Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Close Look at a Cosmological Argument: Aquinas

I've written numerous interpretations of Aquinas' famous First Way of proving the existence of God on this blog, but I've never closely analyzed the argument in Aquinas' own words. So let's take a closer look at this argument as he actually writes it:
"The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion."
Now, caution must be exercised here with the word "motion." He uses words differently from how we use them today. What he is talking about here is not necessarily motion from place to place, but rather something more like "change." Specifically, he is talking about the actualization of a potential. Or to put it another way, the coming to be of an object or attribute of an object that has the ability to be. The banana that is turning black on top of your fridge would be considered "motion" in the sense Aquinas means here.
"It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion."
This is the empirical premise. Just look around you. Is there "motion" as meant above? Is the banana turning from yellow to black? Are trees outside swaying with the wind?  Birds flying? Cars driving? People walking? In short, are there things becoming? Becoming older, becoming bigger, smaller. Becoming pieces. Becoming whole. Change. This is evident to our senses, and we can see it all around us all the time.
"Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another..."
Again we must be cautious. Let's rephrase it in modern terms: "whatever is changing is being changed by something else." But even more caution is warranted. What he means by "another" is not "something else" per se, but rather something that already exists. This could be a part of the thing that is changing, even an internal part. You may protest that you move yourself when you walk. That you are not moved by "another" at all. But think about what is being changed, here. Your upper body is being moved by your legs. Your upper body is not moving itself. It is being moved by something else. Something else that exists. If your legs didn't exist, they couldn't very well move your upper body.
"...for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion."
Another tricky term! The word "potentiality" could perhaps best be defined as "ability to be." An acorn has the ability to be an oak tree. It may be eaten by a squirrel or dry up, but as an acorn, it has the ability to be an oak tree. A yellow banana has the ability to be black, whether it actually ever turns black or not because you eat it. So change is only possible because something has the ability to be whatever it is becoming. If it doesn't have the ability to be whatever it is becoming, then it just wouldn't be changing into that thing.
"...whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act."
Something can only cause change if it exists. If something doesn't exist, it can't cause change. Your upper body cannot be moved by non-existent legs. If you have no legs, either your upper body won't move, or something else is going to have to move it. If something is moving it, whatever that thing is must be something that actually exists.
"For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality."
Remember that "motion" means "change," and that "potentiality" means "ability to be." So this could be translated as "change is when something actually becomes what it has the ability to be." The acorn has the ability to be an oak tree, and when it actually become that oak tree, a change has occurred. This is all pretty basic stuff once the terminology is understood, isn't it?
"But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality."
This is the same principle that was highlighted above. A change in something can only be caused by something else that already exists. The change in your upper body can only be caused by existent legs, or an existent wheel chair. The change in color in a banana can only be caused by existent enzymes, not non-existent enzymes.
"Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it."
Here he gives an example, as I have already done a few times. Wood is potentially on fire, and if something comes along to set it on fire the wood becomes actually on fire. The potential becomes actual. One thing to note is that his example here might not be the best, since it gives the impression that whatever causes change in something must be in the same state, as when he says that something which is actually hot causes the wood to be actually hot. But this is not always the case. As I showed above enzymes cause bananas to turn black but may not actually be black themselves. They only have the ability to cause blackness in the banana.
"Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold."
The banana cannot be both actually black, and potentially black (that is, yellow with the ability to be black) at the same time in the same respect (color). For then the banana would be both black, and not black, which is a logical contradiction.
"It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another."
Therefore, something (a single part) cannot be both the initiator of change and thing being changed, with respect to the same property, such as color. Another slightly different way of making this point is that a potential (a property that has the ability to be but does not yet exist) cannot make itself real, because a potential doesn't even exist yet and therefore cannot very well cause anything, such as bringing itself into existence.
"If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again."
Remember above, with the legs? The legs are moving your torso, but since they too are changing, they must be being changed by something else. Your legs are being moved by muscles. But the muscles are changing! And whatever is changing is being changed by something else. They are being changed by motorneurons. But wait! The motorneurons are changing! And so on. We have here a concurrent chain of changers. and this is vital to understand for the next point:
"But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover, seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand."
Now, here is where most people REALLY mess up, and is by far the trickiest part of the argument. They see the premise that this cannot go on to infinity, and they usually imagine a chain stretching back in time to the first event, like the Big Bang.  But Aquinas explicitly allows this type of series to stretch on indefinitely. Elsewhere, he says that an artificer may act by means of an infinite number of hammers, as one after another may be broken. There is nothing in this series of broken hammers that demands there be a first.

