July 07, 2014

Arguments from Contingency: Goodness

St. Thomas Aquinas' fourth way is the Argument from Gradation of Being, from Degree, or from Goodness. It's an argument based on our experience that some things are better than others.

Better or Worse?

Every time, my ophthalmologist flips those lenses back and forth.  Better?  Five.. or six?  (Lenses five and six look exactly the same to me. He knows that; I know that; and we still play this game.)

We naturally experience this. Some things are better than others.  This cup of coffee is hotter than that one. This winter was colder than last winter.  Her car is faster than his car. I got a better grade in this class than that class.

Some things are better than others.  Some are more - hotter, colder, more costly, tastier, prettier, smellier, and so on.

The Best of the Best

How do we know one thing is hotter than other? It's just hotter, right? But why?  What makes it hotter?

We know there is absolute lowest temperature: −459.67°F or 0K.  "Colder" and "hotter" are relative to that absolute. The temperature 80°F is hotter than 70°F because it is further from that absolute zero.

(Aquinas argues that our measure of degree are based on the "uttermost" case and something is hotter if it more closely resembles the hottest thing. Rather than get into the theorized Planck temperature (1.416785 x 10^32 K), it seems easier to discuss absolute zero, and it doesn't affect the logic. Though its worth noting how, as often happens, we find that Aquinas is ahead of his time and that faith and science get along beautifully.)

I find one pizza tastier than another because I have, in my mind, an ideal pizza. I know what pizza should be (and I'm from New Jersey - don't start with me about pizza). The best pizza is the closest to that ideal.

My wife's shirt is more blue than mine because there is an absolute measure of "blue". There is a pure blue (for instance, in HTML it's #0000FF). Her shirt is closer to that pure blue.

The Summum Bonum

Now, Aquinas takes an interesting philosophical step. He states that "the maximum of any genus (a class or group) is the cause of all in that genus." (emphasis mine)  There is a greatest heat which is the source of all heat, for example.

There must be a maximum goodness, a maximum truth, a maximum beauty from which we measure everything.  That maximum is God.

If we agree with Aquinas that the greatest is the cause of everything in that class, then we can say, too, that the maximally great being is the cause of all being--and we have the creator God.

We're through four different "ways" to argue for God from contingency. We're going to add a few more bricks to this level of the wall: cosmological argument and ontological argument.

Give a listen to a new playlist of brief excerpts from Dr. Peter Kreeft's talks, all on the subjects of beauty and music.

June 08, 2014

Arguments from Contingency: Present Existence

St. Thomas Aquinas' third way is the Argument from Possibility and Necessity, or the Reductio argument. It's based on the observation that things exist and don't need to exist.

Things Fall Apart

Lets start, as St. Thomas Aquinas does, with our everyday experience.  Things corrupt; they fall apart.  Also, things come into being -- babies are born, plants grow, buildings are built.  We create things - crafts, projects, companies - and they will eventually break or fail. Things come into being, and they go out of being.

Nothing Lasts Forever
Next, let's consider the expression you've likely heard of, that "nothing lasts forever".  Why doesn't it?

Well, what is "forever"?  Forever is infinite time. Infinite time is all the time you need for anything. That project you'd do if you just had more time? No problem, if you have forever. In fact, infinite time is all the time you need for everything. Because once you're done, there's still more time.

Infinite time is enough time for everything to happen. Every single thing that could happen, in every combination it could happen in.  Want to flip a coin and get 100 heads in a row?  If you have forever, you'll get it eventually.  Bowl a perfect game? Find a needle in a haystack? Find a pair of shoes that feels good and looks good?  You'll get it done if you have forever.

If everything can end and you have forever, then everything will end.  If there has been infinite time -- no beginning -- then there has been enough time for every possibility to happen.  One of those possibilities is that everything would end.

Let's summarize this point:
  • If it's possible that everything could end - everything, simultaneously,
  • and you have infinite time,
  • then "everything ending" must have already happened.

You Can't Get Something for Nothing

If everything ended at some point - everything, period - then what would have come next?  Nothing.  Nothing comes from nothing.  If everything stopped, there would be nothing left to start again.

If I remove one domino from a line of them, the others could still be knocked over.  You could reach in and tap the next one.  But what if I take all the dominoes away?  No more will ever be lined up and knocked over.  The whole thing is over.

I'm Not Dead Yet

Something is here, though.  You're here reading. I'm here. Your computer or phone is here. You're breathing air.  Things are happening all around.

What does that mean?  It means that something is wrong with this argument:
  • If it's possible that everything could end - everything, simultaneously,
  • and you have infinite time,
  • then "everything ending" must have already happened.
What could be wrong? The second point could be the problem. Maybe there isn't infinite time. (Physics and cosmology currently point that way.) In this case, there was a beginning. If there was a beginning, then we go to the form of the Argument from Contingency that deals with the Beginning of Existence.

The first point could be the problem, too. What if not every thing has a beginning and end? If there is something without a beginning and end, then it wouldn't end, even with infinite time. Even if we reject the argument from the Beginning of Existence, we're caught by this argument. Without a beginning, there still must be something timeless keeping things going. We call that God.

We're still considering arguments for God from contingency. The last one, coming next, is an argument from degree.

Need a review first? Dr. Peter Kreeft teaches the first three "ways" we've covered in The Thomistic Cosmological Argument. You can also read St. Thomas Aquinas' own formulation at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm