Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Fifth Way, remixed even more

In the previous two posts (here and here) I offered interpretations or remixes of Aquinas’s Fourth and Fifth ways read as ways of showing how a theistic Aristotelianism solves a pressing problem that the basic Aristotelian metaphysics cannot solve.

Here I want to do again for the Fifth Way, but now I will depart further from the text, and so while the previous two posts might have been interpretations, this one is much more of just a remix of the Fifth Way, with some ingredients from my version of the Fourth Way thrown in.

On Aristotelian metaphysics, each substance aims at its own good. The good of a substance is defined by the substance’s form, and the form points the substance at that good. But this good is just an internal good of the substance. Think of this internal good as akin to MacIntyre’s internal goods of a practice. The directedness at the internal goods is largely a matter of a priori metaphysical reasoning about substance. But now let’s go back to the things themselves—for, after all, the Five Ways are supposed to be empirical. If we do that, we come across two facts I want to stress.

First, the internal goods of substances tend to be intelligible to us as goods independently of the forms of these substances. Squirrels grow and reproduce. We understand growing and reproduction as valuable features. Imagine that squirrels instead characteristically scratched themselves to near-death. Even if their nature specified such self-scratching as their end, without a further more comprehensive story such self-scratching wouldn’t be intelligible to us as a good. Now, it is true that we tend to judge things by ourselves: it is also our human good to grow and to reproduce, and so it is easy for us to recognize that as good in squirrels. But I do not think we should say that when we judge squirrels’ growth and reproduction as a good thing independently of the form of the squirrel we are simply mistaken—and yet if we were just imposing merely human standards, we would be mistaken.

We might make the point as follows. It is good for a squirrel to fulfill its form by growing and reproducing. But it is also good, in a different sense of “good”, that the squirrel’s form includes growth and reproduction. This different sense of “good” is missing from basic Aristotelianism, a point central to my reading of the Fourth Way.

So we have something that calls for an explanation: Why is the squirrel’s form aimed at something that is actually good in this further sense?

And here is a related and but less abstract question. The teleology of a squirrel harmonizes to a significant extent with the goods of other species. We have an ecology. A “circle of life”.

The squirrel’s activity, thus, is not only directed at its internal good, and that internal good is intelligible as a good apart from its internal form, but the pursuit of that internal good harmonizes with the goods of other things in nature. This coordination between the ends of different species is something that basic Aristotelianism has a serious difficulty explaining.

There are thus two senses in which there are external goods found in nature: first, the internal goods are themselves typically intelligible as goods independently of the forms that define them; second, the end-directed activities of the organisms are good for the ecology at large. Both of these call for an explanation, and Aquinas’ suggested explanation seems excellent: “Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end.”

Note that the ecological dimensions might be explained evolutionarily, as long as we have an explanation of the coincidence between the normative and the statistical, a coincidence that forms the heart of my previous reading/remix of the Fifth Way.

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