Reorientation

Aquinas claims that his project in SCG I—III can't get started unless the existence of God has been established at the outset. I've been disagreeing, on two grounds. First, with one negligible exception, even his own arguments in chapter 13, which he says establish God's existence, conclude at most that there is a first, immutable cause, an extraordinary entity the existence and nature of which constitute an ultimate explanation of all i change and all existence.

1 As I pointed out in Ch. Three, only G5, the fifth of the existence arguments in ch. 13, concludes to the existence of something that would have to count as God, under the description 'someone by whose providence the world is governed'. But G5 is also the only one of the arguments in ch. 13 that Aquinas never makes use of in applying the eliminative method in chs. 15-28 (and even beyond those chapters, where, as we'll see, he uses a different method).

Any atheist could accept that proposition; some atheists no doubt do accept it. Identifying such an acknowledged first cause as God requires further argumentation to show that this extraordinary entity must have characteristics that pick out the supreme being of the monotheistic tradition, to show that it must be the transcendent, personal, omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good creator and governor of the universe. In drawing up that list of necessary and sufficient conditions, even a project in natural theology must rely on traditional doctrinal accounts of God that have their source in putative revelation—not for evidence, of course, but merely for the list of specifications to be met. Argumentation designed to identify some existent entity as God presupposes good evidence for the existence of an entity extraordinary in respects that at least qualify it as a candidate for the role of God, but it clearly does not presuppose that the existence of God has been established.

Second, all we really need to begin this natural theology is the end p.113

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com)

© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved hypothesis that there is an ultimate explanation, an answer to the big question, Why is there this sort of world rather than another sort, or nothing at all? I've been using 'Alpha' as the designation for the entity or entities at the heart of that hypothetical ultimate explanation. And, since it's part of the notion of a working hypothesis that it gets confirmed or disconfirmed as the work goes on, I said near the beginning of Chapter Three that the most sensible way to get at the answer to the question of Alpha's existence was to let the answer emerge from the investigation into the nature of whatever might count as first cause.

Aquinas begins his version of that investigation in his chapter 15, and my consideration of it in my Chapter Three had barely begun before I claimed to have found good evidence for the existence of Alpha, in an argument embedded within his investigation of eternality. I'll briefly review that result below. Because of it, I can say now that in this project the most sensible way to get at the answer to the question of God's existence is to let it emerge from the continuing investigation into the nature of Alpha.

In the first stage of Aquinas's investigation into the nature of the first cause, he proceeds by what he calls the 'eliminative method'. Such an approach is appropriate to his project, and perhaps initially unavoidable at any level of explanation involving concepts more specific than causation itself. Nothing that could count as the ultimate explanation of the observable world could be cognized, measured, or categorized in any of the specific, natural-scientific ways human beings have discovered or devised for cognizing, measuring, and categorizing things and changes which that ultimate explanation is supposed to explain. As a consequence, any more specific cognition we might be able to acquire of the first cause will have to be indirect to begin with. As Aquinas points out, 'we cannot apprehend it itself by discerning what it is' (14.117). His eliminative method, then, is designed to start us finding out about Alpha's nature 'by discerning what it is not'. '[W]e come closer to the knowledge of it to the extent to which we can through our intellect eliminate more [characteristics] from it; for the more fully we discern anything's differences from other things, the more completely do we discern it' (ibid.).

In Aquinas's own view, he's using the eliminative method in chapters 15-28 to acquire knowledge indirectly by picking out many characteristics that could not belong to God. But, in keeping end p.114

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com)

© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved with my initial supposition in introducing the Alpha hypothesis, I want to try interpreting those results of his as providing indirect knowledge about Alpha.

Even before the concept of Alpha is subjected to the eliminative method, however, some things that must be true of Alpha can be brought out just by reflecting on the hypothesis that introduces it as the (hypothetical) ultimate explanatory entity. (We have to have some minimal positive identification of the subject of the inquiry in order to get started on considerations of its nature and existence, even by means of the eliminative method.) We're entitled to some claims that are obviously entailed by the hypothesis alone—for example, that Alpha would have to be (1) first (in more than one sense), (2) a cause, and (3) immutable. And it is in fact just those three characteristics that Aquinas considers himself entitled to use as the positive identification on the basis of which to start applying the eliminative method, though he extracts them from the conclusions of some of his arguments for

the existence of God in chapter 13.

2 Arguments G1 and G2 obviously involve claims 1, 2, and 3. Argument G3 involves 1 and 2. Argument G4 involves 1 and, a little less obviously, 3. Argument G5 seems to involve only 1.

I take them to be only corollaries of my working hypothesis, but even that status is enough to make them available as starting-points for the eliminative method. This first stage of the inquiry into Alpha's nature, then, will be a process of figuring out what sort of entity an immutable first cause of everything could not be.

In chapters 15-28 Aquinas applies the eliminative method in many arguments, taking for granted only those three starting-points and, as I pointed out in Chapter Three, certain logical and metaphysical principles (as well as conclusions of Aristotelian arguments). Naturally, as he goes along he also uses some results of earlier arguments as premisses for further

eliminations.

about which earlier result is intended. I've found only one instance of an absolutely unwarranted premiss of this sort, where, in one of seven arguments for the elimination of any kind of composition, Aquinas relies on the premiss that God is the first and highest good (18.146)—a proposition that wasn't even introduced previously, let alone argued for, in any version. There are also some peculiar instances of his invoking as a premiss in one chapter a proposition that he doesn't argue for until later—e.g. that God is most excellent (invoked in 20.159 and 27.154, argued for in ch. 28)—and this expressly labelled instance of the same sort: 'But there aren't any accidental characteristics in God, as will be shown [in ch. 23]' 21.198). See also nn. 9 and 23 below.

Before end p.115

Kretzmann, Norman , (deceased) formerly Susan Linn Sage Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Cornell University, New York

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Study Aid

Study Aid

This Book Is One Of The Most Valuable Resources In The World When It Comes To Getting A Scholarship And Financial Support For Your Studies.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment