Listening closely to theist arguments–and Aquinas. As an agnostic, I’m not sure whether God exists or not, nor whether Thomas Aquinas’s metaphysics is wholly correct, but I’m also not the sort of person who is interested in practicing confirmation bias (counting the hits, but not the misses, for my pet theories; never reading the books of those whose views are different from my own, etc.). When I lean toward a thesis, and the issue is important to me, I try actively to seek out evidence and arguments against my thesis, and not be too fast in dismissing the views of others. The following quote of Spinoza’s ought to be better known: “Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere.” (Not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand.)
So though an agnostic, I’m interested in understanding exactly why the most articulate theists are certain that God exists (or, at least, think it’s highly likely). And the most articulate theist who has ever lived is Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
Edward Feser. The strongest contemporary proponent of God’s existence, in my view, is the Thomist philosopher, Edward Feser, and in his book, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (2009), he has a superb chapter–chapter 2–introducing the metaphysics upon which Aquinas based his arguments for, well, everything–including God’s existence. Feser stresses repeatedly that you can’t really understand Thomas Aquinas without understanding his metaphysics.
Feser’s chapter on Aquinas’s metaphysics, however, is long–53 pages–so what I thought I would do is digest some of the key ideas from the chapter. If you want to go deeper, you can get Feser’s book here. My examples and elaborations will tend to be my own, not Feser’s, and if a Thomist thinks I’ve botched a concept, or illustrated it with an improper analogy, blame me, not Feser.
Ontology: the study of being. An especially helpful thing in Feser’s metaphysics chapter is his definition of ontology, and it’s a good place to start. Here’s Feser (31):
Aquinas, following Aristotle, regards metaphysics as the ‘science which studies being as being,’ rather than (as other sciences do) studying some one particular kind of being among others (In Meta IV.1.529). (For this reason, metaphysicians in the Thomistic tradition have often preferred the label ‘ontology’–from the Greek ontos or ‘being’–as an apt name for their discipline.) Act and potency, form and matter, essence and existence, substance and accident, and the like are all merely aspects of being, and thus their study gives us greater understanding of it.
OK, so we’ve got the first step in getting our heads around Aquinas’ metaphysics: it’s the study of being, not non-being or particular beings, and Aquinas, usually following Aristotle, treats being as consisting of paired aspects: act and potency, form and matter, etc. These conceptual pairings can assist one in thinking clearly about the nature of being from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) perspective.
Act and potency vs. being and nothingness. If ontology is the study of being, what about non-being? Why don’t Aquinas and Aristotle–like, say, Buddhists–start their philosophizing with non-being–with emptiness or nothingness–instead of being?
The reason is that Aquinas and Aristotle think that the Presocratic philosopher, Parmenides (c. 515-450 BCE), gets something fundamentally wrong. Parmenides argues that change is an illusion, for “the only thing other than being is non-being, and non-being, since it is just nothing, cannot cause anything” (9). For Parmenides, in other words, non-changing being is always non-changing being. It always already exists, and there’s nothing with the power to change it. We don’t experience it this way, but Parmenides claims that this is how it really is. “Nothing can come of nothing” (to quote King Lear in Shakespeare)–and so being, having nothing external to move it, doesn’t change.
Aristotle and Aquinas don’t respond to this as a Buddhist might. A Buddhist, following the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna (c. 150-250 CE), would likely say something like this: non-being (emptiness, nothingness) opens up a space for things to happen; things can change into other things because they’re essentially empty, a nihil, nothing. “No flower in the flower,” says the Dalai Lama. It’s through nothingness that transitory things can exist at all, and it’s because transitory things exist that nothingness is known. Neither being nor non-being is prior to the other; there is a middle way between the ideas that nothing really exists and everything really exists. Every particular thing that exists actually has no substantial essence or permanent existence, but is an unstable, spontaneous, and mutually interdependent arising out of the dynamic emptiness. And reality is thus non-dual because there is no thing that exists in the flux that is independent of all the other things in the flux. Particulars arise, ripen, and pass away, but they add up to nothing. Unstable interconnection and emptiness make way for change.
But this isn’t Aristotle and Aquinas’s tack concerning change. They agree with Parmenides (and King Lear) that nothing can come of nothing–but contra Parmenides, to get non-illusory change, they posit that whatever exists possesses two aspects: act and potency (actuality and potential). A living cat, for instance, actually exists and has the potential to change into a dead cat if an external agent moves it in the direction of that potential (as when a car runs over it). Act and potency–actuality and potential–are the dual aspects of the cat’s being. It’s what the cat is. And the potential of the cat is, as it were, in the cat, in its nature; its very being.
So that’s how Aristotle and Aquinas posit that change can occur within being itself: it has two aspects (act and potency), not one, and it can be moved by an external being that is itself in motion (think of a line of dominoes enacting their potential for knocking one another over).
Contra the Buddha and Nagarjuna, then, non-being need play no role in getting change to occur because the car that threatens to drive over the cat also possesses act and potency (the actuality of existing and the potential for movement). The car is really real; it’s not nothing. And in this instance, if it were to begin rolling, it could become the external source that moves the cat from being alive to being dead. Likewise, gasoline would be one of the reasons the car got rolling in the first place. Everything that exists, in short, is accompanied by potencies that can be realized when an external source acts upon them. No thing moves of itself, it needs an external cause. So on Aquinas and Aristotle, this is how being changes. Chains of causation move the world. Causation is central to A-T metaphysics.
But what does it mean to say that the cat is not only actual in this moment, but has, in its very being, other potential ways of being? Where do these potentials–these potencies for change–reside? Can we bring them out of the cat that we might see them?
Essentialism. We can’t place the cat’s potentials on a table like they’re material objects and literally see them before they manifest, but according to Aristotle and Aquinas they’re in the cat just the same, and we can imagine them. The cat, for example, might be sleeping in a sunny spot on the table, but it nevertheless possesses the power to wake and scratch. It’s part of the cat’s nature to do such things. In asserting this, Aristotle and Aquinas are, like Plato, realists, not nominalists, in that they think we actually discover our abstractions about what cats are–we’re not just making them up as we go along (as a nominalist might suppose). Our conceptualizations concerning what a cat is, and is capable of doing and becoming, are not arbitrary. They’re not mere conventions of language or ideas solely serving human purposes, but real. The cat possesses a real essence (it is a domesticated carnivore), and this essence is manifested in its properties (it eats meat; it has instincts for hunting), potencies (it has the power to scratch), and potentials (it is inclined to sharpen its claws on furniture on awakening, and it might do so when it awakens).
The cat may also have accidental features not essential to its nature as cat qua cat, such as the color of its fur. Feser quotes Aquinas as making the essence-accident distinction in these words: “What makes something exist substantially is called substantial form, and what makes something exist accidentally is called accidental form” (13-14). In other words, if you change something essential about a thing (turning a carnivorous cat into a vegetarian), it’s a substantial change, and if you change something non-essential (the color of the cat’s fur), it’s a trivial, non-important, accidental change. Here’s Feser: “Those features deriving from the essence, such as Socrates’ ability to learn languages, are…referred to as ‘properties,’ since they are proper or necessary to a thing in a way that its purely contingent features (like Socrates’ being in Athens or having been a soldier) are not” (25). Put another way, if we identify and define Socrates’ substantial form as most essentially that of being a rational animal, the sorts of properties that go with that substantial form are such things as humor and the ability to learn languages, not whether Socrates wears blue or green socks.
But where, again, does the essence of Socrates or a cat reside? From where do these properties and potentials manifest? Is the Dalai Lama right that there is, ultimately, “no flower in the flower”–no essence of Socrates really in Socrates, and no cat really in the cat–or are Aristotle and Aquinas right that there are real essences that can be known and that truly exist somewhere beneath the appearances of things?
Hylemorphism (from the Greek words hyle–matter–and morphe–form). Aristotle and Aquinas are certainly not Buddhists or nominalists–they think things really and truly exist. Nor are they Platonists in the sense that the essence of the cat–the perfect cat–resides in a Platonic heaven of ideal forms (alongside the perfect chair, the perfect triangle, etc.). Instead, Aristotle and Aquinas are hylemorphists.
Hylemorphism is a term out of classical philosophy (first used by Aristotle, later picked up by Aquinas) where a designer takes raw material and uses her mind and hands to impose purpose and form on it, as when St. Paul writes, “Shall the clay say to the potter, why have you made me thus?”