But consider a different kind of chain. A concurrent chain. A chain where an effect is being transmitted from one end to another. For example, a power plant is generating electricity, which is being transmitted through power lines to the lamp in your living room. If there is no power plant (or other source of electricity), then there is no electricity and your lamp won't be lit. If there is an infinite string of power lines, then there is by definition no power plant and your lamp won't be lit. But your lamp is lit, so there must be a source of electricity, so there cannot be an infinite string of power lines.

There are a few different ways to phrase this principle. Here is one: for any given effect, there must be some cause capable of producing it. The lamp being lit is the effect, and there must be some cause capable of producing that effect. But the power outlet is not capable of producing that effect, and neither is the power line by itself, and neither is an infinite number of power lines. An infinite number of powerless wires is just as powerless as a single set of wires.

This principle is often spoken of as a "vertical" causal series, moving down into the most fundamental aspects of reality in the present, as opposed to a "horizontal" causal series, moving back to earlier and earlier events.

Another way of understanding this point is to consider the cause of something becoming, vs the cause of something being. The cause of a lake's becoming would be the evaporation of water, which turns into clouds, then rain, which falls, collects in ground water, and becomes the lake. A series of events: event 1, then event 2, then event 3, and so on. But once a lake is in existence, it continues to exist from moment to moment due to factors other than the lake itself, and that is what Aquinas is getting at. The lake continues to exist from moment to moment because of warm air that keeps it from freezing, the warm air continues to exist because of the heat from the Sun, the heat from the Sun continues to exist from moment to moment because of nuclear reactions in the core, and so on. Notice how with this type of chain, we are moving "down" so to speak to more fundamental aspects of reality in the present, not in a chain of events stretching back in time.

You could think of each member of this chain as getting its realness, its existence, its actuality, from the next member in the chain, which in turns gets its actuality from the next member in the chain, and so on. And how I showed with the lamp and power plant, if there is no source of actuality (source of existence, or source of realness), then nothing would exist. But something does exist. So there is a source of existence, or source of actuality. Something that can cause existence without needing to be caused to exist. Or to put it another way, something that can actualize without needing to be actualized. And that is what Aquinas concludes next, in his own words:
"Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other..."
Note that the word "first" here does not mean first event, but rather it means something more like "source." Or "primary cause, rather than secondary cause." This follows from what I said above regarding a source of an effect. The Moon is the cause of light, but it is only a secondary cause, as it depends on the Sun for its light. The Sun is the source of light, and therefore "first" in the sense meant by Aquinas. And even if the Sun were infinitely old, it would still be the "first" cause of light, with the Moon the "second" cause of light.

And then:
"...and this everyone understands to be God."
Wait, wait, wait! What?! This everyone understands to be God?! Aquinas has not proven this thing to be intelligent, or good, or anything else. What's he talking about?

Well, for one thing, he is writing to other Catholic priests, not to atheists, so he is not really building a case for an unbeliever to read raw. For another thing, he retroactively justifies the use of the term "God" in later arguments, when he shows the unmoved mover to be intelligent, good, and all the rest. So you might accuse him of jumping the gun a bit, but it's only semantics at this point. Just a label. In the next article, he goes on to ask, "Is God a body?", showing that he is just slapping a label on the unmoved mover even though we don't know what it's like yet. What Aquinas has at this point is simply something that is unchangeable but that causes other things to change, and that's it.


