St. Thomas on Analogous predication of God: Part I

The general structure of the argument is: All equivocal agent causes are analogously named with their effects; God is an equivocal agent cause, therefore he is named analogously with his effects. The first step here is to consider God as an agent cause.

The first consideration of God as an efficient cause in the Summa Theologicae is in the second proof for God’s existence. The argument in brief is that if there were no first efficient cause, then in any order of efficient causes, all causes would be intermediate or secondary. But to be secondary is only possible in relation to some first, so some first agent cause exists, and this is what all call God.   


Perhaps the first and easiest objection to the proof is that it seems simply false on its face: we experience all kinds of first efficient causes that we would never think to call God. If I hit a golf ball, there is certainly an order of efficient causality there, but why do I need to trace it back to any agent other than myself?


Note carefully that St. Thomas is not speaking about “a first cause in some qualified sense” or “the first cause in this or that order of causality (which is the same thing)”, but the first efficient cause simply. It’s true that I am the first efficient cause if one stipulates that they are talking about me hitting this golf ball, but it does not follow from this that one calls me “the first efficient cause” simply. Considered in relation to my parents (in my moment of generation), I’m not a cause at all, but an effect. St. Thomas is not talking about a first efficient cause in a qualified sense, for the simple reason that one does not necessary to prove that there is such a cause- so far as one is concerned with only qualified first causes it is sometimes possible simply to stipulate them.   

I might also point out that we are effects of agent causes in far more profound ways than we tend to recognize. Whatever property is responsible for holding all the parts of my body together is very much an agent cause of my existence: water, for example, has no such force. If one could simply shut this force off with the turn of a key, I immediately collapse and dissipate (someday, of course, this force will gradually cease to act).

The second way does not come to rest in some cause like myself, or for that matter in anything, no matter what it is, that is in some way an effect- even an effect of the property that holds its parts together. This is necessarily a cause above physical, material existence, and in this sense beyond nature. This is why St. Thomas can say with confidence that it is “what all call God”.   


The Meaning of Gravity.

The good of the force of gravity (whatever it’s source is) is that it gives order and determination of place to bodies. The radical and essential goodness we derive from this force is shown very strikingly in the first secret of Fatima:

Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear.

In speaking of the perdition of the damned, Sr. Lucia speaks of how their bodies are deprived of the good of gravity or of any other principle ordering them to a place (equilibrium). Gravity is a certain rudder that keeps us from drifting away. Gravity is essentially a principle of right order, and therefore can be considered according to properly natural science, as not only determined to a certain term (end) but to a good of bodies as such.

Theology as of the revealed as opposed to the believed-UPDATED

Theology studies the things of revelation as opposed to the things of faith; the revealed as opposed to the believed. Theology will remain in heaven, but faith will not; Christ had the most perfect theology in this life, but no faith (even on the part of his human intellect, the reason given here). Theology, as such, does not connote imperfection; but faith does.

By insisting on the difference between “faith and reason” we run the risk of seeing theology as dealing with matters of faith as such. We have to begin seeing theology as opposed or distinguished from faith. As soon as I saw this I thought I saw a giant door open up to a world of sunshine and angels.

Theology is truly faith seeking understanding; but more properly it is the revealed revealing. It is he act of our potential with regard to knowledge of the revealed. for this reason, we might also account for theology as our participation in the revealed.

The appeal of Descartes

Descartes makes a convenient beginning for modern philosophy, or, if you like, for a new kind of philosophy markedly different from what came before. In what precisely did this newness  consist? The usual accounts of this are all necessary: stress on the subject of knowledge; a turn to epistemic concerns (especially methods of acquiring knowledge); and a greater separation of anything philosophical from the realm of revealed theology. All of these elements are present in earlier philosophers, however, but they never quite managed to spark a new kind of philosophy until they coalesced in The writing of Descartes. What did he have that made the ideas catch on? In one sense to ask the question is to answer it: Descartes had a power of popularizing ideas. Very well, in what does popularization consist?

Note first that here is general agreement that philosophy considers its subject matter by reason alone, but in Descartes, his popularizing streak sees “reason alone” in a very particular way.  For most of the thinkers before Descartes, to see things “by reason alone” meant an appeal to all human thought that came before you: Medieval of all philosophical schools are constantly quoting others, and they seem at times to be rather suspect of ever speaking for themselves. In Descartes, an appeal to reason alone means having recourse to ones own reason as opposed to all of the thought that came before it. In much the same way that the Protestant appeal to “Scripture alone” was ordered to cutting off Scripture from the vast ediface of tradition that had grown around Scripture, so too Descartes’ understanding of the way in which philosophy must appeal to reason alone was an ordered to cutting off an individual human reason from the vast edifice of tradition that had grown from reason. Again, just as the Reformation was a trumpet-summons for each man to turn to his own Bible and figure it out for himself, so too modern philosophy was an appeal for each man to turn to his own mind and figure things out for himself. The appeal of this philosophy is obvious, and some authors have even gone so far as to claim that it is the only truly sincere philosophy. Doesn’t one always have to judge the worth of something for himself? Hasn’t the individual really always been the standard of what was acceptable or not? If one puts himself under a tradition, he still has to choose to do so, does he not, and won’t he leave as soon as some part of the tradition seems unreasonable?

