Tag Archives: Thomas Aquinas

McDermott’s Aquinas

I’ve been reading Timothy McDermott’s Aquinas anthology (Aquinas: Selected Philosophical Writings. Oxford University Press, 1993). Overall I recommend it, though with reservations.

Aquinas will often begin a discussion with a numbered list of questions and then, many pages later, refer back to these by their numbers alone, requiring the reader to flip back through the book trying to find where exactly Aquinas said what “the fourth question” was. (This annoying feature of St. Thomas’s style makes any attempt to read his work on an e-reader an exercise in futility, as I know from experience. Actual pages to flip are a must.) McDermott ameliorates this considerably with bracketed additions to the text. For example:

[Article 7] The seventh question [Does the goal determine the kind more specifically than the object, or vice versa?] we approach as follows: . . . (p. 352, brackets and boldface in the original).

It’s hard to overstate how much more enjoyable such little touches make the reading experience.

Another plus of McDermott’s translation is that he is not a slave to etymology, as so many Aquinas translators apparently are. Just because the original Latin uses the word accidens, for example, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the best English translation is accident — a word which no longer means in modern English what it meant to Aquinas — so McDermott opts for incidental properties instead. This often makes Aquinas’s meaning much more transparent. One downside, though, is that most other Aquinas translators are slaves to etymology, so someone who reads only this translation will not learn the etymologically correct technical terms (such as accident) which most English-speakers use when discussing Aquinas. A translator’s note at the beginning of one of the passages highlights the sort of confusion that may arise:

Deliberately, ‘condition’ translates dispositio, ‘disposition’ habitus, and ‘habit’ and ‘custom’ consuetudo. ‘Moderation’ and ‘courage’ translate temperantia and fortitudo; ‘deiform virtue’ translates virtus theologica.

This is obviously bound to lead to misunderstanding when the reader attempts to discuss this passage with someone who has learned the more etymologically conventional technical meanings of disposition and habit. And, while many people have heard of the “theological virtues” — faith, hope, and charity — no one who hasn’t read McDermott is going to know what you’re talking about if you start throwing around the word deiform.

McDermott, however, is evidently sensitive to these possible sources of confusion, which is why he includes several helpful “notes on the translation” like the one quoted above. The index also includes the original Latin in parentheses for certain key terms. All in all, his approach is perhaps an acceptable compromise between clarity and “backward compatibility” with other translations.

One slightly annoying feature of the translation is McDermott’s insistence of referring to Muslim scholars by their original Arabic names, using Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sīnā in place of the more familiar Averroës and Avicenna. — the equivalent of insisting on calling Confucius Kǒngzǐ. Since the Latinized names are of course the ones Aquinas used, and are also the ones that modern English-speakers will be familiar with, it’s hard to justify translating them back into Arabic, and I have to assume he did so for political (not to say politically correct) reasons.

More grating is McDermott’s decision to “translate” Dionysius as Pseudo-Dionysius — ridiculous, since, whatever modern scholarship may have to say about it, Aquinas believed he was quoting the actual Dionysius the Areopagite, the disciple of Paul, and he referred to him as such. McDermott’s anachronistic rendition is the equivalent of translating Romans 10:16 as “For Deutero-Isaiah saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?”

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Aquinas’s argument from distinction

Reading Aquinas, I’ve found another argument for the existence of God to add to my list:

The distinctions between things can’t result from chance since they are stably ordered; so they must result from some causal tendency. But not that of a cause acting by necessity of its nature, for nature is determined to one course, and so nothing that acts by necessity of its nature can intend distinction of things as such. So their distinction must result from the intention of a knowing cause; the consideration of distinction seems to be intellect’s prerogative, and Anaxagoras attributed distinction to intellect. But the universal distinction of things can’t result from some secondary cause’s intention, since all such causes are themselves part of the universe of distinct causes. So there must exist a first cause [i.e. God] — as such distinguished from all others — intending the distinction of all things.

— Summa contra Gentiles, 1.50 (McDermott translation)

I’ll comment on this line of argument later, since at this point I am only able to understand it in a very shallow manner, but it seems worth pursuing, and I think it ties into some of my recent epiphanies on the subject of agency.

