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The Middle Ages: Classic Formulation

After the fall of the Roman Empire interest in the natural world dwindled and with it the pursuit of science and natural theology (Emerton 1989, p. 132). It was not until the 13th century that long lost classical philosophy and science were rediscovered. With this turn the argument from design reemerged (Emerton 1989, p. 132) and received its classic formulation. Aristotelian physics with its emphasis on causality became widely influential. Purely physical processes were frequently explained in terms of "ends."

You will recall that for Aristotle there were four distinguishable types of cause:

  • Final cause: is at the level of the maker of an object

  • Formal cause: is the design or blueprint according to which it is made

  • Material cause: is the raw material from which it is made

  • Efficient cause: is the effort applied in actually making the object

The point of our exploration seems to be to discuss whether there is a formal cause (a design) and the theological argument proceeds from there to final cause. If there is a design there must be a designer.

Thomas Aquinas - like most good theologians! - was conversant with the science and philosophy of his day.For Thomas faith (fides) is midway between opinion and knowledge (scientia). Aristotelian physics shaped his theology. The assumption that an effect cannot be greater than the cause and that something can be known of the cause by observing the effect; these became building blocks of his formulation of the argument from design.

Thomas's arguments for the existence of God work a posteriori from some observed facts of existence - effects -  to their ultimate cause. The most famous of his arguments are the "five ways":These are not entirely original with Thomas but rely upon Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, Maimonides, and Augustine. The section in which they are found takes the form of a question, "Is there a God?"...

  1. The First Way begins with the point that things in the world are always changing or moving. Yet they lack the consciousness to be self-moving/changing and therefore must be moved and changed by another. This all has to stop somewhere. Thomas concludes the existence of one, Unmoved Mover.

  2. The Second Way argues from the observation that nothing is self-caused else it would have had to precede itself. But again the series of causes must stop somewhere, thus the need for a First Cause.Another observation regarding causality is in order here. For Aquinas, all causes acting in the physical universe were instrumental and had to be used, as it were, by a primary agent. To assume that all...

  3. The Third Way reasons from the contingent character of things in the world (none of this has to be) to the existence of a totally different kind of being, a Necessary Being.

  4. The Fourth Way argues from the gradations of goodness, truth, and nobility in the things to the existence of a being that is most true, most good, and most noble - one who is the cause of these things in others. (Similarly fire - the hottest thing - is the cause of the heat in things that are hot).

  5. The Fifth Way, perhaps the closest to our present concern, starts from the orderly character of mundane events. Things meet their goals, even things that lack consciousness. Yet nothing that lacks awareness can tend toward a goal without direction from something that has awareness. As an arrow requires an archer to reach its goal, so also universal order points to the existence of an intelligent Orderer of all things. (Thomas, Summa Theologica, Part I Question 2, Article 3).

At the end of each "way," Thomas simply comments "and this is what everybody understands by God" (Thomas, Part I, Question 2, Article 3).

In each case he is arguing from what is evident in the world (as an effect) to what must be the case in the way of a Cause to bring about such an effect. Thomas seems to have favored the first form of the argument presenting God as the "Unmoved Mover" he treats this one most extensively. Remember that in the science of his day, 13th century physics and astronomy, the four basic elements were thought to be under dynamic influence of the stars, and lower celestial bodies were considered to be moved about by those at greater distance from the earth. Everything that moved did so because it was moved by something else. God is the Unmoved Mover behind all the motion.

Contributed by: Dr. Anna Case-Winters

Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
The Argument from Design: What is at Stake Theologically?

The Middle Ages: Classic Formulation

Early Greek Philosophy and the Early Church
The Scientific Revolution: Challenges and New Forms
18th and 19th Centuries: New Form and New Challenges
20th Century: New Forms and New Challenges
Contemporary Forms: Intelligibility and Suitability for the Emergence of Life
Conclusion: What is at Stake Theologically?


Anna Case-Winters

A revised version of this paper was published in Zygon, March 2000, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 69-81.

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