  1. Thanks for the analysis, Martin. It saves me from having to read Aquinas for myself.

  2. Just stumbled across your blog, and wanted to say thanks for the discussion. In contrast to Mr. Gillson, however, I'd say in making Aquinas more accessible, you've given me reason to dig out my old copy.

  3. I appreciate your blog and hope you will keep it up. I hope to use the chicken-and-egg diagram from your explanation of the First Way in my class. I think I differ with you on whether motion now is being caused by in an essentially ordered series, but you make clear the distinction between such a series and a temporally successive one.

  4. Martin, I would like to thank you for your comments over at Dr. Feser's blog as they have helped me a lot. I would like to ask you to join this forum


    I'd really appreciate it, and if you'd be able to join and contribute and ask questions and use this forum however you wish.

  5. Hey can you go back to this and defend the argument, because it looks to have stumped you. I only ask because you have been forwarded several places to further discuss these arguments and you never seem available. Yet, you are very much available. You spread this nonsense in little circles but more often then not you are put into silence only to repeat the same lies with another person later.

    P.S. Remember your simultaneous essentially ordered rubbish? It's still rubbish.


  6. I'm sorry, but why are you accusing me of lies and being rude? I'm not "put into silence." I have a real life and run out of time, and/or I didn't get an email notification that there was an update to a comment chain. To be honest, I don't even remember this website. However, I will go check out and see if I feel like adding any more comments to it. The title is pretty funny, at least as far as Aquinas goes, because it isn't a "defense of reason" to begin with the conclusion that an argument is wrong and then work backwards to that conclusion.

    As for essentially ordered series, they are absolutely not rubbish and you reason about them all the time without realizing you are doing so. If you see a light appear on your bedroom wall, when you try to find the source of the light you are implicitly reasoning that there is an essentially ordered series: given a recipient of an effect, there must be a source.

  7. Martin, I saw that you have been having run-ins with a pain by the name of Im Skeptical. I never heard of this guy until the last few months, when he started commenting on the Christian CADRE about Evolution. I pointed him out to Stan on Atheism-Analyzed, and they had a big go around. Stan even banned him.

    Also, Joe Hinman (Metacrock) from Metacrock's blog and Atheistwatch went around and round with this clown (and some stooges that comment on Skeppy's blog by the name of Merrill and Papalinton, a known plagiarizer), and I also learned of someone by the username of Crude that put this idiot and Papa in their places on DI.

  8. Yeah, I had tried to be patient for a long time with im-skeptical, but he isn't worth the energy. Just give up!

  9. I made one final comment on his blog telling him (and a few of the stooges like Papalinton and Merrill that comment on it) to grow up. Those guys are just looking for attention. I am going to advise the Christian CADRE to block IMS from commenting, showing them the problems that you had with him as part of my case.

  10. Hey Martin,

    There is a Hugo Pelland at this link who claims that you erased his comments on your site (at this link in the comments):

    What Do Evolutionists Really Believe

  11. Hi Jbsptfn.

    I did indeed delete all of Hugo's garbage. This blog was never intended to be a blog, but just a dumping ground of outlines of articles for easy reference. Hugo filled it up with completely irrelevant comments. As a result of my (incorrect?) use of Blogger, I've now shifted to using Google Docs and no longer update this blog.

    1. OK. Yeah, Hugo said on Stan's blog that he revealed three fatal flaws in your arguments, and said that you got all emotional when challenged (which is what they always seem to claim). IMS also claims that you are trying to get him banned from as many places as possible, and that the Thomism that you believe in is medieval and unscientific (lol. He believes that he is the science expert).

