Overlap between the Five Ways and contemporary science

The overlap between the Five ways and, say, fine tuning arguments is that both target something that requires explanation but which lacks a physical explanation. But this overlapping space is pretty uninteresting: there are all sorts of physical things that lack physical explanations for which no one expects to find a supernatural explanation. We don’t have a good account of, say, parthenogenesis in turkeys, but we have no reason to expect that a natural cause will fail to plug the gap. Cosmological arguments arise when we find a causal gap in our understanding that has to be plugged by something we can’t understand as natural. St. Thomas thought he found just such causal gaps when he identified the need for immobile moving causes (1st way), things that exist by definition (3rd way), things that are good, true, etc. per se and primo or not by participation (4th way) and when he found an intelligence that was responsible for natural motions (5th) St. Thomas thought all these gaps were filled by the supernatural since, respectively, (1st) if something is natural, it causes motion by moving (3rd) if something is natural, it doesn’t exist by definition (4th) if something is natural, it isn’t convertible with the good, true, dignified and (5th) if a natural intelligence (like a man) causes a motion it makes art, not nature.

If we’re going to make cosmological arguments from the things provided us by contemporary science, we need to identify what science takes as common to nature as such. One impediment to this is that science prides itself on seeing nature as continually surprising and open-ended. Still, if we can’t identify something peculiar to nature we certainly loose any sense of “methodological naturalism”, which would mean we lose all ability to know if we are giving a natural explanation at all. And so science relies on some a priori criteria to identify nature.  But just what are these criteria? Oddly enough, they first seem to be not descriptions of nature but of our knowledge of it: it must allow for experiment; of falsifiability; of being subsumed under a list of repeatable phenomena; of being mathematically modeled, etc.

But then what would count as supernatural under such a description of nature? Notice that in light of the criteria just given nature itself becomes something that is capable of being controlled by us, at least in principle. A thing can only be an object of experiment if we can set up artificial situations in which a thing will act as we want it to in response to the situation, and to the extent that this is true it must be an object of control. Again, if the natural is ultimately law-based then, since law specifies action in response to manipulated variables, law gives an in-principle way of manipulating the natural. On this account, the supernatural is known precisely in a gap that is causal but unable to be manipulated.  Now in a certain sense this links up with the account of nature given by the Five Ways – being manipulable requires potential and so can never characterize an immobile mover – but this doesn’t show us how we would find a gap of “lacking all potential” using the sort of tools that physical science gives us.

But if we take out account of nature as manipulable seriously it seems to make the supernatural logically implicit in the definition of the natural: manipulation presupposes extrinsic activity, and so to define nature as the manipulable defines it in relation to extrinsic causality. Nature can only arise subsequent to positing a source in relation to which it becomes actually able to be controlled. Nature is thus a certain way of being caused by a person; and so if there are natural persons (as we seem to be) they too must stand to what is simply personal. And by this all understand God.


  1. January 23, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    Passing objections:

    “Nature is not the manipulable. It is what exists whether we think about it or not.”

    I have trouble seeing how this doesn’t wind up in the same hole (if not worse). If nature is what is not thought, and science is a mode of thinking, and thought is an activity of a person, and we are now stuck defining an act of nature in opposition to an act of person, it seems we must deny nature or personhood – thought and science included – losing, as you mentioned, our bearings on methodological naturalism, or that science comprehends nature naturally.

    Nature as a way of being caused by a person without potentiality seems better.

    But forget the arguments: asexual turkey reproduction is what turned heads.

  2. Carl said,

    February 22, 2015 at 10:03 pm

    I once thought of a similar proof of free will: strong determinism rests on our belief in science, but science requires manipulation to prove laws, and manipulation requires free choice, hence if strong determinism were true we couldn’t know it.

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