes me uncomfortable.  I have nearly two decades of experience with MS Word.  I know how to get what I want out of it.  Scrivener, not os much.  So, when I started re-drafting my Summa commentary, I ditched Scrivener and went back to Word.

That brings us to the original point, which was my acquisition of Office 2016 for Mac.  It's beautiful! The interface is very clean and tasteful and it feels stable (so far).  It fits with the new look of Mac OS (the Yosemite/El Capitan look), and it is compatible with the new El Capitan split-screen feature, which is a huge plus for me.

31 July 2015


This is the platform of the North/Clybourn CTA station in Chicago.

Like most Red Line subway stations, it is ugly, drab, bare.  North/Clybourn happens to immediately adjoin a large Apple Store (upstairs and across a small courtyard).   Here you can see the train station on the right and the Apple Store on the left.  The two are in the middle of a shopping district in one of Chicago's stably posh yuppie neighborhoods, Lincoln Park.

The company has seen fit to buy the advertising space on the platform walls to remind you that you're only a few steps away from the latest gadget.  Normally the lightboxes feature gigantic pictures of iPads, MacBooks and such.

Lately, they have decided to fill these lightboxes (which are quite large—each is about 12 feet long) with images from the iPhone 6 "World Gallery".  What a difference!  Waiting for a train recently, I saw the image below, and was captured by it.  What a vision!  What an amazing thing to stick in such a gloomy, utilitarian space.

by Flavio Sarescia

Notes on Earthsea

I Spent all night working through Thomas's Third Way.  I should be sleeping now, but instead I finished reading a novel, so I wanted to write something about it.

This week I read the three books of the original Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin.  Having read nothing by Le Guin prior to this, except perhaps a short story in middle school, it was a positive experience.  The first and third books of the series were better than the second, but I think only the first (A Wizard of Earthsea) had a really impressive level of philosophical and psychological depth.  Reading plot summaries of the later books, and thinking back on the themes of the original three, it seems like Le Guin is fixated on death and the dead.  Her portrayal of the underworld was peculiar.  The amount of power she gives to these dark spirits and "Old Powers" was odd.  I'm sure it has some sort of Jungian basis, but from this reader's perspective it comes across as oddly obsessive, especially given the lack of substance to it all.  But the first book was really good.

Billuart on why creatures cannot create

"Ad creandum principaliter requiritur virtus infinita: atqui nullius creaturae, sed solius Dei virtus est aut esse potest infinita: ergo.  Min. constat. Prob. maj.: tanto major requiritur virtus in agente ad producendum formam ex potentia, quanto magis est remota potentia et minores sunt dispositiones ad illam formam: ergo ubi nulla est potentia, nullae dispositiones, ut in creatione, requiritur virtus infinita."

(Summa Sancti Thomae, Book II, Treatise on the Work of the Six Days, First Dissertation, Article IV.)