On the Five Ways

According to the book ‘A shorter Summa‘, the Five ways of St. Thomas Aquinas ‘are not proofs themselves but ways, i.e., indications or summaries of proofs. The proofs themselves are elsewhere worked out in much greater detail’ . (Indications of the existence of God). But as I only have ‘A shorter Summa’ at hand, the arguments expressed in it will be the topic of this post. If the arguments are better argued in other places, the author of this book holds some of the blame. (By the way, summa means summary, like a guide-book.)

As the author says the ‘five ways are essentially one way: the “cosmological argument” or argument from the cosmos’. A cosmological argument argues from a fact of the universe to a creator of the universe. At least, that is the intent.

First way

The first way argues from motion to a prime (first) mover. It is apparently the most manifest, that is, most obvious way. The argument presented in ‘A shorter Summa’,  here presented in (roughly) standard form follows:

  1. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion.
  2. Nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it act.
  3. Motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality.
  4. Nothing can be reduced from a state of actuality, except by something in a state of actuality.
  5. (Therefore) whatever is in motion is put in motion by another.
  6. It is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects.
  7. It is therefore impossible that that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e., that it should move itself.
  8. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another.
  9. If that by which is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again.
  10. But this cannot go to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover.
  11. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.

What to make of this? To the modern mind (or at least mine), this talk of actuality and potentiality seems a bit odd. But according to a shorter summa actual(ity) = fully real, complete, perfect and potential(ity) = principle of change, potential to be actual.

The first objection that jumps out could be made by any adolescent: ‘if everything has a mover, and nothing can move itself, what moves the prime mover?‘ The answer probably would be, ‘the prime mover is actual (already existing), and so not in need of prime-prime mover‘. Convenient and basically a sophisticated way of saying ‘just because’. Here stops the chain of mover by fiat.

But if you think on it for a second, it contains the idea that nothing can be part of an infinite chain, so there has to be a start of that chain. Why? No reason is given, premise 10 says but this cannot go on forever, because there would be no prime mover. But given this series of premises, and intermediate conclusions is trying to prove (or indicate) that final conclusion of a prime mover, isn’t it a bit dodgy to insert a premise that basically says, ‘without this bit of ad-hockery, we can’t get to the conclusion?’ That is, without assuming a prime mover, there’d be no prime mover. Well, yes, but that’s hardly an argument.

But why can’t we have an infinite chain of movers? An infinite chain has no beginning. The idea that if it were infinite, then there would be no movement because there would be no mover is just false. In an infinite chain of movers, there’d always be an infinity of movers in the past, for any chosen mover. So, there’d be movement just fine.

What of the idea itself of movement? This idea as presented above, that everything moving, needs a mover is presented as a description of how things are in the universe. But this is based on Aristotelian physics. And it is simply wrong.  Ever since Galileo, or at least Newton, we’ve known it to be wrong. – No fault of Aristotle, a genius who did what he could with his mind and limited data and limited giants upon whose shoulders to stand. Aquinas himself was the closest his time had to a cutting edge scientific theorist, but one who couldn’t arrive at a result of no god on pain of death, atheism was right out! It wasn’t until Georg Cantor that infinity was finally adequately formalized. – Things do not need other movers to set them in motion, or change their motion. No mover is required when a body is attracted to another body and so on…Physics moves on (pardon the pun), a metaphysic that is based on a description of how things are in the world should too, but that might undermine the first way….

There is probably much more that can be said against the first way, and as a final point I’ll note that quantum vacuum fluctuations go (seemingly) uncaused from potentiality to actuality and back again too often to be remarkable.

I think, therefore, we can say the most manifest way, is a manifestly unsound argument.

Second Way

‘The second way is from the nature of the efficient cause’.

  1. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible.
  2. (Therefore) in the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient cause.
  3. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate, whether the intermediate be several or one only.
  4. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause.
  5. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate necessary to admit a first efficient cause, all of which is plainly false.
  6. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name God.

This way, like the first, mistreats infinity, as if it were something that had a beginning, and also makes use of an intuitively right feeling, but at least controversial, if not simply wrong, idea of causality. Firstly, if we have a chain of causes and effects that is infinite, then for whatever cause and effect pairing we point to, there will be an infinite chain before it. There idea that an infinite chain of causes is plainly false, is plainly false. Secondly, at least since Hume, it has been arguable if every event (effect if you like), has to have a cause. As I mentioned above, quantum vaccum fluctuations occur in space, without an observable cause (and arguably without a cause). So it not impossible to posit that something kick started causes and effects at least once without itself having a cause. It is not the cause of itself, as premise 1 would have it, but uncaused. Tertium datur.

The second way, like the first requires us to reject what we know to be true. We just have to accept Thomistic assumptions in the face of reality.

As an aside, Aristotle, whose philosophy Aquinas used as a language to describe the ways, thought there were 4 causes. The efficient cause is rougly what we mean by cause these days. The other causes really aren’t causes at all as we understand the word. Just ends, or methods to acheive a result.

Third Way

‘The third way is taken from possibility and necessity’.

  1. Since things in nature are found to be generated, and to corrupt.
  2. Consequently, things are possible to be and not to be.
  3. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not.
  4. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence.
  5. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing.
  6. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence – which is absurd.
  7. Therefore, not all being are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary.

This way has some intuitive plausiblity, but whilst I have no objections to the first 3 premises, such as they are. Aquinas helps himself to a nice wad of the fallacy of composition with number 4. Just because everything we observe (a very limited set of an unfathomable universe that existed over 14 billion years before the first human) it doesn’t follow that everthing is not possible to be. It’s doesn’t follow that the universe is necessary and has always existed. That is, just because we observe things that come and go, it doesn’t mean the universe is a thing that comes and goes.

Premise number 5 is plainly false. If something is possible to be, then given enough time, it will be. Simply because if it does not come to be at some time, then it was not possible for it to be. Richard Carrier explains this in detail here. It follows that premise 6 and 7 are plainly false too. So the third way doesn’t lead to anything.

Fourth Way

‘The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things’.

  1. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble, and the like.
  2. But “more” and “less” are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is their maximum. i.e. which is truest, best noblest.
  3. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum of heat, is the cause of all hot things.
  4. Therefore, there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.

The fourth way has a healthy lump of Platonism, borrowed by Aristotle from his teacher, Plato. The idea is that for there to be more or less of something, there must be this perfect something that all other things share somewhat in. An argument beautifully lambasted by Richard Dawkins in the ‘God Delusion’ when he queried whether their was a fart genus, and all farts were caused by it, and partook in its odor (I paraphrase).

But this is nonsense. Premise 3 is clearly wrong, but understandable given Aristotle’s knowledge. Fire, firstly isn’t the maximum of all heat, and it doesn’t cause hot things, heat is movement of atoms. Perhaps we could substitute gravity? After all, gravitation collapse forces gas into a tight space, and eventually nuclear fusion, which results in hot balls of gas like the sun and the nuclear fusion is the cause of all heat, thus when I light a match, nuclear fusion is the cause…uhm no….(although previous stars generated the material of the match in a supernova.)

The idea that being and goodness are perfections is just smuggling in assumptions. Goodness is a description of how apt something is for a purpose. A knife might be quite good at cutting steak, but not at all good when disembowling someone. Perfection, at least as presented in this argument, is an ideal (Platonic idea), and unless you are a Platonist, just say no. It might have been the perfect Pavlova you had last Christmas, but was it really perfect? The fourth way never really gets anywhere again.

As another aside, the idea of predicates, genus and species, comes from Aristotle’s Categories, which is part of the Organon. Essentially a toolkit you needed to engage higher learning. A predicate, which from Greek we get our work Category (hence the Categories), was the verbal phrase joined to a noun. So, in the phrase, ‘Socrates is mortal’. ‘Socrates’ is the subject, ‘is mortal’ the predicate. Genus and species had different usage than today. In Aristotle’s work, everything came under a genus, and had it’s own species. This is understandable when you have the genus animal, and the species man. But had some very strange artifacts as argued by Aristotle, e.g., If we call an individual man ‘skilled in grammar’, the predicate is applicable also to the species and to the genus to which he belongs. This law holds good in all cases. So given that the maximum of a genus, is the cause of all in that genus, and presumably, man is the maximum of the genus animal, being a rational animal, then all animals are skilled in grammar? Mmmm….

Fifth way

‘The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world’.