The short answer to all those seemingly rhetorical questions is no. There is an irreconcilable difference between being a disciple to some master and figuring things out by  ones own reason alone. The disciple views the Master’s words as perfect, and his job as a disciple is first to “clear the ground” for an understanding of it, then to comment on it, and then trying to apply it actually to what it only applied to before potentially. But how ridiculous this all sounds to modern ears! “The Master’s word” what, are we all slaves here? Fawning sycophants? Zombies? even more ridiculous is to call it “perfect”! We all know that no authors are perfect. Right? Aristotle was a Geocentrist! St. Thomas was wrong about the Immaculate Conception (there is a great number of Catholics for whom this is the only thing they know about St. Thomas)

I’ll pass over these considerations or the moment. All I will point out now is that one will never understand either o these authors until he makes himself their disciple, and treat them as Masters. Descartes really did start something new- and if we want to understand the things that came before Descartes on their own terms, we must see ourselves as disciples, not as Masters to whom all others must justify themselves.

Two notes on St. Thomas’s writing

-St. Thomas’s handwriting is famous or its illegibility. I once asked a member of the Leonine commission (the Leonine commission spent 40 years trying to deciper an autograph of the Summa Contra Gentiles) why it was so sloppy, and I was told that the handwriting was evidently the handwriting of a man who wrote with extreme haste. This is simply staggering. Imagine a man forcing out the Summa Contra Gentiles at an extreme rate of speed.

-Towards the end of his life, St. Thomas dictated all of his manuscipts. We have it on eyewitness testimony that he could dictate texts in his sleep.

Two notes on controversy, applied to the Nominalist/ realist controversy

-In any controversy, we have to locate the point of agreement, because where there is no agreement, controversy is impossible. The smallest possible point of agreement is an agreement merely on the use of a term, where even the meaning of the term is different on both sides of the controversy. So far as this is the case, there is no real dispute, only an apparent one. Now it is quite possible to have a merely verbal disagreement that is founded on a more profound disagreement, but again, unless we can locate a point of agreement on the meaning of a term or a thing understood there is no real controversy- only two people talking about different things that might, for all we know, be perfectly compatible.


This is important because all too often controversies are only pushed back to the point of difference or contradiction: e.g. “you say A is B and I say A is not B”. When left at this level, arguments might well become simply infinite and pointless, because it is quite possible that the term “A” does not mean the same thing for both. If the subject means something different for both, the “argument” amounts to little more than “You say X is B, but I say Q is not B”. So what!  I was struck by this once in a dispute about the role of a Supreme Authority in the Church. Just to make a point, I said “so we aren’t disagreeing at all, then”. My opponent responded something like “What do you mean? I say the Church needs no Pope, and you say it does!” To which I said “Yes, but what you call ‘the Church’ is what I would call a book club or a devotional circle, and I certainly don’t insist that a book club, as such, requires a Pope.” Now clearly this didn’t resolve the issue, but it did force us toward a trying to find the real disagreement: because it became clear that at the apparent level of the argument there was no argument, just chatter, like “I say A is B, but you say P is Q”. Again, who cares?


-In any controversy, we need to understand the opponent’s position at its best. This does not always mean we have to present the position at its best, although this is frequently the best thing to do.

-In the Nominalist/ realist controversy, we find at least a historical point of agreement: the first person to present one of the sides of the controversy was Plato, and the first person to dispute Plato and offer another side of the controversy was Aristotle. Much later on, at the beginning of the 14th century, another opinion, Nominalism, set itself forth as a third alternative opposed to both of the first two.


So far, the agreement: but notice that the dispute has avoided all of the key terms. This was intentional. All too often, the whole dispute is introduced as “the problem of universals”, and then we say that “Plato thought universals were separate, Aristotle thought they were in the mind, and the Nominalist thinks they are just in the word.” These are the sort of facile and forced alternatives that make philosophical disputes last forever. This way of stating the problem is also dubious at best: Plato and Aristotle spoke of the forms of things, or if you like, Plato spoke of ‘the things in themselves” and Aristotle of forms of things, but it is certainly not obvious that either of these is “a universal” or even if they are, that one needs to say an identical thing about the universal and the form. On the other hand, the Nominalist camp is very much an opinion about “universals” and not forms or the things-in-themselves (in some, it seems very much an opinion about the universality of natures, which makes everything even more complicated). Is there a central point of agreement here? Not obviously. To state only one rather massive difference, “form” primarily belongs to the existential order; universal primarily belongs to the intelligible order. It is primarily things that have forms; but it is primarily words and thoughts that have universality.


