Aquinas on the nature of God

LECTURE: Aquinas on the nature of God


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The divine attributes

In the previous lecture, we saw how Aquinass First Way argues from the reality of motion or change to the existence of an Unmoved Mover (or purely actual actualizer). Lets now take a look at some of the arguments he would give to try to show that an Unmoved Mover would have to have the various divine attributes the features or characteristics definitive of God.

Start with the question whether there is more than one ultimate Unmoved Mover or First Cause. Aquinas says that there could not be. Why not? One way of thinking about it is this. How do we distinguish more than one member of any category of things more than one pen, for example, or more than one dog?

The answer is that we can identify features that one of these things has that the others dont have. For example, this dog might be bigger than that one, or might have a different color to its hair. But these differences reflect a deeper difference, which is that each different dog, each different pen, etc. is associated with a different bit of matter. This particular dog is associated with this bit of matter, that particular dog with that bit of matter, and so on.

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Now, remember from our look at Aristotle that matter involves a kind of potentiality. Matter always has the potentiality to take on some new form and to lose the form it had before; material things come into being and pass away; and so on. But in that case, an Unmoved Mover cannot be material, because (for the reasons discussed in the previous lecture) it is purely actual and without any potentiality. And if it is not a material thing, then we cannot distinguish one Unmoved Mover from another by identifying them with different bits of matter.

Now, Aquinas argues that this is going to be true of any way that we might try to distinguish one Unmoved Mover from another. It will always involve bringing in some kind of potentiality. But an Unmoved Mover cannot have potentiality. Therefore, he argues, there can be no way even in theory for one Unmoved Mover to be distinct from another. So there simply cannot be more than one. An Unmoved Mover, by its very nature, is a unique kind of thing. This is why Gods unity or oneness, the key idea of monotheism, is something that Aquinas thinks can be proved by philosophical arguments.

Similarly (and as what was just said implies), Gods immateriality can in Aquinass view be known by philosophical reasoning. God cannot be a material thing, because to be material entails having potentiality, and an Unmoved Mover is purely actual or without potentiality.

Simplicity, immutability, eternity, necessity

There is another sense in which Aquinas thinks God is one. Consider that things that are made up of parts of any kind must have a cause that puts the parts together. For example, the chair you sit in has parts like the seat, the legs, the fabric, and so on, and thus it exists only because something put those parts together. More abstractly, physical objects are, on Aristotles and Aquinass analysis, made up of form and matter. And anything made up of those parts too has to have a cause something that causes the matter to take on the form.

Now, we saw in the previous lecture that Aristotle and Aquinas argue that there must be something that causes other things without itself being caused or to be more precise, something that actualizes other things without itself being actualized. And they argue that only what is, as it were, always already purely actual and without potentiality can be like that. Such a thing has no cause because it cannot have one, since only what has potentials waiting to be actualized can have a cause.

Aquinas concludes from this that the Unmoved Mover must not be composed of parts of any kind, because what is composed of parts needs a cause. This is the idea of divine simplicity, the thesis that God is non-composite or not made up of parts of any sort. This is, in Aquinass view, why God is difficult for the human mind to understand. The way we typically understand things is by breaking them down into their parts and seeing how they are put together, but with God we cannot do that.

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Aquinas holds that the Unmoved Mover must also be immutable or incapable of change, because change involves going from potentiality to actuality, and there is no potentiality in the Unmoved Mover. For that reason, Aquinas thinks the Unmoved Mover must also be eternal. For if the Unmoved Mover came into being or went out of existence, that would involve change, and (again) the Unmoved Mover must be immutable or changeless. Indeed, the Unmoved Mover must be eternal in the sense of being outside of time altogether, because to pass through moments in time involves change or the actualization of potentiality. And (once again) an Unmoved Mover is purely actual and has no potentiality.

Aquinas holds that the Unmoved Mover must be necessary rather than contingent. A contingent thing is something that could have been otherwise, and therefore depends on other things for its existence. For example, you are contingent insofar as you would not be here had your parents not met, and your computer is contingent insofar as it would not have existed had the manufacturer not gone into business. What is necessary is what is not contingent on anything else, and thus could not have not existed. Now, a thing is contingent when it has potentialities that need to be actualized, but God is purely actual and without potentiality. So, he must be necessary rather than contingent. He must be the sort of thing that could not not exist, and that depends on nothing else for his existence.

