Looking Back: The Quinquae Viae

After taking a year to complete a series I originally only intended to do for a month, I think it would do well to look back on things I have learned about the Quinquae Viae since I started studying them.

Firstly, I’d like to point out that my initial thoughts about what they were were incomplete. I said that they were starter arguments, cursory summaries of a text designed to be part of a course on the nature of God and thus would be further explained as his students moved through their coursework.

And I don’t think I was wrong. Indeed, to properly understand Aquinas’ arguments there are quite a number of principles you have to do your research on. The Principle of the Maximum that you find in the Fourth Way, cannot just be assumed to be the same Neo-Platonic reference as his predecessors. St. Anselm for instance, in the Monologium, uses inherent formal causation whereas Aquinas denies that that is even a possibility. So reading more of Aquinas, like his commentary on Neo-Platonists like Pseudo-Dionysius, gives you a better understanding of his premises and thinking and allows you to fill out the arguments he seems to be outlining in the Summa Theologica.

But I do not think this is his only goal. Having done some research I am inclined to agree with Robert Fogelin on this matter. 1 Aquinas is not attempting to demonstrate the existence of God, but instead to show that there must be a supernatural explanation to the universe(which must be God as he explains in the rest of his corpus) due to the limits of physical sciences. If he were trying to do the former, than his Fifth Way was an abysmal attempt at outlining it.

Even if he had managed to prove that in order to have a final cause of anything, there must be a final cause of all things, there is little reason to assume that that final cause is anything like the Judeo-Christian God. But, when recast to be a counter-argument to explaining everything with Naturalism it makes more sense.

Fogelin recasts it this way:

1. We begin with the presumption that the world is the product of a Christian God’s creation.

2. The natural scientist tells us that the world can be fully explained on natural principles; therefore, this presumption is idle and can be set aside, at least when we are doing natural science.

3. It is then argued that the world (here with respect to its teleological features) cannot be fully explained by natural principles, therefore, the presumption in 1 is restored.

I do not wish to simply repeat Fogelin’s paper here though, but I do think that makes a more plausible reading of Five then simply the one he gave.

In addition I have learned that arguments keep taking the same basic form throughout time. People tell me sometimes that eventually science will have learned enough that the need for a God will disappear and it’ll even be impossible to argue for one. After all, we see particles jump into being from nothing all the time, right?2 What way could you even argue for a God? Aquinas’ arguments may not be as capable of holding up in modern physics as they were in the medieval world, but that does not mean they are not still useful.

The five types of arguments he casts: Argument from Motion, Argument from Cause, Modal Argument, Argument by Degree, and Teleological Argument, are still roughly the categories we use today.

Admittedly, we no longer cast the Teleological Argument for showing that individual objects move in certain ways, but we use it to show that the universe needed to have a ridiculously specific and narrow range of constants in order for matter to form, much less life. And so we argue from Fine Tuning. (Although, I am wondering if Darwinian Cosmology could be used in a Teleological Argument. Fledgling thoughts though.) We also, no longer argue, from the first motion, though in all honesty, our Kalaam Cosmological Argument doesn’t look all that different. Our Modal Arguments may have changed, but we still argue for Greatest Conceivable Beings, and Necessary Beings. While we might not argue by degree, we do still argue from goodness and objective morality.

Our arguments have just shifted a bit to accommodate the bounds of our knowledge. That is why I think framing the Quinquae Viae as ‘counter arguments’ to show the weaknesses of Natural Science, continues to keep Aquinas’ arguments useful today. The limits of science haven’t changed, except in the amount of data.

  1. Fogelin, Robert. “A Reading of Aquinas’s Five Ways” American Philosophical Quarterly. 27 1. 305-313 
  2. If by nothing you mean something, namely the quantum vacuum. 

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