    2. Hugo would do things like agree with the ontological argument and its conclusion (that "God is imaginary" is a contradictory statement), but then not agree with the conclusion. It was ridiculous. Like the pigeon playing chess meme. And he went on and on and on and on and on for fifty comments. I got fed up because I saw it as just clutter for my nice clean blog so I wiped everything out.

      As for skeppy, he is hopeless. I once tried to get him just to UNDERSTAND an argument for dualism (not even agree with it; just understand it and be able to restate it). It had to do with how thoughts have meaning but matter is meaningless, and it went on and on and on just like Hugo, until finally he said something like "the meaning of thoughts depends on the context" or something like that, and it dawned on me that he didn't even know what I meant by the term "meaning" (I meant aboutness or intentionality, not "meaning within a context"). Here is the thread I'm remembering, I think: http://dangerousidea.blogspot.com/2012/11/lewis-was-right-after-all.html

      Another time I was trying to get skeppy, again, to just UNDERSTAND what is meant by "essentially ordered series" and he refuse to allow his brain to go that far. Carrying on and on about "science!!!!" and how "science!!!!" has refuted essentially ordered series. Here is that thread: http://theskepticzone.blogspot.com/2014/09/theistic-arguments-series-on.html

      He also refuses to allow himself to understand the difference between ontological and temporal priority, so he keeps trying to "refute" essentially ordered series by slipping back into temporal priority. Drives me nuts. There's zero rational exchange with him.

      After that, I just gave up. If someone can't even STATE an argument correctly they have no ability to refute it.

      In short, I think those two are insufferable and I've stopped engaging with them.

    3. 1. Right now, I am reading the exchange that you, G Rodrigues, and even Crude are having with Skeppy on that DI entry you talked about from 2012. This comment by G-Rod stands out:

      G-ROD: @Martin:

      It is clear by now that im-skeptical is not very good with logic and reasoning. You make a reductio argument about his position. How does he respond? You are only doing it because you are a Cartesian dualist (he does not know any other kind) and are you "unable" to see things "his" way. Facepalm. All the more bizarre, since he admits to having no explanation of how it all works -- he is just confident that "brain takes care of it". Double facepalm. You make a separate argument that any way out of the reductio while holding to the same two premises *entails* a vicious regress (not that a separate argument is needed, as the *logical structure* of the reductio readily implies it). How does he respond? That he never made that argument, *you* did. Triple facepalm.

      Then goes on to ask some rather muddle-headed questions about how the mind works (a bold move for someone who admits having no answer) which presuppose both a mechanistic conception of the mind *and* Cartesian dualism (as you surely know, the former practically entails the latter), maybe in the delusion that if you cannot answer them, then he is in the clear and his metaphysical naturalism is saved from the blatant *contradictions* continuously pointed out.


      note: reposted as original was too harsh.

      2. I saw that link you showed me before. I remember the exchange that he had with Keith. Here's the part in the comments section that was really funny, though:

      Skep: Martin,

      You say that a 'horizontal' (sequential) series can be infinite, but a 'vertical' (simultaneous) series can't be infinite. Why not? The same logic applies. Aquinas is still begging the question.

      By the way, chains of things moving things are sequential, and I challenge you to show me an example that isn't. Even Aquinas agrees with this: "For succession characterizes motion." [SCG 2 19]

      You: Why not?


      Skep: Martin,

      I read the paper. This is rationalization for those who already believe. There is nothing here to convince someone who is not already a believer. You can declare that a causal series is "wholly derivative", and thus claim that the series must have a beginning by definition, but that is absolutely meaningless to those of us who see causation as a matter of physics.

      You: don't understand what you mean. I have to be a "believer" to believe that if a toy car is missing its batteries, and begins to move that something else (gravity, the wind, a string) must be moving it? A believer in what?

      To him, belief in God is irrational and emotional, despite the logic you threw his way.

      And, you are right about his clinging to "science". I looked at some entries from 2014 on DI a few months ago. In the comments section of one of them, Skep was throwing a fit about how appalled he was that people believed in the resurrection of Jesus because it wasn't "science".

