Dialogue between Aquinas and an Atheist on the Problem of Evil

*Note: This is a fictional account written in the form of a socratic dialogue between St. Thomas Aquinas and an atheist concerning the so-called “problem of evil”. The dialogue draws largely from just Aquinas’s thoughts on evil in the First Part of the Summa Theologiae, with a little from his De Malo as well (references will be included throughout). In reality, there is no one “problem of evil”, there are instead a vast and diverse range of arguments and types of arguments which draw on the fact of evil/suffering to provide evidence against the existence of God. So it should not be thought that this simple dialogue is attempting to address all arguments from evil, or really any specific ones. Instead this should be taken as just general thoughts about what Aquinas might have to say regarding God and evil.

Question: Does the existence of evil provide evidence against the existence of God (theism)? Or, given theism, why does God allow evil?

Atheist: It seems that the existence of evil, and so much of it, is indeed evidence against the existence of God, and is simultaneously supporting evidence for naturalism.

St. Thomas Aquinas: How so?

Atheist: Well, if we assume that God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and omnibenevolent (all loving), it follows that He would be willing and able to create a world without evil, or at least with much less of it. For an all-good God would desire less evil, and an all-powerful God would be able to create a world without evil.

St. Thomas: Is this a deductive argument, or a probabilistic one?

Atheist: Well, as I intend it, it is probabilistic. I know how you would answer a deductive argument from evil: you would say it is not absolutely impossible for God and evil to co-exist, despite being contraries, because God can bring good out of evil, thus giving Him a reason to allow it (Summa Theologiae I, Q. 2, Art. 3). So God and evil are not absolutely incompatible. But the amount of evil still provides evidence for naturalism over theism (i.e. is better explained thereby) for the reasons given above. In other words, the existence of evil is better explained by naturalism than by theism, because on theism we would not expect so much evil [*].

St. Thomas: Even if you are correct that evil is evidence against the existence of God, this does not undermine theism, for the existence of God can be demonstrated/proved deductively (ST I, Q. 2, Arts. 2-3), such that even the strongest probabilistic arguments are overcome. So even if we find the presence of evil to be strange/problematic on theism, we can still know absolutely that God exists, and hence that there must be some explanation for evil.

Atheist: I am well aware of your arguments for the existence of God — the so called “Five Ways” — but I am not convinced. Furthermore, upon reflection, I’m also not so convinced that your initial response to an argument from evil is satisfactory. The fact that God could have some possible “reasons” to allow evil does not mean that an all-good God would be morally justified in allowing evil, especially if we do not know what those reasons happen to be.

St. Thomas: I think we ought to take a step back, before we get further into this, and explore which metaphysical system offers a better view/explanation of reality as a whole, not just on one specific point. In order to properly examine the problem of evil, we first need to have a good idea of what evil is, and how exactly it fits into the overall structure of reality. Until we do so, we will just be talking past one another [*******].

Atheist: Ok, that is fair.

St. Thomas: The first thing which we must notice is that reality is intrinsically and undeniably ordered. There is some seeming disorder, such as we observe in the process of change and in the generation and corruption of possible beings, but on closer examination even these facts are only explicable given the underlying order of nature which demands causal relationships. A fundamental aspect of this order is that all things are directed/ordained to their proper ends, with the result that there is a hierarchy of being, in which lower things are directed towards higher. Altogether, these facts necessitate that there is an ultimate First Cause and Final End of all things, and this is what we call God. Once we are certain of this, we can then work to discover how evil might fit into the metaphysical scheme of things. For, as I see it, the presence of evil presupposes the reality of an ordered universe, which, as I argue, necessitates the existence of God.

Atheist: Again, I’m aware of your natural theology and remain unconvinced. In fact, I think the existence of evil, far from presupposing order, is significant counter-evidence to your claim that the universe is so ordered. It makes the problem worse!

St. Thomas: How so?

Atheist: If an all good and all powerful God wanted an orderly universe, why is there so much disorder and chaos? Some of it is of course due to human moral evil, but on your own account even this is included under the providence of God (ST I, Q. 23, Art. 3)! And again, even if you might be able to come up with some reason why God would be willing to allow evil, it is still not clear that, on His goodness, doing so would be morally justified. Finally, an argument of my own: If God exists and is the cause or explanation of everything, as you insist, then if disorder exists, God Himself must be intrinsically disordered!

St. Thomas: There is a lot here. I will attempt to deal with each of your points. But I will do so by assuming the existence of God, and working on that basis to provide an account of evil that not only gives reasons why God might allow evil, but even more, gives reason that we might actually expect evil on theism.

Atheist: That is a bold claim, and I am curious to hear your thinking.

St. Thomas: I will approach your latter point first. You are correct that the perfections of all that exists must pre-exist “more eminently” in God (ST I, Q. 4, Art. 2), since all things exist through God who is Existence Itself, and hence is the whole perfection of all existence. But, obviously, evil is not a perfection, it is indeed a lack thereof! It is a deficiency, a non-being (ST I, Q. 20, Art. 3), a defect, corruption (ST I, Q. 22, Art. 2), a privation of good, being, and perfection. So even if God allows evil in the sense of allowing certain defects/privations to persist in His creation, these could in no way “pre-exist” in Him. As one, absolutely simple (ST I, Q. 3, Art. 7), and fully perfect, there could not possibly be any disorder in God. Disorder arises either by some defect, by imbalanced parts (e.g. a part lower by nature is disorderly treated as superior to a part higher by nature, such as when a man obeys his body over his soul), or when the proper end of something is frustrated/unfulfilled. God could have no defect since He is Being Itself and the fullness of perfection. He could have no imbalanced multiplicity/parts since He is absolutely simple. And He could not fail to fulfill His proper end because He is His own good/end (ST I, Q. 20, Art. 1).

