A Variation on the First Way of St. Thomas Aquinas - Part 2

A Variation on the First Way of St. Thomas Aquinas - Part 1


What is now evident is the need for an adequate source for all the new qualities of existence which are manifested among all finite beings which actually undergo change. The term “source” is used here with deliberate ambiguity because the question of the number of possible agents involved has, as yet, to be determined. What has been determined is that no physical agent can serve in this role.

That such a source must exist follows from the fact of motion in the physical world -- a fact which is, as Aquinas points out, “...certain and evident to the senses.”(28) Moreover, since this very investigation has revealed the existence of at least one spiritual agent of change, the suggestion made by Garrigou-Lagrange that motion also may occur in the spiritual domain must be taken into consideration.(29) A spiritual source of any such spiritual motion must also be granted.

When one attends closely to the effect produced by the source of all becoming it becomes clear that such agency actually requires a form of causality which is appropriate to but a single Infinite Being alone. This follows from the fact that the adequate source of coming to be cannot be any finite agent since every finite agent is limited by its form with respect to that which it can cause.(30) And since limited beings, while they may function as secondary causes of that which comes to be in change, do not express all possible existence within their natures, they cannot function as the ultimate source of all new expressions of existence in a real world which is constantly coming to be. This argument will be redeveloped below with greater critical precision.

It is not denied here that limited beings -- both spiritual and physical -- are true causes of that which comes to be in change. Indeed, as Etienne Gilson has eloquently argued, the real causality of secondary causes is essential for adequate recognition of the infinite perfection of the First Cause.(31) Nonetheless, regardless of the number and function of secondary causes, it is evident from the foregoing that one or more agents must exist which cause the coming to be of new qualities of existence in those things which change. But that secondary causes should act all by themselves is not possible precisely because they are secondary causes. The question remains as to whether more than one being can act as the source for new qualities of existence which are manifest in reality -- regardless of whether secondary causes operate or not.

A proper metaphysical analysis reveals that only one being can serve as the universal source of all new qualities of existence which appear among finite changing realities. The key to this is the recognition of the truth that to cause “new qualities of existence” is really to cause “new existence” — even if the only “newness” accorded to the finite order should be the change of relative spatial position of subatomic particles typically granted by scientific materialism or reductionism. This is so because even a mere accidental change of position in space and time constitutes a real change in the way in which a thing exists.

But it might be objected that while “new existence” is manifested by an entire new substance coming into existence, the materialist’s sole concession refers merely to an accidental alteration whose coming to be does not touch a thing’s substantial existence. Even Aquinas, following Aristotle, claims that substance alone is true being and that accidents are called beings only insofar as, through them, some substance exists in a certain manner with a certain quality.(32) For example, as Aquinas says, “...whiteness is called a being because by it something is white.”(33) Indeed, accidents are not even accorded the dignity of being said to possess “esse”--but only inesse.”(34)

The preceding objection derives its force from an implicit denigration of accidental coming to be. While the reality of substantial existence is granted by this objection, new accidental existence is not seen as being “really real,” or, if new is real, it is not perceived as requiring the same sort of explanation which new substantial existence would entail.

An adequate response to this objection will require a disjunctive analysis of the problem posed. This is because the question of whether or not accidents may be said to possess their own real existence has been the subject of some controversy in recent decades among the followers of Aquinas themselves. Rather than attempt a definitive demonstration in terms of but one side of this dispute (which might thereby fail to convince adherents of the opposite side), this article will attempt a simultaneous solution which argues from both sides of the question — so as to demonstrate its point to adherents of either position.

On the one side is found a doctrine which more or less dominated Thomistic circles some two decades ago and which insists that accidents actually possess no existence of their own, but rather simply share in the existence of the substance in which they inhere.(35) Further, substance is not conceived as the sort of “static substrate” depicted by John Dewey in his Reconstruction in Philosophy.(36) Rather, the acquisition of a new accidental form by a substance is seen to constitute a real change in the very substance itself. The reason for this is that act is always proportioned to its corresponding potency.(37) Hence, any alteration of an act necessitates a corresponding alteration of that potential principle which receives and limits it. But accidental form is to substance as act is to potency. From this it follows that any change in the accidents which actually modify a substance must entail a corresponding change in the substance itself. From this viewpoint it is an oversimplification to employ the conventional formulation that accidents change while substance remains the same in accidental change. Rather, the composite structure of accidents and substance undergo the accidental change. Further, since there is but one act of existence in the substance and since accidental change is now seen to entail a change of the substance itself, it follows that accidental change entails that new substantial existence comes to be in the substance itself. This, of course, would require an adequate cause for new substantial existence (esse)-- something whose nature could account for its coming to be. In this doctrine such “mere accidental change” would indeed “touch a thing’s substantial existence.”