    4. Also, in Hugo's case, Stan had a big argument with him (in his Discussion for Evolution section). Hugo irritated him so much that Stan eventually blocked him.

  12. Martin, what is ridiculous is that you would lie and misrepresent our conversations. Someone who is truly proud and convinced by the quality of his own writing would not delete entire exchanges of ideas. This only proves that you did in fact got emotional, felt challenged, and preferred to quit interacting.

    What did happen is that you told me that I was thinking too much, that I was too caught up with definitions, only for you to then create some superficial arguments that are supposedly proving God exists... as long as we don't think about it too much. You also acknowledged that there were flaws in your arguments and decided to re-write some of them. But it took dozens of comments to make you see the errors.

    In any case, this is not intended to insult you in any way, I have nothing against you; I think you sound like a very nice guy. But you do choose to insult instead of being more moderate, for some reason... Comparing my comments, which cannot even be seen by anyone, to garbage or a pigeon on a chess board is just some cheap shots. We had quite meaningful interactions, if only you had not become so emotional about it...

    But at the same time, nobody cares, right? This blog, just Stan's blog or any of the ones that a few of us navigate and link to are quite insignificant. The main reason, right now, as to why it got some of us to "talk" again (well, not really talk, but anyway...) is that JB is stirring the pot. He is purposely poking around, posting links to a few places, without adding any content, just to be like 'look! look! that person said this about you! aren't you annoyed!?'

    In other words, JB is acting like a troll. He is the very definition of a troll. I don't know if he does anything else but that, but he has certainly not shown it on the few blogs I look at...

    1. I'm stirring the pot? Skep is the one posting attack articles on his site. He is always taking shots at people like Joe Hinman, Victor Reppert, and Mikey of the Shadow to Light blog.

    2. From my point of view, yep, that's all you do, stirring the pot: "poking around, posting links to a few places, without adding any content, just to be like 'look! look! that person said this about you! aren't you annoyed!?'"

      But as I said, I don't know whether you actually contribute with content, opinions, or anything else besides that, somewhere else. Happy to be proven wrong, but until then, you appear to be just some sort of troll.

  13. >What did happen is that you told me that I was thinking too much

    I'm sorry, but no. What you and skeppy do is refuse to engage rationally. This is not a case of disagreement and subsequent agreeing to disagree. You both have absolutely anti-rational "objections" that don't even count as wrong, and neither of you seem to have the ability to understand that.

    If it were a case of:

    * Martin: "X is true because Y"
    * Hugo/skeppy: "Ok, but Y is not the cause because P"

    ...then I'd be happy to engage and either object to P or agree to disagree about P. And we'd all be friends.

    But it isn't like that. It's case of:

    * Martin: "X is true because Y"
    * Hugo/skeppy: "No, R is false because Q"
    * Martin: "Sure, but I was talking about Y, not R"
    * Hugo/skeppy: "Right, that's what I said. R."

    Case in point: attempting to explain intentionality to skeppy on Vic Reppert's blog. I wasn't even attempting to argue dualism. I was just trying to set the table. No matter what I did, skeppy could not understand what I meant by the concept of "intentionality," and I wasn't even using the term "intentionality" with him!

    You guys are not conversing with me at all. There has to be a ground first before rational discussion can take place, but it doesn't even get that far with you two. Before I can discuss whether intentionality is a problem for materialism or not, skeppy needs to first understand what is meant by that concept and how/why it might be seen as a problem, and THEN he can argue that it is not because XYZ. But it doesn't even get off the ground.

    It's pointless unless you two are willing to set aside your objections TEMPORARILY, get on the proper rational ground first, UNDERSTAND an argument, be able to defend it to the point of passing the "Ideological Turing Test," and THEN offer your objections. Until you demonstrate that you can do that, I have no desire to engage either of you.