The best case for Nominalism is probably as a simplifying tendency applied to the arguments of Aristotle. Aristotle (in the Posterior Analytics) claims that one need not have universal natures in order to have science, but it is only necessary that one be able to predicate something of something else. Well if this is all that is necessary, isn’t all that is necessary for science words?


Again, there was also a tendency among Nominalists to dismiss some scholastic distinctions as mere gibberish. They have a point: to speak of the forms of things means to speak of how a man is a man by his humanity; a cow is a cow by its bovinity or cowness; a thing subsists by its subsistence, etc. We soon feel that all of this involves needless repetition and superfluity.


I have no problem with the first argument, except I only see it is applying to “science” precisely as it is taken as written down. I clearly can’t explain science as intelligible, or as a perfection of intelligence. The second arguments is one that gets made when people don’t start at the beginning, but get a sort of ready-made philosophical training that doesn’t start with what is truly first. If one trains young philosophers by entering a room and saying “there are four causes, matter, form…” don’t be surprised if all of it seems like jibber-jabber after a while. The need for matter and form as the principles of mobile being takes a while to see, and even after we see it, we have to meditate on it a while in order to understand it. These distinctions will always be junked for the sake of simplicity so long as we treat them as though they can be learned right away, or as part of some “system”.


On the principle “every agent makes a likeness to itself”

St. Thomas makes frequent use of the principle that “every agent makes a like to itself”. He uses the principle in quite significant ways: it frequently is used to show prove various divine attributes, and it is the basis of our knowledge of God (see ST q 4 a 2 and 3, which are the basis of question 13). The principle is not always stated in those exact words- somethimes it is said that an agent communicates its likeness.

The principle can also be partially justified by pointing out that nothing can give what it does not in some way have. I say that it “partially justifies” because it is not clear, on the face of it, that every operation involves giving and taking. Does falling to the ground involve giving and taking? What about eating asprin or smoothing boards?

But if the principle receives no firmer grounding than “nothing gives what it does not have”, we shouldn’t have too much confidence in it: one can easily imagine thinging: “An agent makes a like to itself! That’s ridiculous! How does this explain aspirin?” One can multiply out examples like this forever: sandpaper makes things smooth because it is rough; men make houses; eggs make animals. Trying to find a likeness here in the most obvious sense of “likeness” (the way a horse sires another horse) is probably a hopeless task, and at any rate, it would only seem like an ad hoc justification of a principle.

This is one of the great dangers in trying to study St. Thomas right away: one runs into principles which, taken in themselves, can seem like hasty inductions, medieval superstitions, slavish devotions to Aristotle, or products of limited experience. The truth of the matter is that these principles in medieval thought are always taken from that very limited field of knowledge about which human beings can have absolute certainty, even though this absolute certainty usually takes many years of meditation (let it be said right away that if a man can imagine that he knows what he does not know, for the same reason a man can imagine that he does not know what in fact he does).

The principle that an agent makes a like to itself is grounded on the first ideas we have of causing, which involves causing motion, or at least being involved with motion in one way or another. Now what is in motion first and primarily is a mobile, or a thing that is able to move. By “able to move” we mean it is receptive of something, or that it is moved. If “receptive” is too metaphysical or strange, we at least have to account for the different things that “it moves” can mean: and in the case of the mobile, what it means is that it is able to get something from another. The mobile might actually cause motion in another too, but insofar as it does this, it is a mover, not a mobile.

Now our ideas of motion are a bit more general than the use of the word “motion” in English. We don’t tend to say that the freezing of a lake is a motion, but we do understand it as a sort of motion: which is why we say it goes from water to ice; or it turns from liquid water to ice. Now there is no single genus of everything that goes from this to that, and so no single account of a mobile and a mover. There are, however, some common things that can be said of all movers and mobiles, even tough all these common things are-just like the mobiles- all in different genera.

A mobile is whatever is able to go from this to that, while a mover is whatever is determining a mobile to that. The word “whatever” is important here: we frequently have no idea what the mobile or the mover is. The problem may even be unsolvable. Something moved, so something is mobile, and something moves.

(We might note here that one needs little more than to meditate on this for a while to see the necessity of “everything in motion is being moved by another” but this is a principle we’ve spoken about in other places.)

