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Aquinas and the Language of Religion

September 29, 2010

In this post I want to take a look at a particular argument for the existence of God, the sort of god that the argument leads to and what sort of language we can legitimately use about this god.

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas gave five “proofs” for the existence of God. There appears to be some debate about whether he intended these to be standalone proofs or merely to provide a justification for the rationality of believing in God. Aquinas’ Third Way is the cosmological argument. Aquinas argues as follows.

  1. There exist things that can both “be” and “not be” (this is, contingent things).
  2. Suppose that everything that exists is contingent. Then, given enough time in the past, there existed a time when everything was not.
  3. This is impossible, since something exists and something cannot come from nothing.
  4. Therefore there exists something which cannot not be (that is, a necessary thing)
  5. Suppose that all necessary things are caused. Then we would have an infinite chain of caused necessary things. [Aquinas distinguishes between caused necessary things (such as angels and souls) and uncaused necessary things]
  6. Such an infinite chain is impossible.
  7. Therefore there exists x, an uncaused necessary thing.
  8. This thing everyone calls God

What are the weaknesses of this argument? There are many, put forward by William of Ockham, Kant, Leibniz, Hume and more. A few of them are:

  • Step 1 can be looked at through the conservation laws. I might naively consider myself contingent, but when I die the energy and matter that make me up won’t be lost, it’ll merely dissipate as I decompose.
  • Step 3, the assumption that it is impossible for something to come of nothing needs to be looked at seriously. There has been a lot of discussion recently about hos this statement applies to the “Big Bang”, with one phrase in particular sticking in my mind – something comes from nothing because nothing is unstable.
  • In step 4 we are asked to suppose that a necessary thing is logically possible. This is up for debate.
  • Are infinite causal chains impossible as put forward in 6?
  • How do we go from step 7 to the Christian God? If we’re happy with the rest of the argument we have proved existence (but not uniqueness!) of some x, and taking that x to be God is a massive, massive step.

So, there are problems. However, I want to move on. Suppose we accept an argument along these lines, leading us to a particular belief in God. What can we say about this God?

The cosmological argument necessarily leads to a belief in a timeless, spaceless God. We accept that time and space have a cause (they are, after all, dependant on being of our universe). God must therefore be outside both time and space. This further means that God is simple (not made up of parts) and that he has no potentiality.

Things have actuality and potentiality. The cat could sit on the mat. There is an actual cat, and it has the potential to sit on the mat. Similarly the phrase “I can type”. I am actual, and have the potential to type (which I am fulfilling now). The statement above says that God has actuality but no potentiality. Why? Suppose God had some potential. This would imply that God was in time, as potential itself implies some future state. By believing in a timeless God we remove the ability of God to have potential. This is an important point, as it leads to a lot of questions. If God has no potential, how can he create anything? How can God forgive someone?

Given these properties of God, which we are led to by an acceptance of the cosmological argument, what sort of language can we use to describe or talk about this God?

Univocal language is where the same word is used in two different situations with roughly the same meaning. Christian loves sailing and Carl loves chocolate is an example. You can get an idea about how Carl feels about chocolate by comparison to my feelings about sailing. We cannot use this sort of language to describe God as it would imply that God was part of the universe, something we have rejected.

Equivocal language is where a word is used in two different situations with completely different meanings. Describing the nut in a nut and bolt tells you nothing about the nut growing on an oak tree. We cannot use this language to describe God as we would have no idea what the language means, and all our statements using equivocal language would be content-less.

This leaves metaphor and analogy. Aquinas argues that we can talk about God through analogy of attribution. Consider the statements

  1. The baker is good
  2. The bread is good

Good here means two different things. The bread is good because it tastes nice, and this certainly isn’t why the baker is good. He is good because he has what it takes to make good bread. Similarly the statements

  1. God is good
  2. Christian is good

implies that God has what it takes to make me good. We are not implying that this is in any way similar to what would make me good. Through analogy of attribution we can therefore make statements with some content about God.

An interesting problem arises here, which Aquinas dispatches with style. Could I not say “God is evil”, and justify this statement by analogy? Not according to Aquinas. He defines evil as an absence of that which makes something good. Therefore evil implies a state of potentiality, and he has already argued that God has no potential. God cannot therefore be evil, he must in fact be perfectly good, where this means perfectly whatever it is that makes God good. A great example of defining away a problem!

I’m about to read an article on metaphor and religious language, so will hold off on this for now. Needless to say it is complicate and subject to ongoing debate!

So, thoughts. This has highlighted how important it is to work out exactly how someone arrives at and thinks about their god. It strongly influences the language that they can legitimately deploy in their arguments. Someone believing in the god described above cannot take the bible literally – God cannot act inside the universe.

I’m left with a feeling that it’s all just word games. I could quite easily be trying to have this discussion about Ilúvatar (that’s the creator god in the Silmarillion for those who aren’t Tolkien geeks). Is theology to be respected just because it plays these games with a real world religion rather than an acknowledged work of fiction? There are clever and subtle arguments being made, but how much truth is there in any of the conclusions without assuming the God (or at least a god) exists?

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