top of page
  • Writer's pictureJake

Aquinas' s 4th Way Revisited

What is that? You haven't read the earlier article on the 4th way? Make sure to read that one too. This one is a raw and mostly unedited project that explains the same argument but in a different and I believe, more compelling manner. Happy reading!

Our example begins with a mild mannered man by the name of John. He is on plane headed towards the site of the national math teachers conference. To kill the time, he cracks open his copy of the Summa Theologia, the zenith of all in-flight reading material, surpassing even “sky mall” and the emergency landing instruction card. After careful mediation on the 4th way, John suddenly realizes that he is quite hungry.

He stands up and opens the overhead compartment only to hear an ominous noise. Beep, beep, beep. Its a Bomb! Moving his carry-on out of the way, the device comes into full view. The countdown timer is at 4 minutes.

The Pilot comes over the intercom, “Psshh, This is your captain speaking, we are descending rapidly for an emergency landing and evacuation of the aircraft. Please remain calm, air traffic control has informed us that in the absence of a bomb technician; an amateur Thomist ought to be able to defuse this device using his manifest understanding of metaphysics. Pssh, and thanks for flying Southwest airlines”

All eyes turn in silence to John who drops his Summa, narrows his eyes, and begins his task without hesitation.

“I need a voltage meter!” yells John. Finding none and instead thinking on his feet, he quickly fashions one out of a coil of copper wire, a hearing aid, and a stroopwafel. Like many cheap and haphazardly made voltage meters, (such as my own from harbor freight), the readings drift up and down until the probes connect a circuit. John at first surmised that he could find a “0” reading and roughly calibrate his meter by touching the probes to the metal of the fuselage. The co-piliot, now looking sweatily over his shoulder informs him that the static charge and discharge from the plane’s 500mile per hour path through the atmosphere will not yield a reliable 0 reading to calibrate his meter.

Yet, John’s first task is to determine if there is currently any power heading into the detonator. It may be triggered by a naturally off or a naturally on relay. He won’t know until he measures some type of power. There are multiple wires heading into the detonator, some could be decoys, only one of them having power would mean that the detonator is powered and the detonation relay is naturally off.

How can he figure out that the detonator is powered with his meter that can only measure more or less voltage and not show an absolute zero, a hypothetical maximum, or even read a number at all? Just then, a child crawls over to the copy of the Summa that John had dropped and reads the line,

“The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things.

Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But “more” and “less” are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum,”

“Ah Ha!” John manically exclaims as he tests each individual wire for voltage. Look at that, a gradation of voltage! Some wires measure more and other wires less voltage. He now knows 2 things:

1 If there was no voltage at all, the wires could not measure more and less. The notion of more or less is unintelligible when speaking of the lack of something. He has tested the alternate hypothesis as statisticians say. He concludes that voltage is indeed headed into the detonator.

2 If the wires had a given voltage according to their nature, then they all would have voltage all the time, and to the same degree. However, seeing this is not the case, there must be something outside of the nature of the wire or its act of existence to make sense of the gradation, a further explanatory factor that gives the voltage to the wires because, as we see, the voltage is separate from what it is to be a wire, or any other electrical component John has found thus far.( If John wanted to further confirm that having some electrical charge was not part of the nature of a wire he could of course look for gradations of voltage amoughts other components to affirm that this is not a result of varied of defective participation in the nature of wire-ness but rather participation in voltage.)

Back to the plane! Further investigation finds a new component, He sees that there is a wide gradation of voltages coming out of this small box. Could this be a power source he thinks? After all, it produces all manner of degrees of voltage. A fellow passenger who had earlier been consumed by his book on Atheistic naturalism points and shouts, “That’s it, stop there”. However John, after cleaning his glasses, sees 2 wires heading into the box. It appears that this is a transformer. Yes, it makes many new voltages, yet it only does so by transforming that which first heads into it first. It is not the cause of the power, just an intermediate cause of the gradation.

Tracing the two wires down through a mess of circuitry and plastic explosive he finds a point of termination, this thing seems to give the power to all other components without it itself being powered. To confirm he uses a second stropwafle, the elderly passenger’s other hearing aid and a pair of shoe laces to fashion an amp-loop. If the reading of total power, (volts times amps) is highest at this point, this must be the cause of all the power in the system. His hands dart from test to test, yes, this is the maximum. Stuttering out the words one at a time the child reads another few lines:

“ as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being;

for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii.

Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. “

With the epistemic certainty of a swaggering Thomistic Champion, and with the timer at 10 seconds, John runs a jumper wire from the battery to the naturally off detonation relay and clips the rest of the wires in a fury. 3, 2, 1 the timer stops. It worked.

There must be an all good God the passengers exclaim!

The Wires: If we are speaking of goodness instead of voltage, we can do the same test that John did. We may not know what would represent a maximum of goodness, in-fact as Thomists we would say that comprehending God who is the maximum is impossible. Of course, knowing what 0 goodness is is hard to say also, that would simply be non-being, not something in our experience that we can tangebly reference. Naturally, we could have error in our understanding of goodness, we could lack an objective numerical scale as well. However, as we can see, none of that matters whatsoever for the task of finding degrees of Goodness just like it didn’t matter in finding degrees of voltage.

Anyone who argues against this point is making the ridiculous claim that all things have an absolutely identical amount of goodness and all things have an absolutely identical amount of truth! Yet if their argument is that Aquinas' argument for the 4th way is a worse or less true argument than their counter argument, then they have contradicted themselves. If they don’t make that claim then I guess we don’t have a critic after all.

Aquinas might say that with heat (his example) we are measuring the presence of some amount of fire in the thing. I have updated this while seeking to be true to his original thought by substituting electrical potential for heat. This can indeed reside in a thing and make it more or less electrically charged. The maximum for Aquinas would be the nature of fire itself. Likewise, the maximum for the wires is Electrical charge itself.

The presence of fire, voltage or a transcendental like Goodness in a thing is not determined by the nature of the thing. If it was, then all things with that nature would have it because it would be entailed by the presence of the nature. Just like all bachelors are unmarried or all triangles have three sides. A triangle or a bachelor could, or could not be red, electrically charged, on fire, good, or perfect. Furthermore, If goodness for example was part and parcel with the nature of, lets say, a fried Oreo, it would mean that to be good was to participate in the fried Oreo nature which seems to be false.

We know that the goodness of a thing is separable from the nature of the thing. It can cease to be good but not cease to be itself. Likewise the wire could cease to have voltage and still be just as much a wire as before.

We now need to break things up a bit further. If the oreo was to turn red and the pro-tennis player is to turn red then they will both have the same redness. However, if the Oreo is to be good and the tennis player is to be good. This will be in very different ways. Here we are using a more analogical instead of unifical pretication. Yet, notice, calling them both good is still fully intelligible.

The transformer vs the battery:

The Universe would be equivalent to the transformer. The naturalist may point out that since humans evolved and gradually acquired their manner of goodness, the cause of the goodness is the order of the universe. All goodness seems to derive from the fact of the universe and the interrelations therein. However, in our example we found some wires heading into the transformer. Is there goodness headed into the universe?

Yes, recall that goodness is convertible into being. The universe is not the cause of its own being and therefore not the cause of its own goodness. To be so, it would have to be the maximum of the genus. However, the maximum that we are talking about is not the maximum in an instantiated material way. Instead, we are looking for a self explanatory nature that is the form of goodness, perfection, being and all the other transcendentals itself. The universe is not a form, it is material. It is not one thing, it is many. It could have not existed, and yet this would entail that this purported “maximum of goodness” could have registered zero goodness, in other words, nonbeing. That is as silly as saying that the maximum of triangularity could register zero triangularity; it's absolutely incomprehensible.

This is why in the bomb example we hunt for something which termnates in itself, is the cause of the voltage by its own nature and subsequently powers the rest of the circuit. Note, when John measures the highest degree of power at the battery this is evidence that it is the maximum. If there was a higher degree of power elsewhere then where did that extra power come from? Likewise if the cause of goodness is the nature of goodness itself, there would by definition be no extra or residual goodness to be found elsewhere because it would have been already contained in the maximally good nature that defines the set or else it was not goodness in the first place.

Could there be more than one battery? Sure, we can break down this analogy if we poke at it enough. However there cannot be more than one nature of goodness anymore than there could be more than one nature of salt or the number 2 or redness. If it is distinct then it is a different form by definition. if it is not distinct in form then it is not distinct at all. (If this point was really pushed, I would point out that the power from the higher voltage battery would flow into the other battery and would charge it. Therefore in this circuit, the cause of all power would in a sense still be the most powerful battery.)

The Relay:

In the analogy I choose to use a naturally off relay. In other words, it must be constantly powered to maintain its “on” position and not explode the plane. I choose this to illustrate the point that we, by nature, have no essential reason for our own existence, we must be constantly upheld in existence by God. In the resolution to this story, the finite countdown to death is avoided by creating a direct and permanent connection to the Battery that represents God. This of course mirrors the Christian understanding of salvation, a perminaite, unmitigated connection to God that sustains us in existence forever despite our nature as finite beings that default to the nothingness from which God’s word called us.

The Voltage meter:

This represents the faulty and haphazard means by which we as human beings explore the goodness, truth and perfection of the created order. Supplies were pulled from multiple people, likewise we ought to pursue goodness, truth, and the like communaly.

Objection: There is no real standard of goodness or truth. Different cultures would understand what is good or true different, it's all culturally and temporally relative.

Answer: To just say that there is no standard of Truth or goodness of other of what we will explain as the Transcendentals is simply to smuggle your conclusion into your first premise. You seek to debunk the argument that concludes in God as the maximum of goodness and truth itself by beginning with the statement that the standard does not exist. This falls to the level of expressing an opinion not making an argument.

Answer 2: Like John with the voltage meter, we have no need of a demarcated scale, nor an absolute 0, nor knowledge of the true maximum. All that is needed is a gradient, no matter how small to get this argument off the ground. At the very least, I could ask the skeptic if they think that their understanding of the effectiveness of the 4th way argument is more or less true than mine. Either the Skeptic must make the positive claim that all things in the whole of reality have the exact same amount of goodness, truth, nobility ect.. or they must drop the point.

Answer 3: Would the skeptic accept that a thought in one's mind has less being than the person having the thought? If so, this is a gradation of being, that which the other transcendentals are convertible into. What about the existence of a shadow, this shadow can ground the truth of statements yet, the type of statements it can ground are far less grand than the ones that the person making the shadow can ground. How about this one? What has more goodness, your mother or a slug. If you are not willing to accept a graduation there, I have something to tell your mother. This is not a hard point that Aquinas expects you to accept.

Answer 4: Oh yeah, that is a total non-sequitur. Because people have a range of answers to a question, the answer is not determined. People get a range of answers on a math test. This doesn’t imply that the mathematically accurate answer does not exist.

Objection: You say if the wires have a given voltage according to their nature then as long as they continue to be wires they will all have this voltage and to the same degree. But what if they just had an arbitrary or varied amount of voltage according to their nature and not a fixed amount. A parallel would be that dogs have fur according to their nature and yet they have wildly different amounts of fur. The gradation of furriness does not imply that the furriness of the dog has an exterior transcendental cause just like the gradation of voltage, or to get to the heart of the issue, the gradation of goodness in a group of things does not imply that they get their goodness from something else.

Answer: Voltage is something that can be numerically described. The transcendentals are not. The dog fur example is dealing with quantitative similarity. The 4th way is about the range of participation in a form. Goodness for example is not quantitative yet we can make sense of things being more or less good. What the example points to is that if things with the same nature (wires in this case) have different degrees of qualitative similarity, or else formal resemblance to a nature (Electromagnetic Power itself), then this means that the nature of the thing is not the same as the nature of that which the thing participates.

Answer: The quantity of fur on a dog is an accidental feature, even if the fact that the creature will have fur at all, is part of its nature. One would certainly agree that the quantity of fur on a dog is not a brute fact. Instead, the potential for it to have fur is present in virtue of its nature. That this potential was actualized to various degrees relates to a chain of causality that leads outside of the dog. In other words, the gradations of fur imply something outside of the Dog that actualizes the furriness. With the wires, they have the potential to carry current and they must be actualized to do so. This means that the Chain of act/potency leads outside of itself and thus the explanation for the voltage does not relate to the nature of the wire.

Answer: The phrase, “Get their goodness from something else” is a bit problematic because the thing grounding the thing’s goodness is in a sense just the thing. We are not making an efficient causal argument here, though one could. Here we take the view that the form is in the thing. If a thing is good, then the form of goodness is in it, such that it can be good. This is a similar way that the form of redness in a thing would mean that it is red. One can backtrack from the existence of red things to knowledge that the form of redness exists. In the process of backtracking from things to essences it can be difficult to determine what these essences really are. However, if we see something with a given nature participating sometimes more and other times less in a given form and especially if we see things of different natures participating in a common form, this must mean that the thing participated in is not synonymous with the nature of either of those individual things. For instance, if having a gradation of power was part of the nature of what it was to be a wire, then to have a gradation of power from the Fuselage to the transformer would mean that both of those things must participate in the nature of wire-ness which they obviously do not. Therefore, there must be a common nature that allows for multiple things of diverse natures to participate in. Goodness is found in different but recognisable ways in many things of different natutres and therefore must have a form or essence non-identical with those individual things's essences that were found to be good in different degrees.

Objection: Your argument seems to be arguing for God as a platonic form of these transcendentals. Yet the big issue with Platonism is that the forms are causally inert. Further, Aquinus who makes this argument is not even a platonist. He’s a Thomist, you know, because he’s Thomas Aquinus.

Answer 1:There is no conflict between this Way and general Thomistic realism. Why should there be? If we are talking about something like redness, we agree that redness must be in an existing thing in order for there to be red. Yet that in no way precludes us from saying that the form of redness exists. If the essence of redness was never created by God, there could be no red thing either. The form must subsist in the thing, sure, but there needs to be a form to do the subsisting!

In the case of goodness and the other transcendentals. Yes, we are Thomistic realists. We believe that Goodness is in the thing. But there needs to be a form of Goodness or an essence of goodness existing to then be instantiated. If the goodness of God is instantiated in a given being, how then would the goodness and thus God be causally inert? It would be no more causally inert than any other instantiated form.

Answer 2: There is a big big difference between a form like salt or red and one of the Transcendentals. All of the transcendentals entail existence. Red entails only its own redness and salt only entails its own saltiness. Therefore, the maximum of each of the transcendentals each convertible into being itself would represent a single “being” one that entails its own existence. Therefore these are not adrift in a platonic heaven awaiting a composition with Esse. No, we are actually talking about Esse itself, Esse, Himself.

Objection: There is no such thing as goodness or truth because what we arbitrarily call “things” and “people” ect.. are just collections of basic particles, super strings or some similarly basically existing stuff. There is in fact one type of basic something that just plain old exists and that is that. All of what we experience are just emergent properties from what is really real.

Answer 1: Without affirming the reality of a mind and making the teleological claim that it is oriented towards truth you have zero grounds for making a truth claim. Your claim is not compatible with itself and is therefore self defeating.

Answer 2: Sorry Charlie, there are many cases of causal arrows pointing from whole’s to parts. This alone eliminates the possibility of this brand of mereological nihilism. Intentionality, imagining the future, remembering the past, none of this would function on your worldview. Yet, it is clearly part of reality.

Answer 3: Science is against you on this one. A quantum wave function is real and yet best described as only potential. If you admit this scientific claim then there is gradation of being from a pre and post collapsed wave function. That is all that is needed to get the argument off the ground.

Answer 4: You contradict your own claim in the way you actually live. Have you ever made a choice between two things? Did you do so because one thing had more goodness than the other? Of course you did. Yes, goodness exists, you are simply pretending it doesn’t

Objection: The Maximum of Goodness, Truth, Perfection and whatever other so-called, “Transidendals” would all be a different God because goodness, truth, and perfection are different concepts and their maximums would therefore be different. Either you have to make the claim that these definitionally different things are in fact the same which is definitionally false or affirm that your argument would instead prove multiple Gods and thereby destroy classical Theism.

Answer: The one God is pure esse or existence. Those transcendentals represent existence as it is manifest or viewed in different forms. The whole point of the categorization of these particular things into the group of trancendentals is that they are convertible into being, therefore the maximum of each is that self-same maximum of being. No, there is nothing in this argument that mandates that the trancendentals mean the same thing, have differences erased, or anything of the sort. The maximum of Being is the reason for the grounding of all true things and is the reason for the perfection of anything because both of those concepts rely on Being not because the concepts are the same when witnessed in the created order.

Common Misunderstandings:

The 4th way is all about things needing a standard. Good and better needs a best to which it can measure

kind of, but this might be better understood as an argument from ontological referents. If something is “salty” it means salt exists because “salty” means “like salt” and the phrase “like salt” would be incoherent if salt did not exist. If goodness, truth, being ect.. exist as gradations in things then they are good-ish or have exist-ness. All this entails an otological referent Good, existence, truth, the like to make sense of the fact that we can speak intelligibility about them in reality. .

