Currently, the most-watched video on YouTube that mentions Aquinas in its title is “Aquinas & the Cosmological Arguments”. So far, it has received 2.1 million views. With its charismatic presenter, Hank Green, and its endearing animations of St Thomas Aquinas, it’s easy to see why the video is so popular. And judging by the thousands of comments, this video has certainly succeeded in stirring up a lot of interest in St Thomas’s cosmological arguments.
Cosmological arguments themselves are arguments that aim to prove that God exists by taking some obvious fact about the cosmos as their starting point. One of the challenges in understanding St Thomas’s cosmological arguments is understanding his Aristotelian terminology. Without this understanding, the presentation of St Thomas’s arguments may be far from convincing. Take the above-mentioned video for example. The presenter attempts to explain St Thomas’s cosmological argument from motion by considering a row of dominoes, each one being pushed by the one behind it. But the dominoes can’t go back forever, so there must be something that pushes the first one over, the first mover. Therefore, if we think of the universe as analogous to the row of dominoes, this must also have a first mover, and this we call God.
This argument is easy enough to understand, but unfortunately it is not St Thomas’s argument. St Thomas’s cosmological argument from motion is based on Aristotle’s first mover argument, and since Aristotle believed in an eternally moving universe, this argument can’t be dependent on the belief that everything that moves must have started to move at some time in the past. From a philosophical perspective, St Thomas thought that an eternal universe was metaphysically possible, and hence thought that any philosophical argument claiming to show that the universe had a beginning must be unsound. St Thomas of course believed that the universe had a beginning but the basis for his belief was divine revelation.
But whether or not the universe had a beginning, both St Thomas and Aristotle believed that there must be a first mover, and this is because of what they understood motion to be, the actualisation of potential. Their argument relies on the very reasonable intuition that only something actual can actualise something that is potential. However, with the predominance of mathematics in contemporary physics, this intuition is something many people have lost sight of. Mathematics itself doesn’t consider the distinction between potentiality and actuality. Rather, mathematics primarily concerns itself with quantities and the relationship between these quantities. So when cosmologists speculate about the evolution of the universe, it is as though they are describing a sequence of frames in a video-editing program. So long as they can understand how one frame relates to another, they think their explanation is complete, and from a mathematical point of view it is.
But what this mathematical description doesn’t tell us is whether the video is actually playing. It’s as though the mathematical description is unable to tell us whether the video is a static sequence of frames or something dynamic where one frame transitions to another. The cosmological argument from motion would be analogous to establishing the necessary conditions that need to be present when a video is actually being played. But whether or not the video has a first frame is irrelevant if one is trying to discern what these necessary conditions are.
Ironically, some cosmologists have granted rather too much theological significance to theories that might suggest the universe had a beginning. For instance, the cosmologist Fred Hoyle was highly critical of the Big Bang theory of the universe. Hoyle himself coined the expression “big bang” in a 1949 BBC radio interview in order to ridicule the theory that the universe rapidly expanded from a singularity several billion years ago. Hoyle disliked the Big Bang theory because he thought it “openly invites the concept of creation”.
On the other hand, the great cosmologist and Catholic priest Fr George Lemaître, who actually came up with the Big Bang theory, made no such claims. Fr Lemaître thought the universe could have easily gone through a period of contraction before the big bang, and that claims that the big bang signalled the moment of creation reflected a misunderstanding of both cosmology and theology. Fr Lemaître knew, as did St Thomas, that “if someone should try to prove the newness of the world by relying on philosophical arguments, his arguments would become rather a mockery of the faith than a confirmation of it”. One should therefore be somewhat wary of the most-viewed video on YouTube that bears Aquinas’s name.
Fr Robert Verrill OP is based at the Dominican Priory, Cambridge in Cambridge
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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