In Peter Lombard’s Sentences, Book I, Distinction III, the Magister considers how God can be known from creatures. Later commentators will take the opportunity in their comments on this section to present arguments for the existence of God. St. Albertus Magnus reads the Lombard as providing four reasons “for proving that God exists, and is one.”1 He outlines these reasons as follows:
In the first the Magister proves per effectum that God exists in the manner of a first cause [per modum primae causae]. In the second through dispositions found in effects he proves that God is incorporeal, and immutable . . . In the third, again through a disposition found in effects, he proves that God is the highest good [summum bonum] . . . In the fourth and last he proves that God is the species of all created species, and this through a consideration of a species found in effects.2
The “first reason” is an argument for the existence of a first cause. It goes like this:
There is something caused [causatum] – this is clear to sense. Therefore it has some cause. Therefore that cause is a first cause, or it has another [cause]. If it is first, therefore I have the proposed [conclusion]; since we call this God, which is the first cause. If however it has another cause, I seek of that again whether it has a cause, or not. But it is clear that this does not advance into infinity: therefore it is necessary to stop in something thus which is a cause, but is not caused. But what is not caused, is uncreated. Therefore that cause is not created, and this we call God .
The argument is very simple and overall not extraordinarily unique. But, for those inclined to accept other first cause arguments such as St. Thomas Aquinas’s secunda via [“second way”], this one accomplishes what it needs to, and does so by stripping things down to their bare-bones essence. Let’s identify the structure of the argument:
- There is at least one caused thing
- Therefore, there is at least one cause
- Either (a) that cause is a first (i.e., uncaused) cause, or (b) it has another cause
- If (a), then there is a first cause
- If (b), then there is a series of causes
- Such a series of causes cannot proceed in infinitum
- If such a series of causes cannot proceed in infinitum, then there is a first cause
- Therefore, there is a first cause
Several comments: the argument only presupposes that at least one thing in the universe is caused — that’s all it needs. If there is at least one caused thing, then there is at least one cause, which is either a first cause or a second cause. If there is a second cause, there is a first cause (because there cannot be an infinite regress of second causes). So, either way, there is a first cause. Hence, if there is at least one caused thing, there is a first cause.
There are several crucial assumptions which the argument makes and which St. Albert does not (here) explain or defend. Accordingly, a contemporary analytic philosopher may judge that the argument is too simple and bare bones. Of course, much of the reason for the simplicity is contextual, and so should hardly be held against the Doctor Universalis. Perhaps the most crucial assumption is that there cannot be an infinite regress of second causes.
Finally, critics may wonder what the significance of the conclusion actually is. The argument doesn’t seem to establish that there is only one first cause, but rather that there is at least one first cause. Further, the argument doesn’t give any reason to think that that first cause is “God.” These are similar objections which are often found leveled against Aquinas’s quinque viae [“five ways”]; and the responses are also similar. St. Albert is writing in a context when everyone already acknowledges that there is only one first cause which is God. Also, St. Albert goes on in subsequent articles of the commentary to provide argumentation for conclusions such as that the first cause transcends the whole universe, that the first cause is incorporeal and immutable, that the first cause is the summum bonum and that it is one, etc.
This is hardly St. Albertus Magnus’s only argument for the existence of God, but it is a nice, short and sweet one.
All translations are from the Borgnet edition, as I currently do not have access to the critical Cologne edition.
1. Super I Sententiarum, d. III, div. text.
3. Ibid., d, III, art. VI.