A blog post, for example, is a hylemorphic project, where the matter of words is ordered by the author into a very definite form. As is a poem. Or a building. The soul of a thing–its essence–is its matter and form combined with the intention of its author.
So both Aristotle and Aquinas believe in hylemorphism. They believe that essences reside in an inseparable combination of two things: matter and form. If you want to know where a cat’s animal soul, nature, essence, potentials etc. reside, they’re not in its matter–the organic chemistry of which the cat is composed–nor in its heavenly form (the ideal cat), nor in some part of its body or head (such as in the brain), but in its matter and form as a whole when combined. That’s what it means to exist.
Think again of St. Paul’s clay pot. The pot is not just its matter (the clay), and not just its form (the pot’s shape). It’s the combination of the two that makes it what it is. Likewise, the matter and form of the cat are composite. Its existence is its substantial form combined with a body. And we, as rational beings, can apprehend and comprehend its existence; the very nature of its being, whose substantial form is at once everywhere “in” the cat–and no place in particular. Like the clay pot.
If it is correct, then, to say that we can abstract the essence of the cat–its substantial form–and hold it in our minds, what a superpower we are endowed with! It means that we are akin to God in our rational faculty, our intellect. We can reach to the depths of things–to the very ground of their being–and name them accurately. And when a human apprehends the essence of a thing, the form of that thing is now located in two places–in the thing itself and in the mind that contemplates it. How wild a thought is that? Perhaps there’s something to the intuition that photography achieves a kind of soul catching.
But for Aquinas, there’s an exception to existence as matter combined with substantial form that doesn’t necessarily hold for Aristotle. For Aristotle, when your matter and form break up, that’s the end of you. As a compounded being, your matter and form are what you are, and you don’t reside anywhere outside of your matter and form. But for Aquinas, that’s not always the case. Here’s Feser: “Anything compounded of form and matter is also compounded of act and potency, but there are compounds of act and potency that have no matter” (13). Feser is referring to angels here. For Aquinas, angels have existence and potencies to act, but their existence is non-corporeal, non-material. Like God, they lack bodies, yet still exist. And humans, being just a little beneath the angels in the hierarchy of being, can go on, unlike animals, after death. They retain the form of their intellects and wills at death, where they go to God and await the time when their essential forms–their souls–are finally reunited with their bodies (at the resurrection of the dead and Final Judgment). From the Final Judgment forward, each individual will go on existing in his or her resurrected body-soul (matter with form) everlastingly, enjoying heaven–or burning in hell. Aristotle probably wouldn’t have accepted this narrative, but Aquinas does.
Final causation. If things generally change because being itself manifests as composites of matter and form, act and potency, substance (essence) and accident, what causes movement to get going in the first place? In answer to this, Aquinas follows (once again) Aristotle in identifying four causes for existence, movement, and changes in quality, quantity, and substance. As can be surmised from all that’s been written above, causation is extraordinarily important to A-T metaphysics, and three of Aristotle’s four causes have already been touched upon. Those three are the following:
- efficient causes (the immediate or proximate cause for an event happening, as when one domino topples into another, enacting the second domino’s potential for falling)
- material causes (a domino made of iron exists in a very different state, and possesses some very different potencies, from a domino made of balsa wood. Among them, the ability–or not–to put out an eye if thrown, and the ability–or not–to float. The matter of which a thing consists is part of what causes the thing to be what it is)
- formal causes (the substantal form of a thing, as when we say a domino is a three dimensional object that is small, oblong, and possesses between one and twelve dots on one of its sides. You don’t have a domino if it doesn’t possess this substantial form; the substantial form is what causes the domino to be a domino, and not something else)
The three causes above are fascinating to contemplate, but so is Aristotle’s fourth cause–his notion that things have final causes–ends, purposes, goals to which they are inclined to be drawn by their hylemorphic (matter-form) natures.
A pen, for example, consists of matter and form that, if pushed by a hand across a page in a certain way, is inclined, should it possess ink and not otherwise be broken, to make marks on paper. It’s the end to which it inclines because it is of the matter and form that it is. It’s not conscious of this end, of course, but being of the matter and form that it is–being what it most essentially is–it’s going to tend toward this end should a hand initiate its potential.
