Aquinas' Five Ways and the Primacy of Consciousness

by Dawson Bethrick


In December, 2001, a Christian sent me a link to St. Thomas Aquinas' 'Five Ways' - the five arguments which he proposed as proofs of God's existence. This Christian, who was just becoming acquainted with the philosophical issue of metaphysical primacy (after I had sent him a link to Anton Thorn's article discussing this matter), claimed that Aquinas' arguments both are valid and deal responsibly with the issue of metaphysical primacy. Specifically, he stated that Aquinas "addresses some very important issues in direct relation to the belief of the primacy of existence" (emphasis added).


The Primacy of Existence is not a Matter of 'Belief'

First of all, I caution the word 'belief' here, though arguably it is excusable so long as we keep the proper context clear. I do not consider the primacy of existence to be a 'belief' (a vague term which may be endowed with many unintended meanings), but rather an inescapable and incontestable principle (where 'principle' refers to a general truth upon which other truths depend hierarchically). The primacy of existence principle is the very principle on which we stand (albeit perhaps only implicitly) any time we assert a truth (even if what we are calling truth is not true).

Why? Because we are asserting something to be true independent of our own consciousness (i.e., independent of our approval, desires, feelings, etc.). If I say "the Queen Mary is moored in Long Beach," I am not assuming that this is a fact only so long as I want it to be a fact. I am asserting it as a fact which obtains regardless of my consciousness; I could deny it, but it would still remain fact (if indeed the QM is still moored in Long Beach). The Queen Mary exists independent of my consciousness, and of any consciousness. Anyone could deny or ignore its existence and location, but if it's there, it's still there in spite of denials and/or ignorance.

Have you ever played baseball, and hit the ball into foul territory over a solid fence? You could not see the ball because it had gone beyond the fence. But, I bet someone still chased after it, even though he could not see it. What principle was implicit in this action to retrieve the ball? The primacy of existence principle was. Why? Because, the person chasing after the ball recognized that, even though the ball had gone outside of his immediate awareness, the ball still exists, and can be found again. Psychologists call this the recognition of object permanence in the development of infants and toddlers, and marks a significant point in a child's development. There is a philosophical reason for this, and Objectivism identifies it as the issue of metaphysical primacy.

So, the primacy of existence is not a 'belief' in the sense that one accepts it on faith or affirms it as a matter of confessional commitment (such as a belief in the existence of a god or angels or demons, or what have you). Rather, it is a truth which is implicit in all cognition, a truth on which all our thoughts and actions take for granted, but which we can know to be true by simply looking at reality and recognizing "something exists." (Some will argue that "trusting one's senses" is a matter of "faith"; however, in his article The Stolen Concept, Nathaniel Branden shows how such arguments commit this frequently overlooked fallacy.)


Aquinas' Arguments and Their Implicit Dependence on the Primacy of Consciousness

That having been said, I would agree that the primary issues Aquinas touches on are fundamentally related to the issue of metaphysical primacy. However, I don't think he has a consistent view of metaphysical primacy in mind throughout his reasoning. In fact, to my knowledge Aquinas never identifies the primacy of existence principle in terms of essentials, and further I'd even say that his arguments are dancing around the issue as delicately as they can without calling direct attention to it and exposing their commitment to the primacy of consciousness which is fundamental to god-belief. In each case, be it the argument from motion, from efficient cause, from possibility and necessity, from gradation and from governance, Aquinas' "problems" are resolved by recognizing the metaphysical primacy of existence over consciousness. If we start with the fact that existence exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), then the issues which Aquinas brings up are, philosophically, non-problems. I think a firm understanding of the issue of metaphysical primacy will make this very clear for thinkers.

Aquinas' case from motion is essentially similar to his case from "efficient cause." (1) To assert motion, we must imply an entity which is engaged in the activity of motion. I.e., we must start with what exists (with existence). The same is the case with causality as such. We cannot assert causality without assuming the existence of something which is engaged in the activity of causation. Again, we must begin with what exists (i.e., with existence). In order for Aquinas' conclusions to stand, we must eventually accept a number of shaky dichotomies (e.g., 'essence' vs. 'existence'; 'necessary' vs. 'contingent'; analytic vs. synthetic... etc.), an enormous package-deal (in which consciousness and existence are undistinguished from one another), and ultimately a blatant stolen concept (e.g., that some form of consciousness is required to "explain" the fact of existence). Each of these steps are illicit and rejected by a proper metaphysics.

