Guest Post: Aquinas’s Fifth Way Contra Paley

This is a guest post from ‘Meister Seraphim’ of the Dogs with Torches podcast/youtube channel, which can be found here. Thanks to Meister Seraphim for his contribution. If you would like to submit a guest post for the blog, please visit the Contact page.

In this paper I will be discussing the metaphysical implications of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ teleological argument for God’s existence, and I will be distinguishing it from the teleology of William Paley and his famous Watchmaker Analogy. In addition, I will be concluding that Aquinas’ version of teleology is much to be preferred over Paley’s, and Aquinas’ argument necessarily entails that the premises follow towards the conclusion of God’s existence.

Paley argues that the universe is analogous to the springs and machinery of an artifact—the example he gives is that of a watch. The order and purpose of the watch is very much evident to the person who finds it, and not supposing that the complexities of the mechanistic watch could arrive from simply nothing, the enquirer must conclude that the watch came from a designer. Paley writes as follow:

This mechanism being observed, it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said , observed and understood, the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker, that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, and artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who completely comprehended its construction and designed its use.

Bringing the analogy to apply to the entirety of the universe, Paley argues that, with all its ordered complexities and intelligibilities, the universe would be unable to be the way it is without a Divine Mind that fashioned it in such a way. Now one difficulty that seems to arise is that Paley thinks the principles of intelligibility do not exist in the things themselves, and because of this they have to have them given by a designer. The forms or essences in particular things then have no inherent intelligibility, unless they were created by a Creator. Paley writes that it would be an inadequate response to say:

there existed in things a principle of order, which had disposed the parts of the watch into their present form and situation. He [the enquirer] never knew a watch made by the principles of order; nor can he even form to himself an idea of what is meant by a principle of order distinct form the intelligence of the watchmaker.

Now the skeptic may then say that the principles of intelligibility and order reside in the things themselves, and therefore do not need a Divine Intelligence to impose order into them.

With Aquinas’ use of Aristotelian final causality, he gives us a brief argument in the beginning of the Summa Theologica for the existence of God. With the Fifth Way, Aquinas argues that the agents [things that act] in this world are directed in some sort of fashion towards an end. They either act in a certain way that distinguishes them from one another, or they have some sort of object that corresponds to their natural tendencies. In contrast with Paley, these tendencies flow from the thing’s inherent nature; “everything is what it is by its form.” It is not needed then, in Aquinas’ view, to bring God into the question of the formal nature of ordered reality.

However, the tendencies that are expressed in non-intelligent things need an intellect to guide them towards the attainment of their end, as with a bowman shooting an arrow to attain its target. This understanding of teleology is distinct from someone like Paley, who would claim that all reality lacks inherent intelligibility unless an intellect is present to fashion them in a way. However, Aquinas would still posit the Divine Intellect to account for ordered reality in attaining its end. In addition to this, the complexity of nature is irrelevant to the discussion of teleology. Any tendency from the movement of the heavenly bodies to the particles of an atom interacting with one another suffices to demonstrate the argument’s validity.

Now if we understand a Supreme Intelligence to be governing all non-intelligent life in attainment of their end, is this Supreme Intelligence truly God? For this, we would have to consider the alternatives of a multiplicity of angelic spirits, or polytheism. With a multiplicity of causes, the spirits would have to have distinguishing traits that make them different from one another. But in order to have some feature that is lacking or in possession to distinguish them, we would have to conclude them to be composed of act and potency. And if they have potency, then they must have the ability to tend towards something extrinsic of their inherent nature. In addition, things that have act and potency cannot exist in and of themselves, and thus need extrinsic causality per se.

We are then led to a being, who has no potency or privation, and is Actus Purus. Now Actus Purus, cannot be tending towards action, but rather must possess its object necessarily. As Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange points out, “the supreme directing intelligence cannot be itself proportioned to an object other than itself; it must itself be the object actually and always known. Hence, it must be able to say, not merely ‘I have truth and life,’ but rather ‘I am truth and life.’” It cannot possess accidental predication, potency, or even an essence distinguished from its own being, but rather, it must be simple, immutable, and eternal, the uncreated Godhead.

In conclusion, we find in Aquinas’ teleology a far more subtle account of the governance of things proper to their end. In contrast with Paley, Aquinas’ teleological framework does not concern itself with complexity, and it does not see the universe as simply an ordered artifact. Rather, things possess their intelligibility as inherent within them, and do not need God’s existence to account for either their haecceity, or their quiddity. At the same time, the directed action that non-intelligent creatures take must be accounted for as well. What we conclude then is the being that directs the actions of creatures must be Actus Purus, and must possess its final end necessarily. The argument is seen then to be valid, as all the premises lead to the conclusion of God’s existence.

One thought on “Guest Post: Aquinas’s Fifth Way Contra Paley

  1. Clearly, Aquinas’ argument is superior to Paley’s, but this column is fodder for the choir. His archer analogy from Aquinas won’t come close to helping honest seekers understand why God is the ground for the final causes in things.


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