I am interested in this mainly as an argument for the existence of God, but the secondary conclusion (actually the primary one in the context of the larger text), that God intends the distinction of all things, is also striking. Seijio Arakawa makes a similar point in his Brief Experimental Theology of Heaven and Earth:

The purpose of Earthly human existence (or, at least, the aim to which Earthly existence has been repurposed after the Fall) is not only to produce a number of saved individuals; it is to produce an unimaginable variety of them. (Otherwise, we would have to believe that human variations are always a product of sin or corruption, or at best irrelevant; such a belief certainly interferes with the commandment to love thy neighbour.)

The idea that distinction as such is good and is intended by God could be seen as one of the main things that differentiates Western religion from Eastern.

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Philosophically anarchic vs. dysfunctional

Some have suggested that human will is compelled to choose what it does, though not coerced. For not all compulsion is violent, only external compulsion: the movements of nature are compelled but not violent, since violence — originating outside — is incompatible with both the natural and the willed — both of which originate inside. The suggestion, however, is heretical since it destroys the notion of human action as deserving or undeserving: somebody so compelled to act that he can’t avoid it doesn’t seem to be doing anything deserving or undeserving. The opinion is also philosophically anarchic, not only opposed to the faith but destroying the foundations of ethics. For if we are not in any way free to will but compelled, everything that makes up ethics vanishes: pondering action, exhorting, commanding, punishing, praising, condemning. Opinions like these, which destroy the foundations of a branch of philosophy, are called anarchic: the opinion that nothing changes, for example, which does away with natural philosophy. People are led to embrace them, Aristotle says, partly by brinkmanship and partly by sophistical reasoning to which they can’t find the answers.

— St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae de Malo (McDermott translation)

Finding the term philosophically anarchic a little odd, I looked up the original and found that Prof. McDermott has taken certain liberties with the text (something I had suspected anyway, since his Aquinas is so readable!). In the original Latin, the bolded clause reads as follows: Huiusmodi autem opiniones quae destruunt principia alicuius partis philosophiae, dicuntur positiones extraneae. — so it appears that Aquinas is not calling such opinions anarchic but rather foreign to philosophy, a designation which makes much more sense. Such opinions, regardless of whether or not they can be proven false, simply have no place in philosophy.

(I also looked up the passage from Metaphysics Aquinas cites here, just in case positiones extraneae should turn out to be a translation of a Greek term more properly translated as anarchic. But Aristotle merely attempts to explain why some people might deny the principle of non-contradiction. He doesn’t create and define a category of anarchic/foreign opinions as Aquinas does, or at least not in the cited passage.)

Aquinas’s concept of opinions which are foreign to philosophy is comparable to my concept of philosophically dysfunctional opinions. (See my use of that term here and here.) But Aquinas’s definition — opinions “which destroy the foundations of a branch of philosophy” — manifests a typically scholastic let’s-classify-everything approach which I find less than helpful. I prefer to define a philosophically dysfunctional opinion as one that undermines, not some particular branch of philosophy (perhaps some branches, such as astrology, deserve to be undermined?) but philosophy itself — thought itself, in fact.

The end purpose of all thought is to serve as a guide to action. This purpose can be frustrated, and thought rendered dysfunctional, in several different ways, but — to attempt to get into the scholastic spirit a bit — philosophical dysfunctions can be classified under three main heads:

  1. The denial of ends. If nothing is good or bad, or if no particular thing matters more than any other particular thing, then the idea of a “guide to action” makes no sense. A guide cannot function without a destination.
  2. The denial of means. If there is no causation, or if causal relations cannot be known and reasoned about, there can similarly be no guidance. In addition to knowing the destination, we need to know which roads lead to it and which do not.
  3. The denial of agency itself. Obviously if there is no action — only the passive propagation of mechanistic cause-and-effect — then there is nothing to guide.

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The Argument from Degrees of Perfection

The fourth of Kreeft & Tacelli’s 20 arguments for the existence of God is the Argument from Degrees of Perfection. This is also one of Aquinas’s “five ways” — the weakest of the five, in my opinion.


Summary of the argument

  1. We think of some attributes as being scalar in nature — that is, as admitting of various degrees of “more” or “less.” Examples include heat and cold, the light and dark of colors, and good and bad.
  2. Degrees of “more” and “less” imply the ideas of “most” and “least.” A continuum is defined by its two endpoints. For example, when we say one color is lighter than another, we mean that it is closer to the extreme of pure white and further from the opposite extreme of pure black. Without the extremes as standards of measurement, the idea of a continuum falls apart.
  3. Sometimes a degree of a particular attribute is communicated to an object by an outside source. For example, things are hotter when they are physically closer to a source of heat.
  4. Being itself, though it may seem like a binary quality, admits of degrees of perfection. An intelligent being exists to a more perfect degree than an unintelligent one; a being capable of love exists to a more perfect degree than one without that capacity.
  5. “But if these degrees of perfection pertain to being and being is caused in finite creatures, then there must exist a best,’ a source and real standard of all the perfections that we recognize belong to us as beings.”
  6. This perfect being is God.

