On Aquinas and Unfalsifiable Intentionality

On Aquinas and Unfalsifiable Intentionality January 3, 2019

These quotes, from Ficino’s last post on Aquinas’ Fifth Way, are on point. The first is from Sheila C.:

See, he loses me at the very first premise. Things don’t act for an end at all. They seem like they do because we are watching them and, when their actions are somewhat consistent, we project our own intentionality on them.

This is readily seen when I ask a Thomist what is the end of any given thing. The answer must be either “you can’t possibly know” or else “whatever it happened to do.” The end of the moon is…what, to go around the Earth? We know why it goes around the Earth and intentionality has nothing to do with it. And if its orbit later declines and it smashes into the Earth, does that mean its end was always to do that? Is “end” even a meaningful thing to say or just another way to state “we observe that stuff happens”?

Ficino himself adds:

ETA: ask the Thomist, what is the end of the fire that horribly burns the fawn in the forest? The Thomist can only reply that the end of the fire is to actualize its form and be in natural motion away from the center, i.e. away from the earth, as it is fed by the flesh of the fawn.

As the Max von Sydow character says in Hannah and her Sisters, stripping out some text, “would not stop throwing up.”

This really gets to the nature of how unfalsifiable the whole project of asserting intentionality on literally everything really is. The laws of nature mean that things happen in consistent ways, like a moon orbiting a planet. Thomists look at such things with a wish to insert purpose and intention on them, all rather easy when things do what nature constrains them to do.

Aquinas uses an analogy of an archer shooting an arrow in order to demonstrate the argument qua regularity. Regularity is the name of the game in terms of law-like behaviour or inanimate objects. He shows that an arrow flying through the sky is nothing more than that without its purpose, given by the archer who fires it. The archer fired the arrow with the purpose of hitting the target. Therefore, the end purpose of the arrow aligns with that of the archer. Similarly, God created the Universe with a telos or purpose in mind.

Really, what such manoeuvres and arguments come down to are arguments from design insofar as who designed the laws… It’s the old canard that laws demand law-givers; ergo, God. It is the real heart of his teleology. We could get into debates about laws being descriptive and not prescriptive, and that matter can be a brute fact in the same way God is claimed to be.

The idea that malaria, volcanoes, earthquakes, the tsetse fly, all the natural things that come together to form droughts, floods, plagues, etc. are evidence of a perfect being appears to be somewhat problematic. Enter stage right the problem of evil with special emphasis on natural evil.

And rouind and round we go. I’m not very sure that Aquinas’ Fifth Way was particularly groundbreaking, and, as Ficinon shows, it is pretty fallacious at best.

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