I want to return today to the series that I began some time ago on Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great. The last instalment of the series was about the metaphysical claims of religion. The question I raised there was whether the more refined of the arguments for the existence of God require closer attention than Hitchens gives them. It’s one thing to say that, if you posit god as a designer, this raises the question of who designed the designer; it’s a completely different thing to say why there is no way of stopping the regress. Modern Thomists like Edward Feser think that Thomas Aquinas had a way of doing that, so that the question becomes simply a misunderstanding of the arguments themselves. This applies especially to the first way of Aquinas, where what is at issue is not a first move in the order of time, but a first mover in the order of being.
I feel myself on very unsteady ground when considering these arguments, and perhaps that is because the arguments do not provide the kind of definitive proof that Thomists like to think they do, but I assume that, as philosophical arguments, they demand a response. I suspect, though I do not know this, that much hangs on the Aristotelian way of thinking about causes and effects, and how things come to be. If you can make a distinction between the essence of something and its act of existing, then it might seem that we need a prior thing (prior in the order of being) in order to actualise any existing thing, and then it might seem absurd — and I’m not sure that it is — that there is not something existing in its own right, that is, something whose essence is pure act (of existing), in order to explain why there is anything at all. I simply do not have confidence that the metaphysical arguments are that compelling, or that the premises of the argument are satisfactorily demonstrated, and I sometimes wonder whether this has more to do with the presuppositions that are brought to the argument rather than with the details of the argument itself.