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The Cosmological and Ontological Arguments: How Saint Thomas Solved the Kantian Problem

  • J. William Forgie (a1)

Let us call the Dependency Theses (DT) the view, first stated by Kant, that certain versions of the cosmological argument depend on the ontological argument. At least two different reasons have been given for the supposed dependence. Given the DT, some of Aquinas' views about God's essence, and about our knowledge of God's existence, can seem, at least at first, to be inconsistent. I consider two different ways of defending Aquinas against this suspicion of inconsistency. On the first defence, based on a widespread understanding of his notion of ‘necessary being’, Aquinas' views fall outside the scope of the DT. The success of this defence is doubtful. There is, however, another defence to be found in Aquinas' work, one directed not to avoiding, but actually to rejecting, the DT. In this second defence, the DT is not a correct assessment even of those views that do fall within its scope. Its success means that Aquinas had available a principled refutation of the DT some five hundred years before it was first formulated.

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1 Henceforth, by ‘the cosmological argument’ I will mean an argument with this general structure.

2 This part of Kant's criticism looks like a logical howler, but actually is quite defensible. See, for example, Wood, Allen W., Kant's Rational Theology (Ithaca, 1978), pp. 125127. In any case, my aim here is not so much to examine the details of Kant's position as to locate just where he thinks the cosmological arguer commits himself to the ontological argument.

3 Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Smith, Norman Kemp (London, 1958), B636.

4 For a more thorough presentation and discussion of Kant's argument, see my ‘Kant on the Relation Between the Cosmological and Ontological Arguments’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 34 (August, 1993), pp. 112.

5 Russell, Bertrand, A History of Western Philosophy (New York, 1945), pp. 587588.

6 Russell's words suggest that one is committed to the ontological argument if one even so much as thinks a necessary being is possible. However, I will ignore this aspect of his view.

7 ST I, q2, aI. For fuller discussion see the Summa Contra Gentiles (SCG), translated by A. C. Pegis (Garden City, 1955), I, 10 and II.

8 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (ST), the Blackfriars edition (New York and London, 1964), I, q2, a2.

9 Patterson Brown, ‘St. Thomas' Doctrine of Necessary Being’, The Philosophical Review, vol. LXXIII, no. 1 (January, 1964), pp. 76-90. The quoted remark occurs on p. 80.

10 P. T. Geach, ‘Aquinas’, in G. E. M. Anscombe and P. T. Geach, Three Philosophers (Ithaca, 1961), p. 114.

11 Kenny, Anthony, The Five Ways (London, 1969), p. 42.

12 Craig, William Lane, The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz (London, 1980), pp. 183184.

13 Rowe, William L., The Cosmological Argument (Princeton, 1975), p. 40.

14 On this point see Baumer, William H., ‘Kant on Cosmological Arguments’, The Monist, vol. 51, no. 4 (October, 1967), pp. 519535.

15 Plantinga, Alvin, ‘Aquinas on Anselm’, in Clifton, Orlebeke and Lewis, Smedes, eds., God and The Good (Grand Rapids, 1975), p. 136.

16 Plantinga, Alvin, The Nature of Necessity (New York, 1974).

17 Plantinga's difficulties here perhaps stem from his focus on God's existence, a state of affairs, and not on the proposition ‘God exists’. (Recall that he began his discussion by saying that for Aquinas ‘…God's existence has just this status: it is self-evident in itself but not to us.’) So he may tend to hear Aquinas' claims about the proposition as claims about the state of affairs. Then, given his view, already noted, that there are several different propositions which predicate existence of God – several different ways of expressing that state of affairs – it is not surprising that Aquinas' claims, mistakenly taken to be about the state of affairs, get distributed over more than one proposition. The result is that one proposition is made to satisfy conditions (a) and (b) while another proposition is made to satisfy condition (c).

18 See in particular ch. 5, sect. 3.

19 Saul Kripke, A., Naming and Necessity (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980), especially pp. 48ff.

20 ‘Aquinas on Anselm’, pp. 135–136.

21 Aquinas appears to use these two notions interchangeably. See, e.g., ST I, q2, a2.

22 The criticism of the DT sketched here was earlier developed in my ‘Kant on the Relation Between the Cosmological and Ontological Arguments’, op. cit. I did not realize then that Aquinas had the material for making the same objection.

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Religious Studies
  • ISSN: 0034-4125
  • EISSN: 1469-901X
  • URL: /core/journals/religious-studies
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