Atheist: But the problem remains: if God is omnipotent, as well as perfect, good, just, and loving, why is there so much disorder and evil?

St. Thomas: We will get there. But I think you have an incorrect/mistaken understanding of what it means to say that God is good, perfect, just and loving.

Atheist: How so?

St. Thomas: Well, allow me to proceed by way of interrogation, so as to ascertain what your view of these things actually is.

Atheist: Alright.

St. Thomas: When you say that God is good and perfect, what do you mean by this?

Atheist: Well, when I say that God is good I mean that He has extreme qualities of moral greatness. When I say that He is perfect, I mean that He has these moral qualities to such an extent that He never does anything contrary to absolute moral excellence — He has no moral defects, never fails to act in upmost accord with moral perfection, never does anything contrary to moral law, whatever its foundation might be.

St. Thomas: I see, and here precisely is a fundamental error. You are thinking primarily in moral terms, as if God’s interaction with His creation were similar to the interaction between two agents. This is categorically mistaken [*^9]. To say that God is “good” is not the same as saying that He is “virtuous” like a morally good person might be. We might attribute certain virtues to God analogically, but not in the same sense that we attribute them to men [**]. Men are ordained to a higher end, and thus are only “good” to the extent that they fulfill this higher end. But God could not possibly be ordained to any end other than Himself — He is “a law unto Himself” (ST I, Q. 21, Art. 1). And so God’s Goodness cannot be considered in the same way as man’s.

Atheist: Well then, what could it possibly mean to say that God is good? And also, are you not suggesting by this that God could just do whatever He wants, without any sort of standards or obligations, and we would have to say that it is by definition acceptable and justified for Him to do so?

St. Thomas: Again, you are thinking of goodness incorrectly. It seems that you conceive of goodness as something “externally imposed” upon an agent, to which his actions must submit and be upheld. This is not even primarily what the goodness of man is, either. To say that the good of man is an end to which he is ordained by One above him is not the same as saying that this end is externally imposed upon man, in a sense violent to his nature, as many now conceive of it. Since God is the cause of the being of all things, He ordains ends as intrinsic to each nature. Virtue is not a limit restrictively enforced upon man, it is rather his own highest good. But because man is not his own being, this end is still ordained by He who is man’s First Cause and Final End (ST I, Q. 22, Art. 2). In other words, God creates the nature of man, and there are certain things which necessarily will be either good or bad for that nature. The “morality” of man consists in his ability to choose between what is intrinsically good or bad for his own nature [***].

Atheist: But how does this answer my question?

St. Thomas: Because if morality is just an external imposition, and then that external imposition is removed, such that man suddenly had a radical freedom, then one might say that man could do whatever he wants, no matter how vile, and we could not judge that in so doing he was “wrong” or “bad”. But if morality is rather an intrinsic ordination, any objectively bad action which man commits will be intrinsically harmful to his being/nature. Hence, to say that God is a law unto Himself is not to say that God could commit absolutely any act, even a vile or wicked one, and it would still be “justified”. Even to use this term implies that there could be something higher than God to which He must give account of His actions, which is impossible [*^10]. Each created nature is ordained to certain ends, and its “good” or “bad” is in its fulfilling or failing to fulfill these ends. But being a “law unto Himself” means that God is His own End, because he is His own Good and Being. You are thinking of “good” in terms of externally imposed law. But we must think of good rather in terms of being. Good is being/perfection considered under the aspect of desirability (ST I, Q. 5, Art. 1; I, Q. 20, Art. 1). Everything “seeks” or “desires” its own perfection, which is its good (ibid). Thus sight is the good of the eye, because it is its perfection [****]. Now, as we’ve already seen, the perfections of all things are pre-eminently in God. God is “good” in the sense that He is Being Itself, and is the First Cause of all that exists, such that all things find their perfection, and hence their ultimate good, in God. As the cause of the nature and being of all things, He ordains all things to their own proper and specific ends, but all ends universally are directed towards God as their Ultimate End; because God is His own Being, Perfection, and End, so every act of God, which includes all creation, is directed towards God Himself as Goodness Itself (ST I, Q. 22, Art. 2). So though God is a law unto Himself, He acts always in accordance with His own Goodness, Wisdom, and Justice (ST I, Q. 21, Art. 1).

Atheist: I am still somewhat confused as to what exactly you are suggesting.

St. Thomas: I am saying that the “goodness” of God must be understood not primarily as meaning that God is morally great, but that God is Being Itself, and as the First Cause of all existing things is also their Ultimate End, such that God is the Good of all things, what all things seek in their very nature and being. And the “perfection” of God is not primarily a statement about His moral excellence, but again means that God, as Being Itself, contains fully the whole perfection of existence.

Atheist: But what about God’s Wisdom and Justice, which you just alluded to?

St. Thomas: Yes, as I said, God acts always in accordance with His own Goodness, Wisdom, and Justice. He is His own Goodness. His Wisdom is His own knowledge of Himself and of His own Goodness [*^12], as the highest principle (ST I, Q. 1, Art. 6). But now I will again ask you, what do you think is meant by the “justice” of God?

