Aquinas: The Final Cause

I’m having some problems at the moment deciding how much detail to go into with Aquinas. I’m up to Volume 8, and there’s, ah, quite a lot of stuff I want to talk about. I’m not sure if I should be more selective – I don’t want to spend forever on Aquinas, and neither do you, probably. That said, I did just skip most of Vols 6 & 7, at least here, so maybe we’ve got a bit of leeway. Let’s talk about creation. 

1a.44.4 asks whether God is the ‘final cause’ of all things. The final cause is basically the goal – so, for example, imagine a carpenter who wants to build a table. The carpenter is the first cause in the construction process: she takes the wood and starts chopping it up into appropriately-sized chunks for the tabletop, and then she goes off and does all the other things that are necessary for the table-making process. While the carpenter is the first cause, initiating the construction of the table, the table itself is the final cause – it’s the final goal, the reason (or the cause) for the carpenter’s work.

Of course, we can kinda zoom out on this example and get a bigger perspective: maybe the carpenter wants a table because she’s having a baby and they’ll need a bigger table to accommodate the new child. In that sense, accommodating the new child is the final goal. We can also move in the other direction: for example, the carpenter’s existence was caused by her parents having sex. While she’s the first cause in terms of the table being constructed, she’s not the absolute first cause – there are things that caused her to be born and to get trained as a carpenter and to start having a family. If we go all the way back right to the Creation itself, God is ultimately the absolute first cause. He creates the world, causing (directly or indirectly) everything that comes after that. And why does God create? For Himself. God doesn’t need the created world, but He creates it anyway so that it can glorify Him. That’s the theory that Aquinas is asking about, anyway: is God the final cause of all things? Are all things ultimately created for God?

Aquinas opens with four arguments against this notion, and we’ll deal with two of them. Firstly, Aquinas argues, God doesn’t need anything. If He’s creating something, it implies He needs it, “for does not acting for an end mean acting from need of it?” Obviously this is a dumb argument. We do things in our lives for non-functionalist reasons, and presumably God does too. Say you go out for dinner, and you have the option of chicken or pork. In one sense, you’re eating dinner because you have to eat – so there is an element of need involved. But that element of need doesn’t explain why we go out for dinner instead of cooking at home, and it doesn’t explain why we might choose chicken over pork. We do things for non-functionalist reasons. Aquinas says something similar: “To act from need is the mark only of an agent which is unfulfilled.” We might interpret ‘unfulfilled’ as meaning not complete in itself – so humans are unfulfilled in themselves in the sense that they need all these external things – heat, food, water, shelter – in order to survive. God is totally fulfilled within Himself, and so does not act from need. He just does shit because He feels like it: “He does not act for His own benefit but simply to give of His goodness.” 

The second argument is a little bit weird, but let’s follow it. Aquinas argues that “all things want their goal. Yet all do not want God, since they do not even know Him. So for all things He is not the goal.” I’m not totally sure where the idea that all things want their goal comes from. If you drop a ball off a tower, we might metaphorically say that it wants to fall towards the ground – but that’s not really very helpful. It’s not that the ball has any active desires. It just behaves according to the laws of physics. Alternately, we might say that animals have a genetic drive to reproduce: they have this goal of creating children, and it’s something they actively want to achieve. There are other living organisms with their own biological imperatives too: trees, grass, flowers, whatever. All of these arguably have ‘goals’ that they ‘want’, in some form or another. We might foreground the reproductive imperative as the main one, but I’m sure there are plenty of other good examples.

So let’s be generous and accept that all things want their goal, whatever that might mean. If some people don’t desire God, whether because they don’t know Him or whether they do know Him but simply reject Him, then they don’t have God as their goal. Therefore, God is not the final cause or goal of all things. Here I’d suggest that Aquinas has shifted the goalposts a bit. He’s moved from the maker to the made. Let’s take an example. We’ve got our carpenter, right, but let’s say that before the carpenter was born, her parents sat down and decided they wanted to have a baby. They wanted a baby specifically because they wanted to raise the baby to become a carpenter and make them a table. And then they had sex, and the carpenter’s mum became pregnant and the baby started growing. Now, that baby in the womb clearly doesn’t have the goal of becoming a carpenter and making a table. But so what? The baby’s final goal is to become a carpenter regardless of whether or not the baby is aware of that fact. The baby’s awareness is incidental. Surely, then, the goal of the atheist is still to give glory to God even if they themselves are not aware of that goal.

The example doesn’t really follow all the way through, because the baby doesn’t want to become a carpenter, and so it violates Aquinas’s condition that all things want their goals. But it does raise the distinction between a desire and the individual’s understanding of that desire. Can an individual desire God without knowing that they desire God? Wouldn’t we say that the desire for goodness and justice and righteousness is really the desire for God, even if it’s not articulated as such? This is the argument that Aquinas ends up going with: “All things want God as their goal in wanting any good whatsoever.” If you want goodness, you implicitly want God. Doesn’t matter what your thoughts or opinions are – you don’t have to understand your own wants in order to want something. One last point: there’s an implicit idea about human nature in here. Even if the world is fucked and people are evil and shit, everybody knows and desires God to the extent that they know and desire goodness. Maybe we’re closer to God than we think.

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