The fifth and last of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways is the argument from design, or, as he calls it, the argument from the governance of the world. We’ve already talked about medieval people saw purpose and meaning in everything around them. Sometimes they were mistaken about the mechanics of how things happen in the natural world or in medicine, but they saw that the world is basically ordered and logical, and they were able to study the natural world and expand their knowledge and understanding. They were able to build amazing feats of engineering, like the Gothic Churches (Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris), even without our modern technology.
As our understanding of the natural world expands we find more and more of what seems to be design at every level of creation. Everything has an end, or purpose, that is logical and predictable once we understand it. In the natural world, every member of an ecosystem has an vital function, bacteria, insects, prey, and predators, and if you remove part of the ecosystem, like when they killed the last of the wolves in Yosemite National Park, or add in something that doesn’t belong, like introducing cane toads to Australia, can have catastrophic consequences.
We find design in subatomic particles in the number and arrangement of neutrons, electrons, and protons, and we find design in the structure of the universe itself, from the Big Bang to today, everything holds together. When something doesn’t hold together we don’t assume that it just is that way or that it’s just illogical; we assume that we haven’t yet found the explanation. For example, if you find a hut in the middle of the desert you wouldn’t assume that a tornado stacked up a bunch of rocks and wood and branches that way purely by chance, but that a person had built it. There is far more design in the universe than there is in even the grandest house. If, for example, the explosion of the Big Bang had been one trillionth of a degree hotter or colder then carbon could not have developed, and carbon is necessary for all known life. Also, if the force of gravity had been a fraction of a percent stronger or weaker the stars could not have formed. Out of trillions of possible universes, this is the one we got.
St. Thomas Aquinas puts it like this. We see that things which lack intelligence act for an end, so as to attain that end, as the stars and planets move in a certain way. They achieve that end by design, and not by chance. Something that lacks intelligence cannot act towards an end unless it is directed by something that has intelligence, such as an arrow shot by an archer which cannot reach the target on its own but must be directed. Therefore, some intelligence exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end, and this we call God.
The arrows flight can be explained by the laws of gravity, aerodynamics, etc., but it’s direction can only be explained by the person who directed it. The movement of planets, stars, and galaxies can be explained by the laws of physics, but it cannot explain the fact that it seems to be directed towards the development of human life.
St. Thomas Aquinas’ five ways probably won’t convince someone who has different assumptions about existence than Christians do, and they don’t even prove everything that the Bible teaches us about God. They do, however, describe an intelligent, necessary First Cause who is the source of all perfections. We can argue about whether they prove our faith, but they certainly help us to understand it a little bit better.
The fourth of St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Ways” shows, once again, that we think about the world in a different way than the medieval person did. We tend to look for physical causes for everything, because the success of the sciences, especially physics and biology, have shown how valuable that way of thinking is. We tend to look at abstract properties like goodness, nobility, and beauty as subjective opinions, not something that actually exists in the real world. This is what we mean in the famous saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
The medieval mindset saw meaning, purpose, and symbolism in everything, because they saw God at work in everything. They saw goodness, truth, and beauty as objective, not subjective. Something is more or less good, true, and beautiful based on how well it compared to the ideal in the mind of God.
The argument goes something like this. Some things are more or less good, true, noble, beautiful, etc., than other things. Something is more or less good (noble, beautiful, etc.) as compared to something that is the maximum, the most good, as something that is hot is more or less hot compared to fire. Anything that isn’t perfectly good must get its goodness from something outside of itself that causes it’s goodness. Therefore, there must be a Perfect Good which causes goodness in other things, and this we call God.
If we believe that goodness, beauty, and other attributes like that are completely subjective, then this argument isn’t convincing, and it may even seem naive. Does beauty depend entirely on our opinions whether something is beautify or not? Certainly, my experience, education, and preferences have an effect on what I think is beautiful, and what I think is beautiful someone else might think is ugly. However, I don’t think that our opinions are the standard of beauty, because they depend on our experience, education, and preferences.
For a long time I couldn’t see the beauty and eloquence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I simply didn’t like it. Then, I had a teacher who helped me to see the play in a new light, to understand the deeper themes and the genius of the writing, and to appreciate Romeo and Juliet for the masterpiece that it is. My personal preferences didn’t change, and it’s still not my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, but I came to see that beauty that was already there. That wasn’t based on my opinion. The beauty was there whether I saw it or not, but once I saw it I couldn’t deny it. It reached out and took hold of me. That’s what beauty, truth, and goodness have in common. We can deny them, but they don’t depend on our opinions, and once we see the beauty in a piece of art, the truth in a proposition (like 2 + 2 = 4), or the goodness in another person, we can no longer deny it. So, if beauty, truth, and goodness really exist, then they must come from somewhere, “and this we call God.”
