Aristotle -> Aquinas -> Atheism, Part 1

by nonewsisnew

There is a connection of thought between Aristotle and Aquinas that is sometimes overlooked when both Christians and New Atheists look at Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God. By understanding this historical context we can see in what sense the proofs were originally meant, and thereby see how modern Christians overstate the proofs and how New Atheists (in particular, Mr. Dawkins) actually argue against secular Aristotelian thoughts instead of Aquinas’ Christian thoughts.

To begin, no news is new. Aristotle (some 2,300 years ago), like most Greek philosophers, put in great effort to understand change. When I finish replacing the parts of a boat one by one, do I still have the original boat? If it has become a new boat, at what point did that happen? How does change occur?

In an effort to understand this problem and other problems associated with change, he recognized four causes of change.

  1. The efficient cause: this might also be understood as the external (or perhaps the proximate) cause of change.  The efficient cause of a chair is the carpenter.  It is the thing outside the object causing change within the object.
  2. The material cause: what a thing is made of can “cause” what it can be turned into – no one makes a chair out of Jello because Jello cannot effectively be a material for chairs.  The natural fracture lines in marble limits what that marble might be carved into.
  3. The formal cause: the concept (or platonic form) of chair will effect how finished chairs will look.
  4. The final cause: the purpose of a chair causes chairs to be made in a particular way (otherwise they couldn’t be sat upon).

In his work Physics, Aristotle shows how these four causes effect all change in nature. The anger of Zeus didn’t cause a dry spell and ones crops to fail, but rather these four natural causes. The bold claim of a way to understand the world without recourse to gods would have a tremendous impact upon both Islamic and Christian thought.

Next time: Examining the impact of Aristotle.