In the previous blog on Aquinas’ second way, we argued for a first causes on the basis that without a first cause, then there would be no causes now. This series of causes, where for example, you were caused by your parents and they were caused by their parents, is what we call a temporal series of causes, that is, a series of causes in time, where your parents existed in time before you and their parents before them and so on.
But if we look a little deeper into Aquinas’ argument, we see there is another way of looking at this.
Aquinas bases his idea of cause of Aristotle’s idea of causation.
Aristotle said that all things have four causes: the material cause is the ingredients, the stuff, the material something is made of; the efficient cause is the agent that brings about the effect, the thing that causes it to exist; the formal cause is the definition or essence of the object, the form or shape it takes, what it is; and the final cause is the purpose or goal of the object, the reason for its existence.
Aquinas focuses on efficient causes and often efficient causes are temporal, such as parents, or in another example, a sculptor is the temporal efficient cause of a statue. But notice that once you were born or once the statue is made, your parents or the sculptor are not necessary to sustain your existence or the existence of the statue.
However, some efficient causes are necessary to sustain the existence of their effects and it is this kind of efficient cause that Aquinas is most interested in.
Take these two examples:
If we think of a farmer’s crop, what is the efficient cause? Well obviously a seed is one of the efficient causes, but so is soil. Soil is an example of an efficient cause that sustains its effect. It is not enough for the soil to be there at the beginning of the growth of the crop, it needs to continue being there for the effect, the crop, to continue to survive. Without the continuing existence of the soil as an efficient cause, the crop cannot survive.
Imagine a plate spinning act in a circus. One of the efficient causes is the circus performer who starts the plates spinning, but another of the efficient causes is the sticks the plates are spinning on. Unlike the performer, these sticks need to continue doing their job in order for the plates to keep spinning.
When Aquinas talks of God as the first cause of the universe, he means this in a temporal sense (God was there at the beginning), but more importantly he means this in a sustaining sense.
Effects need not only temporal causes, they need sustaining causes, but a sequence of sustaining efficient causes cannot continue ad infinitum. There must be something that is the sustaining cause of all other things.
Take another example – what is the efficient cause of a house? Clearly builders are, but they are temporal causes, there at the beginning. But the foundations of the house are a sustaining efficient cause. The house couldn’t exist without foundations there at the start and continuing to be there to keep the house standing.
Aquinas claims God is the first efficient cause, the foundational cause that enables all other things to exist.
When we ask why there is something rather than nothing, we don’t just mean why did something come into existence, what we really mean is why does there continue to be something rather than nothing? Aquinas says the explanation for the continued existence of all things is God.