Atheist: By this I think is meant that God always acts fairly and equally, giving to everything what it deserves. Thus it would be unjust for God to allow horrendous evils to His creatures, for they do not deserve this, and it is within His omnipotent power to prevent it.

St. Thomas: You are correct in a sense in saying that the Justice of God is to give to everything what is its due, primarily to Himself and then also to creatures. But this certainly does not mean that God treats everything “fairly” (in the sense which I take it that you intend), nor that He “must” or “is obligated” to prevent evils to creatures, on pain of injustice.

Atheist: I do not see how that could be so.

St. Thomas: God’s Justice is the fulfillment of due ordinations both to Himself and to His creatures (ST I, Q. 21, Art. 1). But He has “due” ordinations to His creatures, not because there is some higher standard of justice which imposes upon God the obligation to treat creatures in a certain way; rather He has due ordinations to creatures because He Himself ordained/entitled them, by creating their natures and giving them being. What is “due” to each creature is just what its proper end is ordained as being — and it is God who creates each creatures and gives to it its proper end, such that whatever God ordains for a creature is exactly what it “deserves”, and exactly what is “due” to it by God, not because it in itself could demand something from God, but because God Himself has so chosen to give it its being and ordination. Further, their very ordinations, which He gives to them, are themselves directed towards Him, and so all things serve/are ordained to God. They are ordained to God as to the Ultimate End, and so as to Goodness Itself. Hence God’s Justice ultimately means the fulfillment of His own Wisdom and Goodness — all of this considered in relation to being.

Atheist: I have several points in response: If God’s Goodness means the perfections of all things, should not the fact that many things are not perfected be evidence against the Goodness, and hence existence, of God? And if His Wisdom is the knowledge of His own Goodness, and if the providence of all things flows from His Wisdom, should He not know how to order the universe such that all things are perfected? And again, if God’s Justice means that all things serve God, could He not treat creatures however He likes, and say that it is in service of Himself? How is this not arbitrary? And what of His love?

St. Thomas: I will treat the latter questions first. Love is a will for the good. If God creates something, necessarily He desires its good, since its very being is its primary good [*****] and His desire for its being is the very cause of its being (ST I, Q. 20, Art. 2). Now the good of a thing is its perfection, and its perfection exists pre-eminently in God. The good/perfection of a created thing is thus a finite reflection of God’s own Goodness, and God’s Goodness is the proper object of His will. Necessarily, then, how God “treats” a creature will be good and just. For by creating the creature He ordains it to being and to a certain end, which is its own good/perfection. Whatever God ordains for a creature is, by definition, its good, and is a mercy surpassing mere justice (ST I, Q. 21, Art. 4). Now if God were to create only a single object, His Wisdom, Goodness, Justice, and Love would oversee the absolute perfection of that object (ST I, Q. 22, Art. 2). But creation is an act of God, and every act of God is directed towards the Divine Goodness as its End. The Divine Goodness is single and complete in its own simplicity. But created things are finite and composite and so cannot “attain” to the infinite simplicity of Divine Goodness (ST I, Q. 23, Art. 5). So when God creates, He creates a large multiplicity of beings which altogether, by their various finite perfections, reflect the infinite, simple, unlimited perfection of the Divine Goodness. Now many perfections which in God are one are in creatures divided and contrary (ST I, Q. 4, Art. 2), and hence can constitute evils to each other, as water is an evil to fire. Now the Goodness of God desires that many contraries exist, since all reflect in their own limited ways His unlimited Essence. God has thus not created only a single object, but a whole universe of objects, all of which are directed, by His Wisdom and providence, to the Divine Goodness. Thus the providence of God allows certain particular defects in individual beings, so that the good and perfection of the whole might be realized (ST I, Q. 22, Art. 2). We must then look at the whole, and not the particulars, to see the glorious manifestation of the Divine Goodness in creation.

Atheist: You are calling the destruction of fire by water an “evil”, and perhaps your explanation works in relation thereto. But by “evil” I mean such things as immense suffering by sentient, living beings. Should not the Divine Goodness and providence prohibit this? Would not a loving God despise suffering and wish to prevent it?

St. Thomas: But such suffering is just one specific type of evil more generally [*^11]. The destruction of fire by water is truly an evil which God would not allow if, for instance, fire were the only object which He decided to create. The suffering of sentient beings is likewise such an evil, but an evil which takes place on a higher ontological level of being, since the subjects which undergo suffering are themselves ontologically higher than mere elements. But even this evil itself presupposes good, order, and perfection — for there could be no feeling of pain without sentience and life in the first place. God allows water to destroy fire, though it is a defect in creation and an evil, because it is the good of the water and is ordained to the perfection of the whole universe and thereby is ordained to the Divine Goodness Itself. Similarly, God allows a lion to slay its prey, though it means the pain and death of the prey, because it is the good of the lion. What the lion is in itself, including its hunting patterns and food habits, is a good which reflects the Divine Goodness and hence is desired by the Divine Wisdom. It is good for the universe that there exists a lion, even if this good implies the pain and death of other creatures (ST I, Q. 22, Art. 2) [******]. If God created only the prey, He would prevent its suffering at all costs. But the Divine Goodness is not captured sufficiently in the subject of a single prey without the existence of the lion; and so providence allows the defect/suffering of the prey, for the sake of the existence of the lion, and hence for the sake of the perfection of the whole universe. But this is no injustice to the prey, for its very existence is already a mercy to it, given to it by God.