On the primacy of existence, the issue of necessity and possibility is properly identified as an epistemological matter, not an exclusively metaphysical matter. 'Necessity' and 'possibility', on the Objectivist view, are epistemological concepts, having to do with the manner in which we validate our inferences about that which exists. To accept Aquinas' conclusion, this distinction must be blurred, just as the distinction between existence and consciousness is blurred in the package-deal of his god-belief (thus necessitating a litany of false dichotomies in epistemology). Besides, when Aquinas holds that "there must exist something the existence of which is necessary," the only objective concurrence with this would be to say that the universe as such is that "something, the existence of which is necessary," even on Aquinas' own premises (namely, "if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence--which is absurd.")

'Universe' is defined as the sum total of existence. So to posit the existence of anything - even a tiny grain of sand, is to imply the existence of the total (since the grain of sand would logically be included in the total). Aquinas seems to assume that causality as such holds metaphysical primacy over existence (another "false primacy" as Thorn himself rightly puts it), and in this way he wants to smuggle in the primacy of consciousness by assuming that consciousness is the agency of cause in question (which Aquinas calls "God") necessitated to solve the 'problem' which Aquinas invents. This reasoning is recognized as invalid when we begin with a proper metaphysics.

Aquinas' argument from gradation is pure intrinsicism. Again, we can only accept this if we ignore the issue of metaphysical primacy as identified by an Objectivist metaphysics. Aquinas' claim that "the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things" is untenable. "Hot" is an attribute, and therefore a property of entities. Fire does not "cause" those entities which are hot to come into existence, nor must we hold that only fire can cause entities to become hot (there is also friction, radiation, and potentially other kinds of energy release; a good physicist should be able to show this). In Aquinas' day, his conclusion may have seemed valid, given the context of knowledge they had at the time. Aquinas then lifts this same reasoning into the realm of values, to infer that things which we determine to be good or perfect have a similarly aligned cause, which Aquinas calls God. Aquinas does this because he, like all theists, wants to think of natural phenomena as stemming from an act of consciousness (e.g., "God's will" or "plan"), which he makes clear in his last argument. On a proper metaphysics, such conclusions are unwarranted and invalid.

Aquinas' final argument is rudimentarily similar to the classical 'design' argument, and fails because it deliberately and explicitly blurs the distinction between existence and consciousness. Like the design argument, Aquinas attempts to smuggle a stolen concept into his reasoning when he says that things in nature act toward an end. But it is difficult to see how anyone could defend this view (indeed, on the primacy of existence view, it is not defensible). Toward what "end" does an avalanche act? Toward what "end" does an earthquake act? (2) Any "end" which we assign to these natural phenomena stem from our own perspective of the world which we must project onto non-conscious activity (which invites a circular argument if we are to grant Aquinas' premises). After he smuggles in his stolen concept in this manner, Aquinas gives himself the license to reverse the objective relationship between existence and consciousness, to posit some sort of "intelligence" (i.e., a form of consciousness) as causally necessary for all active phenomena. (In regard to this, I'd really recommend Ayn Rand's essay "The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made" in her book Philosophy: Who Needs It.)



There is certainly much more which can be said to show why Aquinas' arguments are invalid or in error. But I think the primary problem inherent in each of them is Aquinas' failure to deal directly with the issue of metaphysical primacy. Aquinas' conclusions require (and result from) a failure to deal with the issue of metaphysical primacy in essential terms, a failure which enables him and other thinkers to reverse the relationship between that which exists, and the means by which we perceive that which exists. Rand's discovery of the primacy of existence principle (as she formulated it), is the master key which unlocks all these reversals and returns the mystic's stolen concepts back to objective reality.




(1) I am of course not alone in noting the strong similarities between the arguments which Aquinas proposed. In fact, even thinkers with whom I fundamentally disagree also express agreement that Aquinas' arguments are more alike than not. Theologian Gordon Clark, for instance, in his article The Cosmological Argument, notes that of Aquinas' 'Five Ways', "the first four are almost identical, and the fifth is so little different," that he will only consider the first in his official critique.

(2) Now, one could answer these two questions by saying that an avalanche acts toward the end of achieving balance (since the rocks which fall in an avalanche are too heavy for the hillside to support), and that the earthquake acts toward the end of relieving subterranean pressure. But it seems that these positions confuse the cause of the action in question with the notion that these actions are acting toward a goal. It is when this kind of reversal is committed that one essentially reasons: "See, it's acting toward a goal, so it must ultimately directed by a form of consciousness" (since goal-orientedness is taken to necessarily imply consciousness). Theistic arguments and counter-examples are rife with such reversals, and the god-beliefs which they are intended to defend cannot stand without them.



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