Saturday, 12 June 2010

Question 18 - God's Life

Why this Question Matters.

Understanding, knowledge and intellect are things that we usually attribute to living beings, therefore it would seem natural to attribute “life” to God Himself. Indeed, scripture itself attributes life to God in a number of places. We’re already aware of the need to understand the use of analogy where predicates attributed to God are based on human experience, so how does this apply the predicate “living”?

The Thread of the Argument

A1: First of all, we must be clear about what we consider life to be on the basis of natural experience. The question asked in the first article may seem rather strange: “Are all natural things alive?” However the point of the question is to allow Aquinas to make the distinction between things that move (the claim made in the objections is that all natural things can move and are therefore alive) and things that move themselves. Aquinas claims that we can distinguish living things from non-living things on the basis of their ability to move themselves.

A2: Asking what life consists in is one of those perennial questions, beloved in recent years by mass market lifestyle gurus. Aquinas points out that there is a serious side to it: is living something that we do (an activity) or is it part of our being? Aquinas is quite clear that although we pursue activity while we are alive, there is more to life than simply this. His reasoning follows the idea of inferring essences from substantial accidents that we’ve noted in the “metaphysics” document. Here, in accordance with the answer in the first article, we ascribe life to things according to their movements or their activities. But we mustn’t mistake these properties for the underlying essence. Aquinas tells us that “living” is a substantial predicate; in other words, it points to the underlying essence (the very being itself). He is willing to concede that, linguistically, we do use the word “living” in a less proper sense to describe those activities that living beings pursue.

A3: Having dealt with the preliminaries, Aquinas can turn to the question of how we attribute life to God. However, having associated life with self-movement, he now faces the objection that God although moving others, is Himself unmoving! To get out of this conundrum, Aquinas observes a hierarchy in living beings associated with the degree to which they act of themselves. For the lowest forms of life, such as plants, their movement (such as growth or response to the sun) is determined for them by the forms that nature has endowed them with. For animals, the next step up the hierarchy, movement is determined not only by the form that they are endowed with but by the forms that they receive through the senses. Even within the class of animals there is a hierarchy according to the perfection of their sense abilities – so oysters are “lower” animals than dogs, for example. Animals react to instinct and external stimuli, but humans go one further than that: they have ends which they determine for themselves. Reason and intellect allow us to connect means and ends to achieve our goals. But even humans do not provide either first principles or their final end. At the top of the hierarchy is God who does not have anything supplied to Him by another and therefore God possesses life to the fullest degree. Throughout the argument, Aquinas has made a subtle generalization from identifying life with physical self-movement to identifying it with degrees of self-actualization. God, being pure actuality, is therefore “living” in the fullest meaning of the term and our analogical use of the word for creatures gets specialized to self-movement.

A4: God’s nature is His own act of understanding and we must also understand His life to be His understanding (from what has been said in the previous article). Also, we recall that God’s understanding is itself creative. So, “whatever is in God as something understood is His very life” and therefore “in Him all things are His divine life”. In this sense, we can assert that everything in God is life. God holds everything in being and in this sense gives “life” to them; the natures of things that are not in themselves alive are given “life” thought their existence in God’s mind. Aquinas illustrates this idea further in the reply to the third objection. At the level of natures, things have a truer existence in the mind of God (as forms) than they do in themselves; but as individuals (individuated by matter) their individual existence is more truly in themselves than in God’s mind.

Handy Concepts

  • Article 2 relates to the contrast often made between a “mechanical” view of the world, and a world that sees the mechanics as simply part of a wider reality with truth, being, goodness, beauty and unity being key to understanding the world around us. This article is one of those places where Thomas insists that the substance (that is, the very being) of things is not simply their collection of properties. (So, in modern metaphysical jargon, Thomas does not subscribe to a “bundle” theory of ontology). Rather the properties of things (their substantial accidents) point us to their corresponding substances and thus to their being. In this case “living” might appear at first sight to be a property only in the sense of an activity, but to stop there is to miss the point.

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