Thus if an alien ever came to Earth and encountered a pen, it could probably work out what the pen is for without any human instruction. It could just start playing with the pen until its matter and form revealed its best, most efficient, and most natural use: to make marks on paper laid on a hard and flat surface. In no time at all, the alien could also work out what the matter and form of desks and chairs are most efficiently and naturally used for as well.
It’s important to emphasize that it’s the matter and substantial form of a thing that tells you its end; it doesn’t have to be conscious, nor does it need to have been designed by a conscious being to have an end. Things incline to certain ends according to their hylemorphic natures–their substantial forms combined with particular types of matter. Thus, if you go out of doors, you can identify what an acorn’s chief end tends toward (making oak trees), and if you open a body, you can see what the heart’s chief end tends toward (pumping blood). A thing tells you, depending on the context it has been put in, what it will tend to move toward–which needn’t necessarily be its chief end. Put an acorn in the ground, and it will be inclined to make a tree–its chief end–but put it in a fire–not its preferred environment–and it will be inclined to crackle, darken, and ultimately experience a substantial change, turning into pure carbon.
So matter combined with a substantial form expresses itself in different contexts. Put a person–an animal with rational faculties–in a monastery with no books other than religious ones, and he or she will tend toward the contemplation of God. There is something in the nature of humans that inclines them toward God contemplation as opposed to, say, making a nest of the monastery’s available paper (as a bird might do). Put that same person in a disco, and he or she might tend toward bobbing the head and dancing, while a bird might seek escape out a window. The end and true nature of a thing–and its properties and potencies–are revealed, and sometimes concealed, by context. But with just the right conditions, you stand a good chance of finding out exactly what a thing’s ultimate end most truly inclines toward. In the right conditions of soil and light, for example, a great and mighty oak is the acorn’s ultimate end.
Thus the regular inclinations and therefore predictability of matter-forms suggests that what science is actually up to is discovering real essences inclining toward ends dictated by their natures. And so Feser writes the following (49):
[Science is] in the business of uncovering the hidden natures or powers of things. Actual experimental practice indicates that what physicists are really looking for are the inherent powers a thing will naturally manifest when interfering conditions are removed, and the fact that a few experiments, or even a single controlled experiment, are taken to establish the results in question indicates that these powers are taken to reflect a nature that is universal to things of that type.
In other words (to echo Hillary Clinton), you can’t know how far a frog will jump until you poke it–revealing its potential. And once you remove the confounding variables for why the frog jumps one distance the first time, and another distance the second time, you close in on the nature of the frog’s jumping powers, and what those powers are directed toward–what Feser calls those “states of affairs beyond themselves” (50).
But why do combinations of matter and substantial form naturally orient and incline to “states of affairs beyond themselves”? It sounds mysterious. Spooky. What is it about the magic of putting matter/form together that, like striking a match, it thereby breathes fire into matter/form’s existence, inclining it toward one set of regularities, but not another?
And think of our thoughts. Even though they have physical correlates in our neuronal processes, they are not experienced as being physical, but mental states. Nevertheless, they have the same characteristic of physical matter/forms insofar as they orient to “states of affairs beyond themselves.” Isn’t it strange that this is so? From the most lowly rock to the human mind, there appears to be no escaping existence as inclinations, regularities, and ends. When you’re conscious, you’re always conscious of something. Your awareness moves out and toward. As Feser observes (50-51):
When you think about the Eiffel Tower, say, your thought is ‘directed towards’ [inclined towards] something beyond itself in a way analogous to the manner in which a match is, on the Aristotelian analysis, ‘directed towards’ the generation of flame and heat as a final cause. Similarly, when you reason through an argument, your thought process is ‘directed towards’ the conclusion as the end towards which the premises point.
In other words, we appear, in our mental activity, to be mirroring what matter-form does in the physical world: arrange itself toward this or that end, or revealing a particular, regular, and predictable potency in response to being acted upon. And so Feser writes (51):
From human thought and action to the world of biological phenomena in general to inorganic natural cycles to the basic laws of physics, final causality or teleology thus seems as real and objective a feature of the natural world as Aristotle and Aquinas took it to be.
No rest for the existent.
What this means for God. The questions of God’s existence, and how we ought to live if God exists, are not subjects that the second chapter of Feser’s book explores (these questions are addressed in the book’s subsequent chapters), but given the A-T metaphysics outlined above, it’s not hard to sketch from here the subsequent argumentative moves of Aquinas:
- Nothing can come of nothing, so being is primary.