  1. We see things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always or nearly always, in the same way,so as to obtain the best result.
  2. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end.
  3. Now, whatever lack intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence.
  4. Therefore, some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

This way assumes that everything that exists has a purpose, and argues from this assumption that everything has a purpose and therefore it must have a purpose giver. It is a mark of, and great failing of, Aristotelian philosophy, that the perceived purpose in animal life and often real purpose human society was generalized to every thing in existence. That everything has a nature or purpose to which it aims. Evolution rules out purpose in animal life, and yes, there often is a purpose behind human behaviour, but contra Aristotle, we’re not always rational animals, and are quite often just passionate animals who do things against or in spite of our desired purposes.

But to extend this to all things? A rock acts for an end? Nuclear particles decay at some indeterminate moment for an end? Come on. Sorry, no sale. The idea that everything in the universe has a governance is not plausible.  You could say the laws of physics govern everything, but the laws of physics aren’t laws of a prescriptive nature, but observed regularities. Even if you reify them as things, they have no mind, and are indifferent to  everything. Not really the governing type. This way goes nowhere. It’s not worth arguing with seriously.

No Way

And that’s about it. If I’ve done the arguments injustice, I’ve done the best my knowledge and intelligence allows. If I’ve not presented the arguments well, I’ve presented them as accurately as I found them. In the end, I find that you need to already accept the Thomistic/Aristotelian axioms that are used in the above arguments, and ignore or somehow bend known facts and theories learnt in the last centuries, then maybe, but no. These ways do not indicate anything.

As a final note, a Thomist might find the five ways plausible, and good luck to him/her. But if you want a non-Thomist to find them plausible, argue from shared premises, not Thomistic premises, like natural bodies, act for an end.

10 thoughts on “On the Five Ways

  1. Well, if I may, allow me to comment a bit here. I’m not a Thomist and so am likely missing some of the really good arguments — I have seen better attempts, oddly enough, from Edward Feser — but I think that some of your objections don’t really address the issues.

    The First Way:

    The first objection that jumps out could be made by any adolescent: ‘if everything has a mover, and nothing can move itself, what moves the prime mover?‘ The answer probably would be, ‘the prime mover is actual (already existing), and so not in need of prime-prime mover‘. Convenient and basically a sophisticated way of saying ‘just because’. Here stops the chain of mover by fiat.

    This isn’t a particularly good objection, though. All it does is concede that there must be at least one thing, a prime mover, that starts all other movement. At best, you can suggest alternatives, but if the logic is right then there must be one, and if there is one Aquinas’ “and this everyone understands to be God.” is certainly a candidate. You need a better candidate for this objection to have any real thrust.

    But why can’t we have an infinite chain of movers? An infinite chain has no beginning. The idea that if it were infinite, then there would be no movement because there would be no mover is just false. In an infinite chain of movers, there’d always be an infinity of movers in the past, for any chosen mover. So, there’d be movement just fine.

    But infinte chains DO have beginnings. Take, say, the chain of numbers generated by n[i] = n[i-1] + 1. This gives you a chain of numbers that’s infinite where each number is 1 higher than the next. So, if you were right, then you should be able to start generating this list, right now, with no other information given. Except, you can’t, because you don’t have what n[0] is, and you can’t generate it from the description. Thus, you need a beginning, or else the whole infinite chain can’t get off the ground. The same thing applies here: without having an initial thing to start the movement chain off, nothing could move. You, therefore, simply cannot run an infinite chain backwards into the past — or, in fact, any infinite chain — if the elements in that chain depend on the things that occurred before them for their existence, which is what is implied by a chain. If you try, nothing can ever instantiate until the first thing does, and it never does because, well, you have an infinite chain there.

    Things do not need other movers to set them in motion, or change their motion. No mover is required when a body is attracted to another body and so on…

    I think you are unintentionally equivocating here. “Mover” and “motion” aren’t limited to actual motion in the arguments, but are closer to “cause”. So, for anything that is put into “motion”, something puts it into that. Even in your example, the “motion” is indeed caused by the gravitational attraction of the other body. You then seem to go on to insist that it be some kind of intentional mover, but the argument itself doesn’t require that of all things, but merely says that something must do it, and that think must be something that does not require a mover for it to move in the stronger sense. In short, your first mistake is to use physical motion in place of metaphysical motion, and your second mistake is to insist that it must be intentional when it need not be.

    Second way:

    Secondly, at least since Hume, it has been arguable if every event (effect if you like), has to have a cause. As I mentioned above, quantum vaccum fluctuations occur in space, without an observable cause (and arguably without a cause). So it not impossible to posit that something kick started causes and effects at least once without itself having a cause. It is not the cause of itself, as premise 1 would have it, but uncaused.

    The problem here is that it isn’t clear that you can say that without making assumptions about what “cause” means. I once argued with someone about whether the Big Bang needed a cause or not who argued that since time doesn’t exist before the Big Bang, causation didn’t either, so it had no cause. That’s not the philosophical definition of cause — even in the cause of efficient cause — and likely not the one being used here, although it might be the one used in physics. The same thing might apply to quantum fluctuations: because they are probabilistic but are, in some sense, determinable, while we may not be able to find a specific direct cause they are clearly part of a process, and a process can be a cause philosophically. But then we would need to explain what causes the process, if it is an effect.

    So, no, this isn’t, in fact, actually necessarily contradicting what we know, as long as we make sure to check to see if physics and metaphysics are talking about the same things when they use certain words.

    Third way:

    Just because everything we observe (a very limited set of an unfathomable universe that existed over 14 billion years before the first human) it doesn’t follow that everthing is not possible to be. It’s doesn’t follow that the universe is necessary and has always existed. That is, just because we observe things that come and go, it doesn’t mean the universe is a thing that comes and goes.

    Fair enough, but this doesn’t get you very far … especially since in your quote, at least, Aquinas does not end his argument here with anything like “And this is God”.

    Premise number 5 is plainly false. If something is possible to be, then given enough time, it will be. Simply because if it does not come to be at some time, then it was not possible for it to be. Richard Carrier explains this in detail here. It follows that premise 6 and 7 are plainly false too. So the third way doesn’t lead to anything.

    I’ve read Carrier’s attempt, and it presumes that the reason that things that are possible do not exist is because something stops them from doing so, and that would be a law, and a law would be a thing, and so there must be a thing or else things must just exist. The problem is that the first part is, in fact, either mostly not true or at least generally not the whole story. In general, things that it is possible to exist are “actualized” in some way, and if they don’t come into existence after that actualization it is THEN the cause that something else prevented that actualization. With nothing to do the initial actualization, nothing tries to come into existence and since it never tries to come into existence nothing ever interferes with that, and so they stay out of existence. Second, this would be a law but a descriptive one, one that has no causal power and so not one that prevent actualization. So, even if it has to “exist” in some way, as it does no work it would not, in fact, prevent anything, but would simply remind us that we cannot get something from nothing, cannot actualize without having an actualizer unless we are the sort of thing that it would be logically impossible to never have actualize.

    Fourth Way:

    The idea that being and goodness are perfections is just smuggling in assumptions. Goodness is a description of how apt something is for a purpose.

    To you, perhaps, but not in this argument and not to Aquinas. He’s referring more to the virtue than to this pragmatic ideal, it seems to me. I’m not all that fond of this argument on my quick reading of it, and you’re right that 3) is the weak argument, but attacking his analogy isn’t going to settle it. You’d need to understand what he means by cause here and if there is an argument for that, and I don’t know enough about Aquinas to say.

    Fifth Way:

    This way assumes that everything that exists has a purpose, and argues from this assumption that everything has a purpose and therefore it must have a purpose giver. It is a mark of, and great failing of, Aristotelian philosophy, that the perceived purpose in animal life and often real purpose human society was generalized to every thing in existence. That everything has a nature or purpose to which it aims. Evolution rules out purpose in animal life, and yes, there often is a purpose behind human behaviour, but contra Aristotle, we’re not always rational animals, and are quite often just passionate animals who do things against or in spite of our desired purposes.

    Your objection here, in general, seems way off the mark. You seem to be arguing — and please correct me if I’m wrong — that thinking that these things actually ACT for a purpose is absurd. But Aquinas is clear that he doesn’t think that these things have intentions and aim themselves at ends. That’s the whole crux of his argument. His argument is that these things aren’t capable of acting intentionally towards ends and yet all of their actions seem to be consistently aimed at ends. If they are consistently aimed at ends without being able to do it themselves, then something that aims at ends must have set it up for them, and that’s not us.

    You can object that they don’t have any ends at all, and that it’s just us perceiving ends and imposing that sort of description on them. And to go further, we’d need to understand teleology a bit more to see if that makes sense. Which is where I’ll end.

    • Hi Verbose, I’m using a new app to reply, so apologies if this don’t work,

      You don’t seem to understand infinity. You present mathematical induction (which relies on the infinite set of natural numbers) and think that is a rebuttal. Tell me, what is n[0] of the set of integers? Or rational, reals, complex, etc?

