So, taking ourselves to be without a good argument for the existence of God or of anything else that might count as the universal first source of being, suppose we proceed by thinking not in terms of natural theology as ordinarily understood (and as Aquinas evidently understands it) but more broadly—meta-cosmologically, it might be said—in terms of what I've been calling the Grandest Unified Theory, the theoretically developed answer to the big question, Why is there this sort of world rather than another sort, or nothing at all? Now if we assume that there is an answer to that question—and we're certainly not in a position to declare that there can't be
3 See Rowe's helpful discussion of the criteria for a question's being meaningful and for its having an answer (1975c: 140-3).
—then simply in making that assumption we are adopting the working hypothesis that there is an ultimate explanatory principle, what Aquinas identifies as 'a universal source', 'a first source of being for all things', whatever would have to be at the heart of the answer to the big question. And we understand that this hypothesis is not to be taken as equivalent to the hypothesis that God exists. For instance, among other considerations that weigh against the equivalence, it's conceivable that there should be an irreducible plurality of ultimate explanatory principles. I'll take up that possibility in Chapter Five; but meanwhile, for the sake of handy reference, I'll suppose that there is at most one, and I'll use 'Alpha' to designate this
hypothetical first source, whether it's one or many.
4 For the sake of handy reference, even an irreducible plurality of ultimate explanatory principles can be thought of as one.
As far as I'm concerned, the development of this natural theology can then proceed as an inquiry into the sort of thing an ultimate explanatory principle would have to be, into what sort of thing Alpha would have to be. If that inquiry turns up evidence for the existence of Alpha, so much the better; but in this development the question of Alpha's nature precedes the question of its existence.
Aristotle thought, naturally enough, that in the systematic presentation of a topically unified inquiry, in the development of an Aristotelian science, the
question of the subject's existence would have to be settled at the outset.
5 Posterior Analytics I 1, 71al-b8; In PA I: L2.14, 15, 18. As he and Aquinas, the consummate Aristotelian, conceive of a particular science, its principal concern—developing the detailed answer to the question of what the subject of the science is—does require, first, an affirmative answer to the question of whether that subject is. Now if the Aristotelian science at issue is zoology, say, or astronomy, this ordering of questions about the subject's existence and about its nature seems just right, as long as we understand that in most such cases an affirmative answer to the question of the subject's existence would be so uncontroversial that the question would be asked and answered perfunctorily if asked expressly at all. And this may seem especially clear when the Aristotelian science under consideration is metaphysics, the science that has as its primary subject beings considered simply as beings. There can't be a serious question of whether there are beings, especially if they're being considered simply as beings. On the other hand, since the goal of metaphysics is the ultimate explanation of beings considered simply as beings, it might be said to have as its ultimate subject the universal first source of being, and evidence for the existence of that mysterious subject really is called for. But just because that subject isn't anything familiar to us, it seems best to let the evidence for (or against) its existence emerge in the course of considering what its nature would have to be. After all, Aristotle himself offers his most fully developed arguments for the existence of the first mover only in the last books of his Physics and his Metaphysics. The fact that Aquinas undertakes to launch his project in SCG with his adaptations of those culminating Aristotelian arguments is part of my reason for thinking of his project as the metaphysics of theism, or as philosophy from the top down, as I explained in Chapter One. I've been proposing to try following the trail he blazed, but I'm prepared to go ahead without an affirmative answer to the question of whether a first cause exists. And so I'm proposing to construe this stage of the investigation as taking up not the question of existent God's nature but the question of what can be justifiably said about the nature of hypothetical Alpha.
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