The last three ways may be better to cover one at a time, so we have the space to do it properly. The third way is from possibility and necessity. The things in our experience are only possible, but not necessary, like a chair. The chair can exist, but it doesn’t have to exist. At one time it didn’t exist, and then something caused it to exist, and at some point it will stop existing. If everything were only possible, then there could have been a point in which nothing existed. If this happened then nothing would exist now, since nothing can come from nothing. Obviously, things do exist. The alternative is that some things are necessary and must exist, and are not just possible. Logically, they must receive their necessity from themselves or from something else, and we’ve already seen that a chain of causes cannot go on for infinity. Therefore, there must be something that does not depend on anything else for its existence, but is necessary of itself. This all men speak of as God.
This is the hardest of the five ways for me to wrap my mind around. I think it’s because all of the things around us are only possible, so it’s hard to imagine that something could be truly necessary. We may think of the universe as necessary, but it began to exist with the Big Bang. Even the laws of the universe are not necessary as many of them began to exist with the Big Bang, and they don’t truly have to be what they are. God, however, is completely self-sufficient and has created everything else that exists.
I think what St. Thomas Aquinas wants us to see is that must things depend on other things to exist. We call this contingent existence. God, on the other hand, is necessary. He is pure existence or the act of existence itself, and He is holding everything else in existence at every moment. Last week I used the example of a pool cue striking a cue ball which then strikes the other balls. This is a series of causes and effects that follow in a sequence. Some things have effects that happen at exactly the same moment. For example, when you plug a lamp into a power outlet the electricity causes the lamp to light up, but it happens simultaneously. The same thing happens when you pick up a ball. You hand is causes the ball to rise, but it’s not one thing and then the other, they happen at the same time. God didn’t just create us and let us go; like a parent, He is constantly holding us in existence. The Catechism says:
“With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end. Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence” (CCC 301).
And as the Acts of the Apostles says, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28)
This Advent we’ve made a point to talk a lot about who God is and what kind of life He is calling us to. We’ve made the point that we have a choice to follow God’s will or our own will, to obtain meaning from God or to live without meaning and purpose, because God made everything with meaning and purpose, but without God everything is just the result of a series of accidents. So, how can we be sure that God really exists? Do we just have to take the best guess with no real evidence?
There are two ways to know something: in itself or from its effects. For example, you can know a person because you met them or because you’ve seen the things that they did. St. Thomas Aquinas believes that we cannot know God in Himself, because He is mysterious and out of our reach (He does reveal Himself to us, but this is Revelation, not reason). Therefore, St. Thomas Aquinas argues for the existence of God from His effects, that is, from the world around us.
First, we have to have a starting point, so we’ll start with something that we can’t prove, but that is obvious and irrefutable. Nothing comes from nothing. To put it another way, you can’t get something from nothing. Everything has a sufficient reason for its existence. This is called, fitting, The Principle of Sufficient Reason. From this assumption, St. Thomas Aquinas has five ways, or arguments, to come to the existence of God. I’ll summarize two of his arguments today, and we’ll come back to the other three another time. Notice that these ways don’t just try to prove that God exists; they also try to tell us something about God. The original text of the Five Ways can be found in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, in the third article of the second question of the “Prima Pars.”
The Argument from Motion begins with the fact that some things in this world are in motion. We know that whatever is moved is moved by something else. For example, in pool the balls move because they are struck by the cue ball. However, the thing that moves the first thing must also be put in motion by something else, just as the cue ball is first put in motion by the pool cue. This cannot go on infinitely, because then there would be no First Mover and therefore no motion. Therefore, it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other, and this everyone understands to be God.
The Argument from Causation is similar to the Argument from Motion. Based on the Principle of Sufficient Reason, we know that nothing can cause itself to exist. An oak tree, for example, comes from an acorn, but the acorn must also be planted in good soul and get enough water for an oak tree to grow. These things are all causes of the oak tree. Now, there’s an order to causes. The acorn that grew into the oak tree came from another oak tree, which came from another acorn, and so on. This procession of causes can’t keep going forever. If there is no First Cause, then there can be no subsequent causes, and then nothing would exist. If there was no original acorn or oak tree, then none of the ones that came from it could exist. However, we know that things do exist. Therefore, there must be a First Cause, and this everyone calls God.
This Friday we’ll celebrate Christmas and the fact that this First Mover and First Cause entered the world as a little baby born to the Blessed Mother. He isn’t only the distant God of the philosophers; He is also fully revealed to us in the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.