There are an awful lot of things wrong with this argument, which I suspect was included in K & T’s list more for historical reasons (Aquinas!) than because anyone still finds it convincing. I mention a few of its faults below.


The idea of a continuum is prior to the idea of its extreme endpoints.

Locke spells this out with great clarity in the second book of his Essay Concerning Humane Understanding. (No, I didn’t have that reference at my fingertips. I just so happen to be reading that book at the moment.) The above argument seems to imply that we begin with the ideas of the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small, and that only with those ideas in place are we able to say that a rhinoceros is bigger than a breadbox — meaning that it is closer to the one extreme and farther from the other than a breadbox is. This is the opposite of the truth. First we notice that some finite things are larger than others, and, extrapolating from such differences, we finally arrive at the idea of immensity.


The infinite cannot serve as a standard of measurement.

Not only is it a psychological fact that we do not conceive of scalar attributes in this way; we cannot logically do so. Both the rhinoceros and the breadbox are infinitely distant from either extreme. It makes no mathematical sense to say that the rhinoceros is closer to being infinitely large than the breadbox is; therefore, that can’t be what is meant by saying that it is “bigger.”

Some continua have the form of a ray rather than line; one end terminates at some finite value, and the other extends indefinitely. For example, for temperature there is an absolute zero but no corresponding “absolute hotness.” Nevertheless, one fixed point of reference is enough. We could logically define colder as “closer to absolute zero” and hotter as “further from absolute zero.” (Psychologically, of course, that is not what we do. People who have no concept of absolute zero can understand “hotter” and “colder” well enough.)

In such ray-shaped continua, it is always the negative end of the scale which terminates in a finite and intelligible value — zero — which could be meaningfully used as a standard. “Closer to zero” means something; “closer to infinity” does not. Thus, even if we grant that degrees of perfection require some standard from which to be measured, that standard would have to be nothingness (“absolute zero”) rather than God (“absolute hotness”).


Extremes are (at best) necessary for our understanding of intermediate degrees, not for the existence of the same.

In Aquinas’s original argument (if memory serves), he stated that any being which possesses a particular attribute to some intermediate degree necessarily receives that attribute from the being which possesses it maximally — that all warm things, for example, receive that warmth from “absolute hotness” (which Aquinas identified with fire). This is such obvious baloney that K & T drop it, granting only the logically irrelevant point that sometimes hot things receive their heat from some other hot thing.

With this premise dropped, all that can be argued is that the concept of the maximum is necessary in order for us to understand the concept of a continuum — not that an actually existing maximum is necessary in order for lesser degrees of the quality in question to exist. Even if we grant the validity of this psychological point (setting aside my objections to it above), it implies nothing about the actual existence of God.


Is “being” really scalar?

Though further objections are superfluous at this point, I can’t help pointing out that the proposed scale of various degrees of perfection of being (point 4 in my summary above) seems pretty contrived, an attempt to force several qualitatively different characteristics into a quantitative continuum. Intelligence is one scale; capacity for love, another. And being itself isn’t a scale at all but a binary yes-or-no quality.

But this is not an essential point. If the argument were otherwise valid, it would still work even without this particular scale. (God would then presumably represent the standard/maximum for several different scalar attributes, such as power, wisdom, love, etc.)


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The Argument from Time and Contingency

This is the third installment in a series discussing and evaluating Kreeft and Tacelli’s 20 arguments for the existence of God. Having looked at the Arguments from Change and from Efficient Causality, I come now to the Argument from Time and Contingency.


Summary of the argument

K & T’s formulation of this argument (which, like the previous two, originally comes from St. Thomas Aquinas) can be found online here. Below is my summary, which is logically equivalent to K & T’s version, though it is structured rather differently.