Because of all this, it follows that the mover and the mobile are involved in one operation (motion). In fact, the one operation is the first thing we understood, and we then were forced to distinguish two principles involved in the motion. The mover can be understood as what inflows into the other, hence making it “like itself”. Are we being too quick in saying this? Not at all. If something is an agent because it freezes, then it acts by making something frozen; if something is a mover because it cuts, then it acts by making something cut; if something is an agent because it smoothes things (like sandpaper) then it acts by making something smooth; and if something is an agent because it relieves pain, then it acts by making something pain-free. This is the basis upon which “every agent makes a likeness to itself” rests.  In all of this, we see the necessity of always remembering the distinction between the per se and the per accidens: a thing acts to take away pain only qua pain relieving agent, not qua medicine or qua chemical, even though every pain relieving agent is a medicine and certainly a chemical.   

The difference between aristotelian physics and modern mathematical Physics

One place to focus on in order to understand the difference between ancient and modern physics is the different answers they give to the question “what is in motion?” For all the physicists after Newton- and to this day- the answer is “a body”: every body perseveres in a uniform state of motion or of rest, and inertia belongs to the moving or resting body. For Aristotle, the answer to the question “what is in motion?” is a mobile (Aristotle will insist that mobiles are bodies as well, even proving it in book VI of the Physics). While this difference seems small, it is in fact immense. For Aristotle the thing that moves is characterized by its “ability” (the -ble suffix); for Newton it is characterized by its act or form.

On the inspiration of Scriptural translations

There is a tendency among scholars to see the the real meaning of the Scriptures as what is contained in the Greek or Hebrew texts. This is an immanently reasonable but properly Islamic opinion of Scripture. The properly Christan opinion is that translations are every bit as inspired and as original language texts. We are forced into this rule from the Scriptures themselves, because New Testament scriptural references are usually taken from translations. The same rule also follows reasonably: the Christian scriptures are not written for a single race or culture, and therefore it would be unreasonable and unfitting to expect them only to be fully accessible to those who share a single language and field of semantic possibilities.

The consequence of this rule are not always easy to flesh out. Clearly translations are only valid insofar as they translate, but by any standard of good translation, one has to accept the reality that there will be many unshared meanings between the word we translate from and the word we translate to. At this point, one is tempted to set down the rule that the word we translate into is valid only in those meanings that can be verified in the source word. If a word picks up a new meaning in a translation, that new meaning is not to be seen as truly Scriptural. On this account, the source text becomes the richest possible text- the best a translation can hope for is to have the same field of meanings as the source text. This rule, however, is contrary to the Scripture itself. The New Testament speaks of a virgin that will conceive a child, even though the source word could only mean “young woman”. Clearly virgin says more and yet both words are clearly scriptural.

(I am aware that this is not the usual way this “virgin vs. young maiden” argument tends to get used, but I use it here as I do in order to point to what I think is the root fallacy of the dilemma: the idea that meanings are only really or fully to be found in the source text. My claim is that the translation need only be good, and a good translation allows or the possibility that the word will pick up new meanings that are to be seen as inspired.)

How self refutation- arguments are too quick

I remember the first time I saw the power of arguments based on self-refutation: for example, you hear someone say that all knowledge or belief is determined by behavioral conditioning, or culture, or political power, or linguistic structures, or natural forces, or the divine will etc., and then you point out that if that were the case, then the standard itself is merely a product of behavioral conditioning, or culture…etc. The refutation is one of the first philosophical arguments that one can learn. Over time, however, the refutation becomes unsatisfying. One reason is that it becomes familiar, but another is that the refutation itself seems to be missing something. One quickly develops unease that the refutation is too easy, and is confused by continually confronting those who can look the self refutation right in the face and still think that they are better off accepting one contradiction if that is the “only” cost of the clarity and power of seeing a single cause for all events and behaviors.

Clinging to a contradictory position is irrational, to be sure, but the desire to cling to the position in this case is understandable. The sorts of causes that tend to be involved in self refuting arguments aren’t just any old causes, but extremely powerful and universal causes of behaviors and beliefs and events. Things like culture and language and natural forces are what St. Thomas called universals in causando: they are divine sorts of causes that simultaneously extend to more things and penetrate more deeply into their effects than proper causes.

Neither the one who says “all things are conditioned by ____” nor the one who self-refutes it try to identify the actual sphere of events that the cause has dominion over. The one who mistakenly applies the universal cause to all things is too confused or lazy or excited to find the proper limits in which his cause is effective, and the one who refutes the position with a liar paradox usually thinks he has refuted the point and therefore doesn’t need to think about it anymore.

I was struck by this yesterday while reading Karl Popper: he claimed that “all reality is falsifiable, and what is not falsifiable is not reality”. As it stands, this position can be refuted by a high-schooler- but to figure out exactly the limits in which this is true would be an incredibly rewarding thing, and would cast a great deal of light on the nature of the sciences and their place in human knowing. In virtue of what is something falsifiable? In virtue of being a natural science? Not quite: for the truth that all swans are birds belongs to natural science, but it is not falsifiable. How does one parse out the limit between “all swans are white”, which is falsifiable (and falsified), and “all swans have bodily organs”, which is not?

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