Atheist: But could not God have created a universe with less suffering, and would not a loving God have desired to do so?

St. Thomas: Perhaps God “could” have created a universe with less suffering, but such a universe might also have less desired goodness as well. The Goodness of God does not mean that He necessarily would desire to create the universe with the least amount of suffering possible [*^13]; it means simply that God is Goodness Itself as the full perfection of Being Itself, and that He desires to create the universe which He discerns to reflect His Goodness as He Himself so desires. That God is loving just means that He desires good, and the good that He desires most properly is the Divine Goodness. God loves all things that exist, insofar as they exist, because they exist for the sake of the Divine Goodness (ST I, Q. 20, Art. 2). But this does not mean that God loves all things “equally” (ST I, Q. 20, Art. 3). The reason for the existence of all things is the Divine Goodness. The Divine Goodness thus chose to create the universe which He most desired to reflect Himself. If this includes much suffering, this is ultimately for good. For instance, God allows some men to be saved to demonstrate the good of His Mercy, and He allows others to be damned to demonstrate the good of His Justice (ST I, Q. 23, Art. 5). There is nothing which God “owes” to creatures except what He Himself has ordained; and what He has ordained He always brings to completion. We thus might actually expect God to create a universe with much evil, because by bringing it to perfection He demonstrates even more His own Power and Goodness.

Atheist: If this is what the “Goodness” of God means, why would I even want to believe in or worship Him?

St. Thomas: That is your choice, but at this point you must admit that the question has moved beyond the rationality of the existence of God, to emotional responses thereto. From our perspective, we might desire for God to have created a universe with much less evil, pain, and suffering. Nevertheless, until we see the whole of creation, and know the Divine Goodness in Itself, we cannot know why this universe, with all its defects, was created. It is simply naive and unfounded to expect to be able to discern the “why” of God’s actions. We know that the “why” is the Divine Goodness Itself, so until we know what the Divine Goodness is, we can never know fully the “why”. Nor, until we see the whole, could we know how the providence of God fits all things together. But we can know that God exists, and that in Him alone is our Highest Good, our Final End, our Ultimate Happiness, our Beatitude (ST I, Q. 2, Art. 1). By natural reason we catch a glimpse of the Divine Light; through revelation we come to know God more fully, as He knows Himself (ST I, Q. 1, Arts. 1, 4, 6); and then in Beatific Vision we shall behold the Divine Essence face to face, and we shall then know completely. But one thing is now clear: we know there is good through suffering, because the Divine Goodness shines forth most wondrously, most gloriously, from the cross.

 

Notes

Summa Theologiae references are all taken from this translation: Aquinas. Aquinas on Grace and Nature: Selections from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. Translated and edited by A. M. Fairweather. The Library of Christian Classics Ichthus Edition. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press.

With one exception, the reference to I, Q. 5, Art. 1, which was taken from: St. Thomas Aquinas. The Summa Theologica. (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947). Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Accessed online: <http://dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/&gt;.

This dialogue depends almost entirely on direct readings from the Summa, but many of its ideas were first presented to me, are inspired by, and are defended more rigorously and academically in: Davies, Brian. The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.

[*]. For the basic format of this type of argument, as well as its application to specific arguments, see: Lowder, Jeffery Jay. “25 Lines of Evidence Against Theism.” The Secular Outpost. Patheos, 26 Jun. 2016. Web. 12 Aug. 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2016/06/26/pererz1-25-evidences-against-theism/&gt;.

[**]. See “God’s Moral Standing” in Davies, Brian. The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. Especially page 99.

[***]. See Feser, Edward. Aquinas. London: Oneworld Publications, 2009. Print, 174-180.

[****]. See Aquinas, Thomas. On Evil. Translated by Richard Regan, edited by Brian Davies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Q. 1, Art. 2, Answer.

[*****]. See Owens, Joseph. An Elementary Christian Metaphysics. 1963. Center for Thomistic Studies, 1985. 74.

[******]. See Davies. The Reality of God. 181, and the whole chapter entitled “Evil, Causation and God”.

[*******]. This method is used and suggested in Davies. The Reality of God. 2-3.

[*^9]. Davies points out this mistake in Davies. The Reality of God. 53-54, 58, 79, 91-93, and throughout.

[*^10]. Again, Davies makes this argument here: Davies. The Reality of God. 93.

[*^11]. See Feser, Edward. Aquinas. London: Oneworld Publications, 2009. Print, 176.

[*12]. For more on how God knows by knowing Himself, see Chastek, James. “Responding to Some Objections to Simplicity.” Just Thomism. 27 Dec. 2013. WordPress. <https://thomism.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/responding-to-some-objections-to-simplicity/&gt;. Accessed 14 Aug. 2017.

[*^13]. See Magee, Joseph. “Aquinas and the Best of All Possible Worlds.” Thomistic Philosophy Page. 20 Mar. 2015. <http://www.aquinasonline.com/Topics/boapw.html&gt;. Accessed 14 Aug. 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Assessing the Kalam Cosmological Argument, Part II: Aristotle vs. Philoponus on Eternity

*Introductory note: This is a series exploring and assessing the Kalam Cosmological Argument. I am a theist, but am currently unsure of where I stand in relation to this particular argument, i.e. I’m not yet sure whether I think it is successful or not. This provides me the opportunity to approach the argument from a somewhat neutral and distanced perspective. I’m not committed to defending or rejecting the argument. Here, all I want to do is think about and discuss it. 