  1. “We notice around us things that come into being and go out of being.” These things are contingent beings; that is, it is possible for them not to exist.
  2. Given an infinite duration, anything that is possible (such as the nonexistence of a contingent being) must necessarily come to pass sooner or later. Therefore, no contingent being can continue to exist for an infinite duration.
  3. Since no contingent being can have existed for an infinite duration, there must have been some point in the finitely-distant past when none of the contingent beings in the world existed.
  4. Nevertheless, something must have existed at that time. After all, something exists now, and nothing comes from nothing.
  5. Since that “something” existed at a time when there were no contingent beings in existence, it must have been a non-contingent being — that is, a necessary being, a being for which nonexistence is impossible. And as such, it must still exist now.
  6. Since this necessary being has always existed, and since it must have caused the contingent world to come into being, it is natural to identify it with God, the immortal Creator of the universe.
That’s the argument. Now for my critique,


No people a thousand years ago?

Suppose we accept the premise that it is impossible for a human being to live for 1,000 years. Could we then reason as follows?

  1. No human being can live for 1,000 years.
  2. Therefore, 1,000 years ago, none of the people in the world existed.
  3. Therefore, there were no people at all 1,000 years ago. The entire human race is less than a millennium old.

Obviously, this is fallacious. There could have been (and, of course, actually were) people 1,000 years ago — just different people, not the ones who are alive now. Even though no particular person can live for such a long time, people as a class can.

It is similarly fallacious to conclude that there must have been some time in the past when no contingent beings at all existed. Suppose, for example, that every time one contingent being ceases to exist, a new contingent being begins to exist. In that case, contingent beings as a class could continue to exist for an infinite duration, even though no particular contingent being can do so.

And in fact, that’s just what we observe: that when one contingent being ceases to exist, a new one comes into being. It’s called the law of conservation of energy.


Nothing really begins or ceases to exist.

Another way of putting the same point is to deny the premise that “We notice around us things that come into being and go out of being.” K & T’s example of this is a tree, which “grows from a tiny shoot, flowers brilliantly, then withers and dies.” Although we say colloquially that the tree comes into existence and then ceases to exist, all that is really going on is that matter is assuming different forms and configurations. At the ontological level, nothing comes into being when a tree grows, and nothing goes out of being when it dies. A dying tree isn’t annihilated, just changed.

Like the second argument, this one is based on an equivocal use of the word “exist,” conflating mere change with creation or annihilation.


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Kreeft & Tacelli’s 1st argument for God: Change

I recently read Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics, an intelligent and well-written summary of various arguments for the truth of Christianity. It was recommended to me by Bruce Charlton, and I pass the recommendation on to anyone who has more than a passing interest in religious questions. Kreeft and Tacelli write in a very clear and engaging style, and they helped me see the force of some arguments that I had long dismissed.

The book begins with a series of 20 different arguments for the existence of God (available online), and I’ve decided to go through each of them, one at a time, and attempt to evaluate their validity. I’ll be posting my thoughts and conclusions on this blog.


Why I’m doing this

God, as conceptualized by the philosophers and orthodox theologians, is an idea I’ve never properly considered.

Although I was formerly very religious, the religion I was raised in (Mormonism) worships a physical being which happens to exist as part of the universe but has no metaphysical significance — a God only in the sense that Hercules could be called a god. There is no place for the God of the theologians. Because the Mormon God plays no philosophical or metaphysical role, there can obviously be no philosophical argument for his existences. His existence is an empirical inference based primarily on the subjective data of personal religious experience. As a believer, I had of course encountered the classical “proofs” of God’s existence but dismissed them as irrelevant; the subject of the proofs obviously had nothing whatsoever to do with the God I knew.

Later, when I concluded that the available evidence wasn’t consistent with Mormonism after all, I slipped very naturally into the atheistic materialism to which Mormonism is (in theory, though of course not in practice) so closely allied. I continued to dismiss the arguments for God’s existence — after all, even as a believer I had been able to see they were bogus! It took me a long time to realize my fallacy, to realize that I had never really been a theist in the sense that creedal Christians are theists, and that I had never really given the question of God’s existence any serious consideration.

I now intend to rectify that omission. Kreeft and Tacelli’s list of arguments offers a convenient framework for doing so. I will begin, in this post, with the first of the 20: the Argument from Change.


Summary of the argument

The original argument as it appears in the Handbook can be found here. (The real original comes from Aquinas, of course, but I will be evaluating it in the form in which K & T present it.) Below is my summary of the argument as I understand it. I’ve rephrased some things in more congenial terminology, but I think I’ve remained true to the substance of the original.