- No being moves of itself, yet all things we observe are in motion, contingent and transitory.
- To start and sustain all this contingent and transitory motion, there must be a necessary being, an unmoved mover.
- This unmoved mover must be being itself, without limit, not composed of actuality and potential like all other beings, but pure actuality, pure existence. No being can be more wholly existent than this first being, and we call this being God.
- This being’s existence is good–for to exist is good–and it is supremely good, for it is most supremely existent.
- The substantial forms of things directed to their most perfect fullness of being must be good, for they seek to instantiate the creator’s highest ideal for them.
- Evil is the absence of perfect existence, perfect being. It is a failure of being to reach fullness of being. So evil is absence of perfection or completion in whatever exists imperfectly or incompletely (an eye that is blind, for example, is unable to fulfill its end; a club foot is the absence of an ideal foot).
- You can look at the matter and form of a thing and infer its essential purpose–the purpose the designer shaped it for. All things created by God have essential purposes, and we can discern them. The form of the penis, for instance, tells you that its essential usage is for reproduction with a vagina. That’s what God made it for. You aren’t to use it in the ass or mouth–and no jerking off! These are its “accidental” (non-essential) usages. Thus Feser states elsewhere (in his book, The Last Superstition) that homosexual inclination, if genetic, is a defect of desire akin to being born with a club foot.
- Humans, as rational animals, are in the image of God, who is rational. Therefore, the highest end to which humans can incline is toward God.
You get the idea. Tidy. Very near to mathematics. The conclusions, like clothes from a flipped laundry basket, tumble out naturally from their premises, all doubts supposedly giving way to metaphysical demonstration. Who needs telescopes? And that’s Aquinas in a nutshell.
One atheist’s pushback. Jean Paul Sartre’s famous three-word retort to the Thomistic essentialism outlined above is the following: “Existence precedes essence.” In other words, human imagination, cunning, openness, variety, and freedom precede any essentialist definition that one might impose upon a thing in advance. Sartre says that if God is dead or not speaking, we can work freely with a thing, if we wish, and make what the original designer supposedly considered marginal about it, central (or make the central marginal).
Fashioning and definition can be democratized and taken from God and the theologians.
So if we’re free–if our existence as free beings precedes essences–we can use the penis for pleasure (for example). We needn’t let the inertia of a thing’s supposed essence foreclose in advance our options. You can use a thing differently from that to which it is usually inclined. In each moment, you can make something new. That’s Sartre. That’s existentialism. That’s post-World War II pushback against hylemorphic and authoritarian essentialism. And after the Holocaust, it certainly appeared to Sartre and other intellectuals that the God thesis (God exists and is a being who is attentive to us, and all good and powerful) was done–or ought to be done.
And once God is considered dead, or to have gone silent and thereby given the clay its freedom, asking “What’s the clay for?” loses its force. Humans become the measure of all things. Our existence precedes essence. We decide what to make important about a thing; what we will call a thing. Like Adam in the Garden, we assert our prerogative to name the animals for ourselves.
Sartre rather nicely accords with evolution, whereas Aquinas is in a decidedly awkward relation to it. Though Aquinas is almost certainly correct that things display identifiable inclinations based on their unique combinations of matter and form, evolution doesn’t recognize essential species categories; it works with variety along a continuum, making things new. What, for example, is an individual human from the vantage of evolution, but a variation cast into the next round of dicing selection? Time waits for no definition of man–not even Aquinas’s.
Who assumes the power of meaning maker? So if God exists, you can argue, as Aquinas does, that God should cut the card deck of meaning, purpose, narrative, and definition. But if God doesn’t exist or isn’t talking, we cut the deck. Whoever has the authority to cut the deck (or shape the clay, or name the animals) is in the role of the designer, the fashioner, the definer, the meaning maker. Matter and form can have inclinations, but to possess ultimate meanings, there must be a meaning maker. And if the ultimate meaning maker, the unmoved mover, doesn’t exist–or doesn’t exist in the manner we imagine (all good, conscious, attends to human beings, etc.)–then we make our own meaning, and define what’s important.
So does existence precede our essence, as Sartre claims? Or is Aquinas right that essence precedes existence? Which side are you on?