The 4th way is an argument from efficient causality because God causes beings to be in composition with goodness, truth, existence and the other transcendentals.

While it is true that God does bring things into composition, this would be 2nd way territory. The 4th way is about exemplare formal causality not efficient causality in my humble opinion. If one reasoned from the existence of a gold ring back to the reality of a gold mine (Or more accurately the nature of the element gold), this would not entail that the gold mine is the efficient cause of the ring. Instead it is a necessary precondition for its parts to have existed in order to be put into composition.

The 4th way is actually about act-potency with respect to God’s actualization of being in creatures. Your electrical power and circuit analogy demonstrates this.

If the 4th way is the color orange, the 1st, 2nd and heck the de-ente are the neighboring colors of yellow and red. Yes, this can be pushed until it is seen in light of one of the other ways. However, to collapse the 4th way into another type of other argument is like wanting to collapse orange into red or yellow. It is in fact distinct, stop gerrymandering into an argument that which you happen to be more familiar with. Act and potency is not even referenced in the 4th way nor is any chain of causality.

“The Maximum of the genus is the cause of all in that genus” is very hard to defend and is countered by discoveries of emergent properties.

“Emergence” is just a weasel word as Feser would put it. No, properly understood this point is not as large or difficult as one may think it is. Think more Platonically. The nature of red is the cause of all redness. If this nature itself stopped existing then nothing could be instantiated that was red. That is the way in which it is a cause. The reason it is a maximum is because it defines the set.

Aquinas’s Fire example is pointing towards material causation or possibly efficient causality.

Nope, this is not about material causation because goodness and truth are not material. Again, not efficient causality because this is not tracing back a sequence of causes like other ways like the 2nd do.

Advantages of the 4th way

  1. It bypasses the objection that there could be an infinite regress in a hierarchically ordered series. Although this objection fails, an interlocutor may not be able to be dissuaded and another tact, like this one could be helpful.

  2. It proves a lot about God in one shot. God exists through his own nature, is the cause of all goodness, truth, perfection, being ect… that is more than many of the other ways prove.

  3. If the premises are laid out clearly, it is difficult to dispute them without sounding ridiculous.

  4. It's a sneak attack. Literally no one sees this argument coming.

  5. If you can show that even this much maligned and strawman-ed argument actually works, an atheist might wonder what is up a Thomist’s sleeve if they were to present a compelling 1st or 3rd way argument.

  6. Because it doesn’t trace back change, it is agnostic to what theory of time one may hold.

Disadvantages of the 4th way:

  1. People think that they already understand it and have been inoculated against it by silly parodies like Dakin’s ultimately stinky stinker.

  2. Some of the premises can sound like a leap, like the maximum of a genus stuff.

  3. One must know what a transcendental is

  4. Modern materialist minds don’t operate platonic style arguments very well

Simple explanation:

If we find a gradation of something like truth or goodness, this means two things. First, Truth exists, otherwise there could be no graduation.

Second, if the gradation of truth is found in many different things, then it is not unique to any one type of thing. Dogness is unique to, and only found in dogs, but truth or goodness is found in many categories of things and even to differing degrees in things of the same category. For instance there are good and bad dogs.

What we can conclude from this second point is that things don’t have goodness according to their nature because if they did, all instances of the thing would have it, and to the same degree, but they clearly don’t. Instead, it seems to be something added to the individual thing since it is not good by virtue of either its essence or act of existence.

Now, just like the form of redness existing is a prerequisite for things that exist to be red, Good or truth existing is a prerequisite for things being true or good. Since we see redness, red exists. Since we see goodness and truth, their form exists too. Aristotle would say that the maximum of a genus is the cause of all in the genus, now we can see why, if red, good, truth as a form stopped existing, so would everything that shares in that nature because there would then be nothing to share in.

But, Redness doesn’t entail its own existence, just its own redness. The interesting thing about goodness or truth is that these entail existence. Truth is “being” viewed by an intellect. Goodness is” being” witnessed by a will. Philosophers call these and others the “transcendentals” which is a group that are all convertible into being and also are found in varying degrees in all things.

Since we know that goodness and truth exist, the maximum of the genus therefore exists, and the maximum of this genus entails its own existence by virtue of its nature. We have therefore arrived at a being that exists through himself, is all good, all truth, and causes all the goodness, truth and existence in all things. This we would call God.

293 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page