  1. Whenever a given system changes from one state to another, the change must have been caused by something external to the system itself. This is because “Nothing can give itself what it does not have, and the changing thing cannot have now, already, what it will come to have then.”
  2. The universe (“the sum total of all matter, space, and time”) is itself a changing system.
  3. Therefore, something (call it Q) must exist which transcends the universe (matter, time, and space) and causes it to change. Otherwise the universe could not change.
  4. Because Q transcends time, it does not itself change. (This obviates the need for an infinite series of meta-Q’s.)
  5. A “real being transcendent to the universe” is “one of the things meant by ‘God.'” So Q could be God.

This whole genre of argument — highly abstract, relying on seemingly obvious generalizations, and leading up to a counterintuitive conclusion — reminds of nothing so much as the famous paradoxes of Zeno of Elea, and for that reason alone I would be wary of leaning to heavily on it, even if I could find no fault with the reasoning itself. But I do find several apparent faults.


“Nothing can give itself what it does not have.”

Given that any system consists of a number of interacting parts, why is it impossible for a change of state to be internally caused? Kreeft and Tacelli explain it thus:

Nothing can give itself what it does not have, and the changing thing cannot have now, already, what it will come to have then. The result of change cannot actually exist before the change.

This is a bit obscure, but what they seem to mean is this:

  1. Suppose system S comes to be in state p, a state it was not in previously.
  2. Suppose further that the change to state p was caused entirely by things internal to S; then we could say that S “gave itself” state p.
  3. Nothing can give what it does not have. Therefore, S already “had” state p before it “gave” it to itself.
  4. What can it mean for a system to “have” a state but for it to be in that state? Therefore S was already in state p before it came to be in state p, which is absurd.
  5. Therfore, the change must have been cause by something external to S.

If this is indeed what Kreeft and Tacelli intend (and I’m kind of hoping I’ve misunderstood them), the argument depends on a very strange conception of causality — one which views states as unanalyzable units which never come into being but are merely passed from one system to another. If a system comes to be in a particular state, that state must have been “given” to it by something which was already in that state.

A concrete example should make it clear that this is an inadequate way of conceptualizing causation. Suppose a billiard ball hits a wall and changes its velocity. What gave it the new velocity? It couldn’t have been the wall, because the wall didn’t have that velocity and therefore couldn’t have given it. Suppose nothing in the entire universe had that particular velocity until the ball came to have it. Then what? Did Q give the ball its new velocity? But if Q is immaterial and atemporal, it obviously can’t have any particular velocity and therefore (by this logic) can’t give anything any particular velocity. So even if we grant this very bizarre model of causation, it undermines the conclusion of the argument: that Q is the ultimate source of all change.


Eternal cause, temporal effect?

But suppose we grant for the sake of argument that a changing universe cannot be accounted for without postulating something outside of the universe. Does Q — a hypothesized entity which transcends space and time — offer an adequate explanation of the changes we observe?

I don’t see how it possibly can. Q is supposed to transcend the universe and thus to be timeless — but each of the changes we observe in the universe takes place at a particular point in time. How can a change which takes place in time (as it must, that being part of the definition of change) be explained by a cause which is eternal and unchanging? If the sufficient conditions for a given change have always been in place and will always be so, world without end, then what accounts for the fact that the change takes place at this time rather than that one? How can an eternal and unchanging cause account for anything other than an eternal and unchanging state of affairs? Q just doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing that could possibly cause anything to change.


Changing system + something else = a bigger changing system

But suppose we grant for the sake of argument that Q is in fact a necessary and sufficient explanation of the fact that the universe changes. Then is everything accounted for?

Apparently not. While Q itself does not change, the system comprising Q plus the physical universe (call it the meta-universe) does change — and, ex hypothesi, any changing system requires something outside of itself to account for the fact that it changes. So we need to postulate a meta-Q to explain the changing meta-universe, and so on ad infinitum. The series will necessarily be infinite because (1) if any part of a system changes, the system itself changes; and (2) a system plus something that interacts with it necessarily constitutes a larger system.

Since an infinite series of nested universes doesn’t explain anything, there must be something wrong with the premise that a changing system must be changed by something outside the system.



My goal here is to really understand and fairly evaluate these arguments, not to “win” on behalf of atheism. If I’ve misunderstood the argument, or if my objections miss the point, I hope someone will leave a comment and set me right.


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