In the first post of the series, we briefly explored what the Kalam Cosmological Argument is, as well as several reasons which help explain its contemporary prominence as one of, if not the, most popular arguments for the existence of God currently in use. We concluded by examining the roots of the argument’s premises in Plato’s Timaeus.

What we today know as the “Kalam” itself was developed by early medieval Islamic thinkers, but its foundations go back further, to Christian defenders of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). The roots of the argument were originally intended not as an instance of positive natural theology in its own right, aimed at establishing the existence of God; but rather as a response to the classical understanding of the world, and specifically Aristotle’s defense thereof, in which the universe was held to be eternal.

The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo was really quite unique and unprecedented when it arose within the framework of Christian theology. At this point, we take it almost for granted that theism and creation ex nihilo are interrelated, but that has not always been the case. Indeed, for the first great proponents of classical theism — the Greek philosophers — it was accepted pretty much without question that at least the underlying matter of the universe had always existed uncreated. This was because the metaphysical principle ex nihilo nihil fit was axiomatic in their thought, and as such it was inconceivable to them that matter could have been brought into existence from nothing. God was seen not so much as a “creator” in the sense of a source/originator of all being, but rather as more of a “designer” or craftsman, an agent that orders and directs all things within the universe. We saw this in the previous post when we examined sections of the origins account in Plato’s Timaeus. Even in earlier creation mythologies, the gods were usually depicted as applying order to a pre-existing disorder or “chaos”, not as bringing it all into existence themselves. So when the early Christians developed the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, it introduced a novel and monumental shift into the western philosophical tradition [1].

Creatio ex nihilo seems to have been partly derived from certain scriptural passages (including a few key ones from the New Testament), but partly also from a process of thought and reflection upon the central belief of the whole Faith: the resurrection [*]. From the perspective of the Greek worldview, as well as that of pagan mythologies, a physical resurrection of the body was largely perceived as ridiculous and even abhorrent. The desire of an afterlife was for escape from the body and the physical world, not return to it, to be imprisoned in it forever! This is directly related to the prevalent conception of matter itself explored above. Matter was equated with disorder, chaos, passivity, and limitation; while spirit and divinity were equated with freedom, order, life, activity, etc. From this view, the resurrection might actually appear not as a triumph but as a cruel defeat! For the Christians proclaiming the victory of Christ’s bodily resurrection, then, the underlying metaphysical framework itself of their audience needed to be addressed. The Christians thus needed to show that matter itself was inherently good, not inherently discordant or inherently evil. And they did so by arguing that even matter, along with everything else, had been completely created by God, given its very being from absolute nothing, as opposed to eternally pre-existing and merely being “ordered” or “informed” by God.

This is seen, for instance, in a typical passage from St. Augustine:

“In the beginning . . . you [God] made something and made it out of nothing. For you made heaven and earth not out of your own self, or it would be equal to your only-begotten Son and therefore to yourself. It cannot possibly be right for anything which is not of you to be equal to you. Moreover, there was nothing apart from you out of which you could make them . . . That is why you made heaven and earth out of nothing . . . since you, both omnipotent and good, make all things good” [2].

God is Goodness Itself, and all things that God creates/gives being to are good by participation in and derivation from Him. Since God created all things other than Himself, even matter, then all things are intrinsically good, including the physical body.

Of course, St. Thomas Aquinas would centuries later argue that creation ex nihilo does not necessarily entail that the universe had a beginning. God could, he postulated, have been eternally creating and sustaining the universe from nothing. But the focus of the early Christians was mainly on just establishing the non self-existence of matter, i.e. in showing that matter could not have eternally existed on its own, without having been created by God. And while creation ex nihilo does not necessarily entail a temporally finite universe, it does seem to be the case that a temporally finite universe does entail creation ex nihilo, for if the entire universe came into existence, including all matter, then it could not have been eternally self-existent.

What was at stake was not just the question of whether or not the universe had a beginning, but the intrinsic nature of physical reality itself; and the early Christians took this issue very seriously.

The dominant competing models of the universe thus came to be the creatio ex nihilo model of the Christians, and the eternal world model of the pagans and Greek philosophers. Of the latter, it was Aristotle’s defense especially (although often given neoplatonist interpretations) which was heralded as the foremost, exemplar challenge to creation ex nihilo and a temporally finite universe. And so it was largely as a response to Aristotle that the foundations of the later Kalam were developed, principally by the sixth century Christian philosopher John Philoponus.

Aristotle’s belief in the eternality of the universe was the result of a thoroughly developed analysis of motion, which is the primary subject of his Physics. In this work, Aristotle spends eight books developing an argument from the reality of physical motion to the necessity of an ultimate prime mover, the first cause of all change in the world (this argument would later be used by St. Thomas Aquinas as his famous “First Way”). Based on his understanding of God (the prime mover), time, and motion, Aristotle concluded that the universe must have been eternally in motion.

He supports this conclusion with a number of different arguments throughout his works, but here we’ll examine just three, from Book VIII of the Physics.

Aristotle begins the book by asking:

“Was there ever a becoming of motion before which it had no being, and is it perishing again so as to leave nothing in motion? Or are we to say that it never had any becoming and is not perishing, but always was and always will be? Is it in fact an immortal never-failing property of things that are, a sort of life as it were to all naturally constituted things?” [3].