Omnipotence and omniscience

Consider next that power is the ability to make things happen to bring potentials into actuality. Now, weve already seen why Aquinas thinks that, any time something goes from potential to actual, that is only because the Unmoved Mover is making that happen by imparting to things their power to actualize potentials. And, as weve seen, he thinks theres only one Unmoved Mover.

That means that, in every possible case where something makes something happen where it exercises power or actualizes potentials, in other words that is only because the Unmoved Mover is giving it the power to do so. The Unmoved Mover is thus what ultimately makes it possible for anything to be actualized at all. So it is the source of all power, and that is just what it is to be omnipotent or all-powerful.

Heres one way to see how it might be argued that the Unmoved Mover must also be omniscient or all-knowing. Physical things are, again, made up of form and matter of the patterns that make them the kinds of thing they are, and the stuff that takes on those forms or patterns. And the Unmoved Mover is what causes them to stay in existence at any moment.


Now, Aquinas thinks that whatever is in an effect must in some way have first been in its cause. For example, if I give you twenty dollars in cash, then I must in some way have had twenty dollars myself. Otherwise I couldnt have caused you to have it. But there is more than one way I might have it. I might actually have twenty dollars in my wallet. But even if I have no cash available, I might still have twenty dollars in another way for example, in my bank account, in the form of an electronic record in the banks computer system. Or I might have access to a government printing press, and can go print off a new twenty dollar bill to give you.

Similarly, if God is the cause of the continued existence, at any moment, of all of the things that make up the world around us, then what makes them what they are their forms or patterns must first be in God, in some sense. But they cannot be in God in the specific way they are in physical things, because the way they are in physical things is by virtue of matter taking on form. And God, as weve just seen, is in Aquinass view immaterial.

But if these forms or patterns dont exist in a material way in God, then the only other way for them to exist in him is in something like a mental way as concepts or ideas in the divine mind, analogous to the concepts or ideas that exist in the mind of an artist, before the artists paints a picture. So, we can think of the Unmoved Mover as an infinite and all-knowing mind, in which pre-exists, in the form of concepts or ideas, all the possible forms or patterns that he might cause things in the world to have.

Perfect goodness

Aquinas thinks of goodness as involving a kind of actuality, and badness as involving the failure to actualize some potentiality. For example, consider a tree that we would consider a healthy specimen. Its got roots that sink deeply into the earth, has grown a healthy bark to protect itself from the elements, grows leaves and carries out photosynthesis, and so on. It has actualized these various potentials that are present in any tree.

By contrast, a defective tree for example, one with weak roots, or which fails to grow many leaves or grows only sickly ones has failed to actualize these potentials, or at least failed to actualize them fully. In general, badness or defect of any kind, on Aquinass analysis, corresponds to unactualized potential, whereas goodness corresponds to actualization.

Now, with that in mind, Aquinas holds that what is purely actual, with no unactualized potentiality, must possess perfect goodness. There is no room in it for any badness or defect of any kind, because that exists only where there is potentiality that has failed to be actualized, and in an Unmoved Mover, there is no potentiality. It is pure actuality.


And this we call God

These are just sketches of more complicated lines of argument developed by Aquinas and his followers, but hopefully they are enough to give a sense of how Aquinas derives the various divine attributes. He thinks that, once we arrive at the existence of a purely actual actualizer or Unmoved Mover, we will find, on analysis, that this Unmoved Mover must have attributes such as: unity, immateriality, simplicity, immutability, eternity, necessity, omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness. But those are the kinds of attributes definitive of God. Hence Aquinas thinks he is justified in saying, after arguing for the existence of an Unmoved Mover at the end of the First Way, and this we call God.

This forms the capstone of Aristotles and Aquinass general account of how the natural world has to work. They think of it as a realm of changing things, made up of form and matter and constantly going from potentiality to actuality where the whole thing is kept going by a divine cause that is itself immaterial, unchanging, and purely actual rather than a mixture of actuality and potentiality. Here are some optional YouTube videos on our subject:

Aquinas 101 on The Divine Attributes:


Aquinas 101 on Gods Knowledge:


Aquinas 101 on Gods Will:

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