      • Um, first, I am NOT using mathematical induction in that sense. I’m not PROVING anything, but GENERATING a chain of integers. Think of it something more like a Fibonnacci sequence. As such, I think here you’re conflating a set with a sequence. Since unless I am wrong — I admit to taking this concept mostly from Computer Science — sets don’t have to be ordered, asking what the n[0] is for the set of integers is like asking what the first element in the set of all integers is, which is a bit absurd.

        So a better way to think about it would be “What would I have to do to generate the set of all integers?”, using a method where the elements in the set are dependent on another element being in the set already before that set can be there. So, you don’t have “5” in the set unless “4” is already there, and “4” can’t be there unless “3” is already there, and so on for all elements, in all directions. How could you start with an empty set and generate this set without having some starting point, some point or element that can be added to the set or exists in the set without there having to be any other element in the set? You can’t, because that’s what it MEANS to be a dependency relation. Something must start the chain that is not dependent on anything in the chain, or else you can’t ever have the chain instantiate … regardless of how infinity works.

        So, in my view, it’s not that I misunderstand infinity, it’s that you misunderstand dependent sequences.
        s

    • The 5 ways are supposed to be scientific, and aristotle, and Aquinas after him were talking motion. You are being anachronistic and translating Newtonian ideas of motion into the thought of Aquinas, then fudging. Aquinas believed that all motion was perfect, and was caused by a mover. Gravity would never have been a part of perfect celestial motion. Gravity wasn’t a word or concept for Aquinas. Yes, there was a word gravitas, but it didn’t mean attraction between bodies before Newton. When you say gravity is a mover, you’re talking post Newtonian physics, and it’s not in any sense a chain of movers that leads back to a first mover.

      • Well, what I’m doing is trying to figure out what Aquinas means when he talks about motion and then try to translate that into the problems that didn’t exist for him at the time he was writing, which is a perfectly valid way and, in fact, the only way to go when trying to see how Aquinas could handle things like gravity. Since for Aristotle motion means something more like “change” than like “movement”, then the attraction due to gravity is still a “change”. Again, not all “motions” are intentional, so it’s perfectly all right to have a completely unintentional change in parts of the chains, as long as you get back to an intentional mover at the end of it all. And, in fact, in the First Way an intentional prime mover isn’t actually required; the one about teleology is the one that gets intentionality in.

    • Last reply, this app sucks.. Regarding possibility. If there is no way, that is it’s not possible, for something to happen, then it’s not possible. If it is possible, and it doesn’t happen, and nothing stopped it, how was possible? You can’t say it was possible, but never happened because there was no cause. Because, you’ve contradicted yourself. Something that without a cause required for it to occur, can’t occur. Likewise if there’s not enough time. So it’s not possible. At least a I understand it.

      I’m willing to go back somewhat on good and apt ness. I waver on that. Some days I think good is purely descriptive and others an ideal. But that doesn’t alter my point that Aquinas had a particular assumption of what it meant, and if you don’t share tat idea, you’re not gonna find it convincing.

      Last time I post from the iPad app. I have no way of quoting of situating context. And the autocorrect! Apologies.

      Thanks for commenting.

      • Well, take this case:

        If A occurs, then X will occur.
        If B occurs, then Y will occur.
        A and B cannot both occur; either A will occur or B will occur but not both.
        A occurs.

        From this, we can see that both X and Y possibly could occur. However, X is indeed what ACTUALLY occurs, because A is what actually happened, so X was both potential and acutalized, and Y was just potential. But you can’t say, really, that there was any event that caused Y to not occur; it simply didn’t occur because the conditions for it occurring were never fulfilled.

        The same thing, then, applies to Carrier’s example. It’s not that something that we would consider a cause would have to exist to step in and STOP X and Y from happening, but it would be that A and B simply didn’t occur, and in this case that would be because there was nothing that could make A and B occur. But you’re right that that would mean that we couldn’t say that it was possible for A, B, X or Y to occur, which would lead to a contradiction … which means that if we are going to say that it is possible for these things to occur there must exist something else that can cause A or B to occur that itself does not need another event to cause its existence and give it its actualizing power. At this point, the logical impossibility works against Carrier and in Aquinas’ favour, as we end up being unable to say that these clearly possible things are possible unless we have something that in and of itself is already actualized AND has causal power … which we have no reason to grant to the rules that Carrier talks about.

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