Cosmological Argument: St. Thomas Aquinas and Kant

The Cosmological Argument for the existence of God, as propounded by Thomas Aquinas, hinged on the five general principles. This, in Aquinas’ masterpiece, was entitled “The Summa” (The Five Ways). In what follows, we would be critically discussing the first, second, fourth, and fifth pillars of his argument while reserving a more elaborate discussion on the third premise. This is because it was practical, reinforced, and embodied the very paradigm of his cosmological arguments.

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The first one, derived from the argument of motion, stipulates that for bodies to be in motion, they have to be moved by other bodies. Since it is contended that the two states of being ‘potential’ and ‘actual’ are mutually exclusive, it is not possible for a “mover” and the “moved” to be the same, i.e. automated movement is axiomatically ruled out. Now, based on this contention, if we regress to infinity, then we arrive at the concept of the ‘first mover’. Since the ‘first’ mover, cannot logically be moved by any ‘preceding’ body, the former has to ‘God’. The second postulate is in terms of the nature of ‘efficient causes’. This posits that it is not possible for a thing to become an efficient cause for itself. For an efficient cause, there has to be a ‘first’ cause, proceeding with an ‘intermediate’ cause. Hence, if there were no first cause, there would be no intermediate or ultimate causes. With this logic, if we progressively regression towards infinity, we will come to a point where a cause will not have a preceding ‘efficient cause”. This first cause would be ‘God’. (Aquinas, 100-101) The fourth principle hinges on the gradation of different things in the world from less good to good, noble et al. Just as there is gradational conditionality in different physical properties of things, (from being in the states of hot, hotter, and hottest), Aquinas, held ‘God’ to be ultimate something, which was the cause of other beings down the causal order, as the primordial embodiment of ‘goodness’ and other means of perfection. The fifth principle was based on the idea of ‘governance’ in that, Aquinas argued, just as natural bodies, bereft of knowledge, acted in terms of an underlying objective. This actually is ‘the design’, to achieve the best end, there existed some intelligent being, as the repository of all the superior knowledge and perception, referred to as God, who directed natural things, down the physical order, to move towards their respective ends.

The third postulate is ideated in terms of the twin pillars of ‘necessity’ and ‘possibility’. Aquinas premised that in nature, things are ‘possible’ to be or not to be, i.e. they are ‘contingent’ viz., they are generated, mutated/corrupted, and may or may not necessarily exist. Following this principle of ‘contingency’, it may be argued that if all things can go out of existence and do not necessarily exist, and then there must be a time when all things would go out of existence. Here, Aquinas appealed to the ‘Principle of Plentitude’. This principle stated that if something was a real possibility, then allowing the passage of an infinite amount of time, was eminently possible as per the logical conclusion. This conclusion states that everything could go out of existence at once, such as ‘now’, if the same was taken as a snapshot splice in the eternal flow of time. However, such an idea was empirically absurd since we have the evidence of existent things which could be sensually perceived. Even if someone argued that it could be because everything vanished out of existence, only to come back into existence, Aquinas contended this from the principle of ‘ex nihilo, nihil fit’. In other words, if something vanished out of existence; it could not pop back into existence. Therefore, not all things could be contingent. (Craig, 201b).

Aquinas buttressed his premise in terms of an assumption of the hierarchy of being with ‘necessary existence’, each lower being dependent upon the higher to infinity. The hierarchy of necessary existence itself would need a justification for its existence. In this context, Aquinas took recourse to the ‘principle of sufficient reason’, which enunciated that everything that happened would need to have a sufficient explanation for occurrences. Since the hierarchy of necessary existences would therefore need to be explained. This is because of the principle of sufficient reason; it would need a self-explaining necessary entity, stationed beyond the causal series, to explain the order of the hierarchy. On the principle of deductive logic, Aquinas argued that the self-explaining ‘necessary’ existence, upon which other things were contingent in the world, was what humans understood as God.

The Third Way of Aquinas argued logically for the existence of a God, but did not emphasize the customary benevolent perception of a ‘Judeao-Christian God’. Aquinas tried to even out this imbalance by contending that by dint of being self-explaining, necessary existence would by nature embody the attributes of nobility suggested to epitomize the very point of perfection (Fourth Point) and chart everything lower down the order according to a grand system of design (the teleological principle of the Fifth Point).

In his refutation of the Cosmological Proof of the Existence of God, Kant had, in effect, contending that extraction of a commensurate object from a purely arbitrary idea was an unnatural procedure and an exercise in “scholastic subtlety”. The fulcrum of the cosmological proof of God’s existence rested, according to Kant, on two essential components. The first one is the advocate of the argument initially sought to establish the existence of a necessary being viz., “If something exists, then an absolutely necessary being must also exist”. (Kant, 507-519) The rational cosmologist then sought to infer that this necessary being is the ‘ens realissimum’ (the idea of supremely real being). According to Kant, the above automatic identification, somewhat surreptitiously introduced the (dialectical) ontological argument.

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Whereas the Ontological argument moved away from the concept of the ens realissimum to the postulate that such a being existed necessarily, the Cosmological argument moved vice versa. Since the cosmological proof aimed to identify the ens realissimum with the necessary being, and because the same required an a priori argument (i.e. beyond the realm of empirical corroboration), Kant premised that the proof was eventually conditioned by its dependence on the ontological validation. This clearly demonstrated that Kant took both the ontological and cosmological arguments to be complementary expressions of the one underlying ‘rational demand for the unconditioned’. (Kant, 507-519).

While elaborating on the weakness of the cosmological proof, Kant contended that in it, the idea of God (the ens realissimum), in the realm of pursuing certain speculative or philosophical interests, was the one to which we are inescapably led in our attempts to account for the pure possibility of things in general. Kant underlines the philosophical constraint of cosmological reasoning, limiting itself exhaustively merely to possible pairs of ‘opposed predicates’ while making efforts to determine everything with thoroughness. Apart from the above, Kant had quite a number of other negativities to complain about the cosmological paradigm.

The argument, Kant retorted, was challenged by an “entire nest of dialectical presumptions” which must be highlighted and “destroyed”. These included the attempt to draw inference from the contingent -beyond the sensual realm altogether, an effort that resulted in sheer ‘transcendental misapplication’ of the concerned categories. According to Kant the dialectical effort to conclude from the conceptual possibility of an infinite series of causes to some actual first cause. This is beyond the arena of sensual perception, as highlighted in Aquinas’ cosmological argument (2nd Principle), resulted in a “false self-satisfaction”. This is a conceptual delusion, by dint of which, the ‘reason’ (falsely) feels itself to have finally zeroed on a truly ‘necessary being’. These arguments have found support in the parameters of Leibniz. It was argued that the approach of Kant is supposed to be nihilist but holds truth in the context of logical derivations. (Craig, 147a) As Kant further fine-tuned his logic, he maintained that this was surreptitiously achieved by ‘conflating’ the merely logical possibility of a concept (which, in its own term, is not self-contradictory) with the transcendental (real) possibility of a thing.

Thus, Kant’s critique of rational theology was characterized by his efforts to clearly delineate the sources of the dialectical fallacies, which he laid bare in relation to the specific arguments for God’s existence. While Kant was renounced for his attacks on the specific arguments for God’s existence, his criticisms of rational theology were more detailed in their approach and constituted a potent critique of the idea of God itself. From the above discussion of Aquinas’ different strands of Cosmological argument, along with its relative high-points and weaknesses, it seems that the Third Contention, delineating the principle of the ‘possible’ and the ‘necessary’, was, arguably, one of the most potent and persuasive of all his critiques, and formed the butt of a very forceful and incisive critique of Kant. (Reichenbach, 221)

Works Cited

Aquinas, T; The Cosmological Argument (The First Four Ways); The Metaphysical Quest; 100-101.

Craig, William Lane; Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz; Wipf and Stock Pub., 2001 (a).

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Craig, William Lane; The Kalam Cosmological Argument; Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000 (b).

Kant, E; The Impossibility of a Cosmological proof of Existence of Good; Chapter III; Kant’s Reason of Pure Reason; pp 507-519.

Reichenbach, Bruce R; The Cosmological Argument: A Reassessment; Thomas, 1972.

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