Notice that his question here is directed primarily to motion, and not existence per se. It seems to be taken for granted that the underlying “stuff” of the universe has always existed, but the object of inquiry is whether the universe itself, marked by its constant change, has always been in motion, or else began to be in motion.

He answers the question by considering the definition of motion he established earlier in the Physics: “Motion, we say, is the fulfillment of the movable in so far as it is movable” [4]. If something is “movable”, it has the potential for being moved in a certain way. Wood, we might say, is “burnable”, meaning that as it is it has the potential to be burned. The “motion” of the wood, then, would be the process of change from not burning to burning. During this process of change, its potential for burning is “fulfilled” or actualized. And so, says Aristotle, “Each kind of motion, therefore, necessarily involves the presence of the things that are capable of motion . . . In each kind of motion it is that which is capable of motion that is in motion . . . and so there must be something capable of being burned before there can be a process of being burned” [5]. In other words, change presupposes the existence of that which is changed. In order for wood to change from not burning to burning, the wood itself, and its potential for burning, must already exist.

From this fact, Aristotle argues, it becomes clear that the universe must always have been in motion, and hence always in existence, and could never have come into existence. Why so?

“These things [that change] also must either have a beginning before which they had no being, or they must be eternal. Now if there was a becoming of every movable thing, it follows that before the motion in question another change or motion must have taken place in which that which was capable of being moved or of causing motion had its becoming” [6].

Take our piece of wood. The log has either always existed, or it began to exist at some point of time, before which it did not exist. If the latter case is correct, then the log must have had a “becoming”, which is a kind of change (either a change from something into something else, such as from a tree to a log; or a change of something from a state of non-existence to existence). But, as we’ve already seen, all change presupposes the existence of that which has the potential for the change.

Suppose everything in the universe could trace its origin back to some first object. That object would either have existed eternally, or else would have come into existence. But if it came into existence, there must have been a process of change, and hence something that had the potential to be changed into that object. Pure “nothingness” has no such potentials at all, so the object could not have come into existence from nothing. As such, Aristotle would say, there could not have been some first object of the universe that came into existence or “began” to exist, and hence the universe must always have existed, eternally in motion.

Aristotle’s second argument for the eternality of the universe is based on the nature of time. For Aristotle, time and motion are inextricably connected; they cannot exist apart from each other. If there is time, there must be motion; and if there is motion, there must be time: “How can there be any time without the existence of motion? If then, time is the number of motion or itself a kind of motion, it follows that, if there is always time, motion must also be eternal” [7]. If motion takes place, there must be time, because motion is a process extended through a duration of moments. And if time is passing, there must be motion, because there must be something changing from past, to present, to future.

So if time is eternal, motion is eternal. And Aristotle argues that time must be eternal. Why so? Because time consists of “moments”, and moments are points passing from past to future: “The moment is a kind of middle-point, uniting as it does in itself both a beginning and an end, a beginning of future time and an end of past time” [8]. As such, “since the moment is both a beginning and an end, there must always be time on both sides of it” [9]. In other words, you could never have just one moment on its own, in isolation from past and future. Earlier in the Physics, Aristotle remarks that a moment without a “before” and “after” is just not a moment in time at all [10]. The present is the point of transition from past to future. Because of this fact, that “there must always be time on both sides of” a moment, it is impossible that there could be some first moment. A first moment, qua moment, would have to have a previous moment, in which case it could not actually be a first moment at all. So time could not have ever begun, and hence must be eternal; and motion as a result must also be eternal.

The third and final argument appeals to the nature of God. Aristotle has concluded that the reality of motion in the universe requires the existence of an ultimate, first mover, that is itself unmoved but causes all other motion. But if the first mover is unmoving, it must be eternal, since beginning to exist would be to undergo change. And if the first mover is eternal, so must be the motion that it causes:

“If there is always something of this nature, a movent that is itself unmoved and eternal, then that which is first moved by it must be eternal. Indeed this is clear from the consideration that there would otherwise be no becoming and perishing and no change of any kind in other things, which require something that is in motion to move them: for the motion imparted by the unmoved will always be imparted in the same way and be one and the same, since the unmoved does not itself change in relation to that which is moved by it” [11].

In other words, God, in order to be the cause of all change, must Himself be eternal and unchanging. But to “begin” to cause anything would be to undergo change, since it would be to go from a state of not causing to a state of causing. As such, whatever is caused by God must always have been being caused by God. The motion in the universe is caused by God, and so God must always have been eternally causing the motion in the universe.

And so, says Aristotle:

“Let this conclude what we have to say in support of our contention that there never was a time when there was not motion, and never will be a time when there will not be motion” [12].

Quite obviously, these arguments (and others throughout Aristotle’s works), and the model of the world they upheld, were significant challenges to the Christian doctrines of creatio ex nihilo and the temporal finitude of the universe (i.e. that the universe had a beginning). As a result, intellectually serious Christians attempting to engage the classical philosophical worldview needed to offer a response to the Aristotelian arguments. This is precisely what the sixth century Christian philosopher John Philoponus set out to do, whose refutation of the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of the world would become the foundation of the Kalam in later centuries.

We’ll explore Philoponus’s response to the first two of the above Aristotelian arguments briefly here.

