The end of the mind’s tether: St Thomas’s “third way”

Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, by Denys Turner“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

This may not be a question that we ask ourselves every day, but it is still (as Denys Turner puts it in his book Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait) a question that “demands to be asked” by the “nature of rationality itself”.

Prof Turner discusses it as part of his spirited defence of the third of St Thomas’s “five ways” of proving the existence of God, the argument from “contingency” (that is, the argument that a universe made up of “contingent causes” must be underpinned by a non-contingent, “necessary” cause: God). As Turner observes, this argument has frequently been criticised, even ridiculed. Critics insist that Thomas is making a basic logical error: that there is no need to require a non-contingent or “necessary” cause for the chain of contingent causes that constitute the observed universe. After all, the universe could be like an infinitely long rope made up of individual threads of finite length: “Just because each of its threads has a beginning and an end it does not follow that the rope does.”

Turner, however, says that this misunderstands Thomas’s argument. Thomas knows full well that the universe could be unlimited in duration, without beginning or end – like the infinitely long rope made up of individual threads. It is only on separate grounds of faith that he believes that in fact the universe happens to have had a beginning. Rather, what Thomas is pointing to is the deeper question with which I opened this post: “How come there is anything at all?”

As Turner puts it:

We can ask that question; indeed, to refuse to do so is irrational. The ability to do so is what the word “rational” names, a power to question that is also an obligation. But there is no answer to be found within the things that exist as to why there is not nothing rather than something, not nothing rather than anything at all. (p.142)

It’s often pointed out today (quite correctly) that the Big Bang theory does not represent a point at which we “must” posit a divine creator to “light the blue touchpaper and retire”. Various mechanisms are proposed by which the “something” of the universe could indeed have come from the “nothing” of what came “before” the Big Bang. Alternatively, it is suggested that the universe is just one part of a “multiverse”. This misses the point, however. Thomas is going deeper than this:

For as Thomas makes clear, the making that is out of nothing is not to be thought of as if there were some soupy kind of undifferentiated lawless stuff called “nothing” out of which what there is was made by some explanatory causal process. The nothing, he explains, governs the “out of,” so as to say: there is a making here, but it is a making with no “out of” at all, no process, no antecedent conditions, no “random fluctuations in a vacuum,” no explanatory law of emergence, and, there being nothing for the “something” to be “out of,” there can be no physics, not yet, for there is nothing yet for physics to get an explanatory grip on. (p.142)

The Big Bang – and, for that matter, a “multiverse” theory – may explain “the natural laws governing the something that exists”, but they can’t explain “how come there is anything for those physical laws to be true of.”

At this point, “the head spins”, because it is impossible for us to comprehend what it could mean for absolutely nothing to exist – for us to understand how “Why anything?” can be a meaningful question:

Here in the apotheosis of reason is its chief instrument, language, finally defeated. […] At the end of its tether, the human mind, in its characteristically rational modality of interrogating the world, finally falls silent before the mystery of the unknowable Godhead. (p.143)

And it is this Unknowable, which we find “where the mind reaches the end of its tether”, that Thomas describes as:

“what all people refer to when they speak of God.”

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