According to Murphy: McCabe, Turner and other ‘grammatical Thomists’ essentially reduce the five ways to one overarching question which was in fact first defined as the ultimate question not by Aquinas, but by Leibniz: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. Turner thus argues that the five ways are intended to prove the methodologically sound nature of asking the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ He therefore divests each of the ways of content and establishes them as “argument strategies instead”.
Murphy contends that this question will only have force for an already religious believer as there is nothing inherently absurd about pointing out that the universe is ‘just there’ (as it manifestly is) and this ties in with many accounts of Aquinas’ five ways as merely strategies for pointing out how to speak about God, not discursive proofs that could lead a nonbeliever to God. The question could quite reasonably be answered with the riposte Bertrand Russell gave Fr. Frederick Copleston in their BBC debate on the existence of God: “the universe is just there, and that’s all”. Before one has actually demonstrated the existence of God, one cannot demonstrate that there is anything inherently odd about the universe ‘being there’.(101) Their argument rests substantially on the real distinction in things between existence and essence (i.e. what they are and that they are: a chair’s being a chair and the sheer fact of its existence).
Those who use the ‘why?’ question want to bypass the concrete ways Aquinas uses to demonstrate God’s existence. But in doing this they appear to take for granted the ‘ontological distinction’ between ‘being and essence’ and their identity in the absolute simplicity of God. But this is offered to us through Revelation (the so called ‘metaphysics of Exodus’): “I am that I am” and one cannot depend on it as a proof of God’s existence without involving oneself in circularity.
Here, Murphy appears to draws heavily from Gilson’s claims that (contra to what he once previously believed) there is no ‘sixth way’ in Aquinas’ work De Ente et Essentia. The proponents of a ‘sixth way’ would have it that the real distinction in things between existence and essence (i.e. what they are and that they are: a chair’s being a chair and the sheer fact of its existence) leads us to that Being in which existence and essence coincide. The important point here is that it is by faith the Christian knows this. Thus the ‘ways’ which deal with things in the world can’t simply be bypassed to get ‘straight to the point’. Gilson himself changed his mind on this very point. He had once held that the text De Ente et Essentia provided a ‘sixth way’ to prove the existence of God. He however changed his mind on this point, denying that it offers any such proof.
As Murphy puts it: What distinguishes the Christian theologian from, say, Aristotle, is that he knows, by faith, that it is only God to whom one can ascribe an identity of existence and essence, and thus that in ‘creatures’ a real distinction pertains between existence and nature. He thus gives arguments for the existence of God which both can lead non-believers to this insight and which enables believers to corroborate their faith with evidence.(108 – 109)
It is nevertheless perhaps salutary to note the disagreement with Gilson on this point by John F.X. Knasas, something of a ‘disciple’ of Gilson himself. In his book Being and Some Twentieth Century Thomists, he argues that Gilson’s later position is not entirely consistent. Gilson argues for the act of judgement as being the mind’s access to the notion of ‘actus essendi’. (227) Unless one wishes to make the claim that Gilson has theologized the entirety of Thomas’ metaphysics, then it would be better to say that the ‘metaphysics of Exodus’ is the psychological starting point for Thomas’ investigation which he then elaborates in philosophical terms. (228). If this is the case, then it is not illegitimate to start from the fact of the real distinction in creatures and thus work one’s way to God whose essence is “to be”.
This is not to say that Murphy’s emphasis on using all the five ways is not a good one, but I have always personally found that the argument from contingency speaks most strongly to me and it is the principle I turn to when attempting to engage those who do not believe.