On the other side of this controversy is a position which has gained greater adherence in more recent years. It insists that accidents do, indeed, possess their own existence (esse) — and do so in extramental distinction from the substance in which they inhere.(38) This somewhat more complex expression of the accident-substance relationship is summarized by Barry Brown as follows:

Although accidental being is really “other,” it is however, radically dependent. The succession of accidents upon their subject is a sequence permeated by efficient causality. ...For the substantial esse is now revealed not only as the intrinsic actuation of the substantial essence, but also as the active principle of actualities other than itself: the thing’s multiple and complicated accidental being.(39)

By insisting that substantial esse is distinct from, but an efficient cause of, accidental esse, Brown expresses a doctrine on which accidental coming to be clearly constitutes the coming to be of “new existence” -- new esse in the accidental order of being. And yet, by claiming that substantial existence is the cause of accidental existence, Brown makes it clear that it is not the coming to be of new existence of which he speaks. For if a substance could account for the coming to be of its own new accidental existence, it would reduce itself from potency to act, which has been ruled out earlier. While a per se accident, or property, may indeed flow from a thing’s substance, it is precisely not new in so doing, since its existence must commence at the same time as that of the substance to which it belongs. And while a contingent accident may be sustained in existence by its substance after the accident comes to be, in its very coming to be it is necessarily dependent upon some extrinsic cause, as seen above. In any case, this latter position accords to accidental change the actual coming to be of new existence in the accidental order. (Hence, the former position admits the reality of new substantial existence, while the latter admits the reality of new accidental existence.)

Now the meaning of these two types of existence—accidental and substantial—as well as the distinction which obtains between them is clarified by Gerald Phelan as follows:

Since the act of existence (esse) is always proportionate to the “whatness” of the ens of which it is the act (whether that ens be a substance or not—albedo est ens, In I Sent., d. 8, 1, 3), it is understandable that the distinctions which render various entia other than one another (real distinctions in the case of differences and diversities; distinctions of reason in the case of diverse modes of signifying) would be transferred to the “othernesses” between the acts of existence (esse) themselves.(40)

That is to say, since form is to existence as potency is to act, the extramental distinction between accidental form and substantial form requires that their acts of existence be diverse. Now it is central to this analysis of the two diverse doctrines described above to observe that while existence (esse) may be diverse with respect to the various substantial or accidental forms which it actualizes, such diversity arises only with respect to the corresponding potential principles which it actualizes -- not with respect to existence considered in itself or absolutely. For existence as such transcends the ten categories of being: substance and the nine accidents,(41) Existence is analogically expressed in both substance and accidents.(42) Hence, new existence, whether substantial or accidental, absolutely requires some cause capable of producing existence as such. Whether the existence which is new be substantial or accidental in nature is, thus, irrelevant to this inquiry. What is relevant is that, according to either doctrine described above, the very nature of an evolving, dynamic cosmos -- even if it be conceived as nothing but the coming to be of new accidental states constituted by “atoms” in motion -- necessarily entails the constant emergence of new existence which, considered as such, demands an adequate causal explanation.

But a being acts or causes in accordance with its form which limits its mode of existence and acting.(43) The question at hand is whether any being whose nature, essence, or form fails to include or be identified with existence as such can adequately explain the coming to be of new modes of existence. Viewed from the standpoint of “qualities” taken simply in their formal character, it would seem quite possible that some limited being could communicate those qualities which it possesses to other beings. But insofar as the giving of qualities necessarily entails the giving of the existence of those qualities as well, any causality requires the existence of some cause which can actually give the act of existence itself— even if that act be only in the accidental order of existence.

Now no being can lack that which belongs to its very nature, just as a triangle cannot exist without one of its three sides.(44) Hence, existence as such cannot belong to the very nature of any limited being since existence is partially removed from that nature. Only one being can, properly speaking, cause new existence. And that must be a being whose very nature is existence itself. The reason for this is simply that a being can only cause something which is of its own nature -- unless that something which it transmits comes from without by reason of an extrinsic cause.(45) But existence as such cannot be of the very nature of any limited being, since by its very limitation in being existence is removed from that thing in some respect. But if every being were lacking in existence of its own nature, then existence would belong, as such, to no existing nature. Now even an infinite multitude of those things whose natures are lacking a certain quality cannot supply that which is lacking -- just as an infinite multitude of idiots would never constitute one intelligent man.(46) Therefore some being must exist which possesses existence of its very nature and which, because of this fact, possesses existence without any limitation, i.e., it is an infinite being.(47)

Since something would have to distinguish two such infinite beings from one another, one would have to possess some quality of existence which the other did not. Hence, both could not be infinite. Thus only one such infinite being can exist(48) -- and this fulfills the nominal definition of God. Thus the phenomenon of inertia has been seen to require the existence of a transcendent cause of all coming to be, a single Universal Donor of all new existence in the created world. The Prime Mover is a true Creator of new existence -- whether it be substantial or accidental. The major focus of this analysis has been God as observed through His activities in creating new accidental existence in the cosmos.


Because the foregoing analysis might raise certain objections insofar as it insists that to cause new existence even in the accidental order requires the creative causality of God alone, it would seem appropriate to consider a few texts in Aquinas which reveal such an analysis to be consistent with his metaphysics. First, consider Aquinas’ very definition of a cause. He writes, “...the name Cause implies a certain influence on the existence of the thing caused.”(49) Moreover, he explicitly recognizes that even causes of accidental existence are such by the power of God alone:

From this however it is clear that God is the cause of all things which operate inasmuch as they operate. For every operator is in some way a cause of being, either of substantial or accidental existence, (italics mine) But nothing is a cause of being except insofar as it acts by divine power as was shown. Therefore every operator operates through the power of God.(50)

In the above cited text Aquinas refers back to the preceding chapter of Book III of the Contra Gentiles in which he explains that the existence of all things is the proper effect of God alone, since “...in God alone is existence its own essence.”

God alone however is being through His own essence, whereas all other things are beings through participation; for in God alone is existence its own essence. Thus, the existence of every existent is the proper effect of Him. And further, everything which puts something into existence does this insofar as it acts by the power of God.(51)

It is evident that the earlier cited text is but a more specific expression of this text -- with the later text extending the need for God’s power even to include the production of accidental existence, such as would occur even in the relative spatial movement of subatomic particles. That Aquinas could well concur with Newton in extending God’s creative act to the conservation of the accidental activity manifested by bodies moving in a “state” of inertia is clear from the following:

However, just as God not only has given existence to things when first they began to be, but also so long as they exist He causes existence in them, conserving things in existence, as has been shown, so also He has not only given operative powers to them when [those] things were first made, but He always causes [such powers] in things. Whence, should this divine influence cease, every operation would cease. Therefore, every operation of a thing is reduced to Him as to [its] cause. (52)

From the foregoing analysis of the phenomenon of inertia, it should be evident that God alone is the Supreme Agent who conserves the existential obedience of all natural bodies to His law. It is a mandate of the Divine Will and as Aquinas puts it, “...should this divine influence cease, every operation would cease.” This is not to say that Aquinas explicitly reckoned with the “puzzling” phenomenon of inertia in accordance with the above analysis. Rather, it is to say that inertia is an instance of motion which manifests new existence in a manner which would require the existence of God as its sole adequate explanation according to the above cosmological and metaphysical analysis -- and that the foregoing analysis is consonant with the general principles of Aquinas. The more precise understanding of inertia which post-Newtonian insights have afforded permits more cogent application of Aquinas’ physical and metaphysical principles in the present inquiry than was, perhaps, possible in the mediaeval cosmology.

Finally, it should now be evident that the attempt of atheistic materialism or reductionism to explain the cosmos in terms of atomic matter in a state of perpetual evolution backfires upon its own presumptions. For, to the simple question, “Why new existence?,” it can give no reply. If it denies new existence in the universe, then it denies the very progress and becoming which evolutionary materialism trumpets. And if it admits the reality of newness in the universe -- even at the level of subatomic accidental change -- it finds itself at a total loss to explain its source: for within a purely finite cosmos there is no adequate explanation. Why new existence?(53) Only because there exists a Pure Act of Existence who, in His unchanging unicity, precontains in supereminent fashion all the limited perfections which are successively unfolded in the ongoing creation which is our ever-changing world. In a word, atheistic materialism implicitly presupposes theism.

    A Variation on the First Way of St. Thomas Aquinas - End Notes

    © Copyright 2019 Dennis Bonnette, PhD