Remember that Aristotle had defined motion as “the fulfillment [or actualization] of the movable in so far as it is movable”. Since the potential for change must exist prior to the change itself, Aristotle argued that the universe could not have come into existence, and must have been eternally in motion. But Philoponus uses Aristotle’s own definition to turn the argument around on him:

“The definition of motion applies equally to beginningless motion — if there is such a thing — and to <motion> which possesses a beginning. Then, if it follows from the definition that in the case of non-etemal <motion> the moved object must pre exist the motion in time, the same will follow in the case of eternal <motion> too” [13].

On Aristotle’s definition, he contends, for any motion, there must be a movable object that exists prior in time to that motion. E.g., if a log changes from not burning to burning, the log itself must preexist the change. But if the universe is eternally in motion, then there must be some time prior to the eternal motion of the universe, in which the universe existed not actually in motion, but only potentially in motion. In other words, if the universe is in motion, then at some point before that motion the potential for motion must have existed unfulfilled. But it is absurd that a time could exist before something eternal.

The options, then, are either that Aristotle’s definition of motion does not necessarily apply to all motion, since it obviously cannot apply to eternal motion; or that eternal motion is not actually eternal, because there is a time prior to the motion, in which case “the argument has turned the tables on itself” [14]; or that Aristotle’s definition does not actually require there to be a pre-existing movable object (or potential) prior in time to motion, in which case his argument for the eternality of motion doesn’t work in the first place. Philoponus himself thinks the third option is correct.

To see what he’s getting at, think back to our “first object” illustration above. Aristotle’s argument is that there could not be such a first object of the universe that comes into existence, because that would be a change, and so there must have been something pre-existing with the potential for that change. Philoponus counters that a potential does not have to pre-exist a change, but rather can exist simultaneously with the change. For example, think of fire. Fire, by its very nature, has the potential to give off smoke. Before a fire exists, nothing exists with the potential to give off smoke (since it is the fire itself that has that potential, and it is not yet in existence). But as soon as you light a fire, it will give off smoke instantaneously. Smoke has come into existence, but it does so simultaneously with that which has the potential for it. The fire with its potential to give off smoke does not temporally precede the smoke, but only causally. And so, Philoponus insists, it is possible that the motion of the universe could have begun simultaneously with the potential for that motion; and hence the motion of the universe is not necessarily eternal [15].

Aristotle’s second argument was that time cannot exist without motion; time consists of moments; moments necessarily have a “before” and “after” and so there could not be a first moment; and therefore time must be eternal, and with it motion. In response, Philoponus actually accuses Aristotle of begging the question in his definition of “moment”. For if you define “moment” as the midpoint between the before and after, then of course wherever you have a moment, you will necessarily have a before. He writes:

“Someone who wants to show that time is eternal and then assumes as an axiom and premise that time exists on either <side> of the ‘now’, has assumed the question itself, <i.e.> that time is without a beginning and without an end” [16].

Indeed, Philoponus suggests that in order to demonstrate that the present moment is always a mean between the past and future, you would first have to demonstrate that time is eternal and hence that there is always a past and a future. Since Aristotle, he maintains, has failed in his other arguments to demonstrate that time is eternal, he cannot demonstrate that a moment necessarily exists between a before and after [17].

Based on statements Philoponus makes elsewhere, we can draw out his responding argument a bit further: time is dependent upon the motion of bodies; the motion of bodies, and indeed the existence of the bodies themselves, had a beginning; therefore time had a beginning, and there can be at least one moment without a “before”, because there was one moment before which there was no motion. Of course, so far Philoponus has not established that motion had a beginning. The arguments he has given here have just been aimed at showing that Aristotle has not proved his own position. It is only after he has responded to Aristotle that Philoponus then turns and offers positive arguments for the temporal finitude of the universe. In particular, Philoponus will go on to argue from the nature of infinity that the past must be finite; which has been, as many readers are likely aware, the principal metaphysical defense of the Kalam even up until today.

In the next post, then, we will examine Philoponus’s argument from infinities, as well as how it and other arguments were adopted and expanded by early medieval Islamic thinkers in their formulation of the Kalam as an actual argument for the existence of God.

 

Notes

Much general background/historical knowledge comes from: Craig, William Lane. The Kalam Cosmological Argument. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1979. ebook version accessed via Google Books. Pages 3-9.

[1]. For more on the history and background of these various philosophical world views, as well as a metaphysical defense of creatio ex nihilo, see  here.

[*]. This argumen: Hubler, James Noel. “Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy Through Aquinas.” 1995. Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations, repository.upenn.edu/edissertations/980.  

[2]. Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. 249.

[3]. McKeon, Richard, editor. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, Inc, 1941. Physics 8.1, 250b11-14.

[4]. Ibid. 251a9-10.

[5]. Ibid. 251a10-17.

[6]. Ibid. 251a17-19.

[7]. Ibid. 251b11-13.

[8]. Ibid. 251b20-22.

[9]. Ibid. 251b25-26.

[10]. See Ibid. 4.11.

[11]. Ibid. 8.6, 259b32-260a5.

[12]. Ibid. 8.1, 252b4-7.

[13]. Philoponus. Philoponus: Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World. Translated by Christian Wildberg. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 1987. ebook. Book VI, 1130, 17-20.

[14]. Ibid. VI, 1130, 26-27.

[15]. Ibid. VI, 1131, 1 – 1134,4 (see specifically his distinction between “motion” and “generation”).

[16]. Ibid. VI, 1167, 13-16.

[17]. Ibid. VI, 1168, 37-39.

Awareness of Aristotle’s three arguments comes from Bernard Boedder, S.J. Natural Theology. Second edition. Longmans, Green, and Co. 39 Paternoster Row, London, New York and Bombay, 1902.

Header image: By NASA/ESA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Incarnation and Boethius’ Hierarchy of Knowledge

The ancients and medievals were fascinated with the concept of hierarchies. In fact, for many of them, the very fabric of their worldview was essentially hierarchic. All things were seen as originating from God as their source, and being directed toward God as their final end/good; and within this framework the entire universe was held as existing in ordered, purposeful relationships. This understanding of reality as ordered/hierarchic manifested itself in nearly every aspect of life and thought: family and community structure, political systems, ecclesiastical organization, theology, philosophy, and, as we’ll see, epistemology.

Pseudo-Dionysius wrote of the celestial hierarchy of angels, mirrored in the Church’s own hierarchy. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas wrote of the hierarchy of existing beings, from inanimate objects, to living plants, to animals, to rational humans. Plato had explained reality as ordered from the material to the immaterial and ultimately to the Form of the Good. For all these classical thinkers, their belief in an ordered universe expressed itself through hierarchical relations.

Boethius was certainly no exception. Continue reading

A Thomistic Argument from Desire: Part II

In Part I, we established that:

  1. All humans have ends for the sake of which they act, and these ends are “goods” which we desire.
  2. Every object/end/good that we desire is desired either for its own sake, or for the sake of some further end.
  3.  There cannot be an essentially ordered infinite regress of desires that are for the sake of some further end; so, for any ordered series of desires, there must be some ultimate end, which is desired for its own sake, and towards which all the other desires are directed. This final end underlies all the other desires, and points them to itself. It is the “principle moving the appetite”.

The next question is whether there could be multiple “last ends” corresponding to various different series of desires. It seems clear that for any series of desires there must be a last end, but we often have different series of desires. For example, one morning I may desire to eat breakfast, and I desire that because I desire satisfaction for hunger, and I desire that because I desire health, and I desire health because I continue to desire living. At some point I will have reached the end of that particular chain of desires. But later that day I might desire to read a book, and I might desire that because I desire to gain knowledge, and I desire that because I desire to understand the nature of things, etc. This is a distinct chain of desires from the previous one, and so the question becomes whether these distinct chains can arrive at distinct ends, or whether all the chains will ultimately converge on one single, ultimate, last end. Continue reading

Assessing the Kalam Cosmological Argument, Part I

*Introductory note: This is a new series exploring and assessing the Kalam Cosmological Argument. I am a theist, but am currently unsure of where I stand in relation to this particular argument, i.e. I’m not yet sure whether I think it is successful or not. This provides me the opportunity to approach the argument from a somewhat neutral and distanced perspective. I’m not committed to defending or rejecting the argument. Here, all I want to do is think about and discuss it. 

For the most part, the Kalam Cosmological Argument currently reigns as the most popularly defended and discussed argument for the existence of God. Mainstream apologetics circles are especially obsessed with it, but quite a decent amount of attention has been given to it within the realm of academic philosophy of religion as well. Historically, however, this has not always been the case; and indeed for many centuries the Kalam was perhaps seen as the “odd man out” when it came to cosmological arguments generally. As philosopher Edward Feser notes, “Most versions of the cosmological argument . . . are not concerned with trying to show that the universe had a beginning” [1]. For the Kalam, on the other hand, showing the universe to have had a beginning is precisely what it is concerned with. The Kalam thus occupies a unique position in all natural theology. Continue reading

Responding to the Cosmic Skeptic on the Ontological Argument

Alex J. O’Connor, also known as the “Cosmic Skeptic”, is a popular atheist youtuber and blogger. His content primarily consists of videos which are usually quite engaging and high in quality. He’s an excellent speaker and presenter and often has interesting takes on various philosophical and scientific topics. A few days ago, he posted a video titled “I Think, Therefore God Exists: The Ontological Argument” which responds to that infamous argument for God’s existence

Although I am a committed theist, Mr. O’Connor should be happy to know that I happen to agree with him here: I do not think that ontological arguments are successful in establishing the existence of God. (I should also point out that there is no one ontological argument, rather there are a family of versions. O’Connor begins his video in reference to St. Anselm, whose ontological argument was the first historically, but the rest of his video doesn’t deal with St. Anselm’s argument at all; rather it focuses on William Lane Craig’s presentation of Alvin Plantinga’s much newer modal formulation of the argument). Despite the fact that I don’t think ontological arguments are successful, I’d like to respond to a few specific points within O’Connor’s video, mostly because they are relevant to theistic arguments in general other than just ontological ones. Continue reading

Beginning Metaphysics IV: Essentialism

Central to Aquinas’s whole metaphysical system, and even central to his whole project of metaphysics, is the belief that essences are real. This is known as essentialism. Modern science and philosophy, however, have come so far from the common sense position that things have essences that to even ask the question is seen as a waste of time. This post is meant as a brief introductory look at an overview of arguments that could be presented in favor of an essentialist position.

By far the greatest reason to affirm essentialism is that it is just our starting point for understanding, describing, and interacting with reality. Whether we realize it our not, we are all at least implicit essentialists: we all look at and talk about reality as if there really are things with intrinsic unity which are distinct from other things and other kinds of things. Continue reading