  14. Look Martin, I am into fighting, especially not online and especially not about philosophical questions about the nature of reality, whether God exists, and so on. But the problem is that you are writing insults, for no reason, and simply forgot what happened when we last interacted. To be fair, it was 4 years ago, so it makes sense that you just forgot. And you're the one who has/had a blog and seem to have remain active all these years, so you probably had a lot more interactions than I had. So all that taken together explains why, again, you just forgot...

    However, you know that we get email notifications, if we want, when using a Blogger.com account, right? So it's pretty easy to just check what was said... even if you removed everything. For instance, on the thread for the The Argument from Change in Plain English, we exchanged the following:
    Martin:"Your objection seems to be overthinking the premise. To be honest, I can't make heads or tales of it."
    Hugo:"How can you say that I am overthinking the premise when you also like to claim:
    "To deny the conclusion entails denying one of the premises"
    And now you just want me to move along and not question your premise too much?
    This is precisely what I have a problem with: The argument tries to trick the reader into accepting a premise that seems true, because 'change' has a common meaning in our everyday life, only to change the meaning of the words used in order to come up with a conclusion that does not follow from the premises.
    Martin: "Yes, definitely overthinking."
    Hugo:"What you should in turn understand is that the "over-thinking" you complained about is essential at this point. How can we move forward with an argument when the meaning of a premise is not clear?"

    Moreover, the fact that you lump im-skeptical and myself together, as if we were similar, just shows that you are not really thinking about this, and merely making unfounded accusations. Yes, I do agree with im-skeptical on most points he writes online, on his blog and on others', I think, but I have not read that much. What I do know however is that we disagree slightly on how to approach these interactions. He doesn’t mind getting a bit ruddy and purposely raising the tone, when justified. I try to avoid that. Perhaps I was more rude to you than you thought was appropriate, but given that you did not even remember telling me at least twice about 'overthinking', it seems that your comment here is not based on any fact. It's just some sort of impression that you have; some idea of who I am, for some reason.

    But why does this matter?

    Because the problem is that you wrote that I refuse to engage rationally. You probably didn't think twice about writing that, and you probably don't care, but I do. This is a very strong accusation, an insult on my character as a person, and simply a blatant lie. There is no consequences, of course, so it's not like I find it 'important', but I do care enough to correct this semi-public attack on my rationality. The main reason why I have always loved to read and write online is precisely because I want to engage, rationally, and want to learn about difficult topics and opposite viewpoints so that I can engage, rationally.

  15. Finally, you mentioned:
    "If it were a case of:

    * Martin: "X is true because Y"
    * Hugo/skeppy: "Ok, but Y is not the cause because P"

    ...then I'd be happy to engage and either object to P or agree to disagree about P. And we'd all be friends.

    But it isn't like that. It's case of:

    * Martin: "X is true because Y"
    * Hugo/skeppy: "No, R is false because Q"
    * Martin: "Sure, but I was talking about Y, not R"
    * Hugo/skeppy: "Right, that's what I said. R."

    And the 'if it were a case of:' is actually exactly what happened, here on your blog. We had productive discussions and I pointed out flaws in your arguments. You engaged, at first, but eventually gave up. It did not mean that you were wrong on anything else, just that the arguments you presented were wrong. It did not mean that your conclusions were false, just that the arguments did not support that conclusion... "because P". More importantly, it did not mean that you were not engaging rationally, it did not mean that you were stupid, it did not mean that you were incapable of fixing the arguments... it did not mean much. Just another conversation.

    Yet, you decided to erase everything. Every. Single. Comment.

    Now, one has to wonder... was it really because the comments were all garbage? Or was it because you reacted emotionally regarding something completely inconsequential? Or perhaps there is some other more/less complex explanation... maybe you were in a bad mood one day for something else completely unrelated and just decided to do that random thing. I don't know. But the fact is that this is what happened, and you just lied about it. Be it on purpose or not.

  16. >We had productive discussions and I pointed out flaws in your arguments.

    Incorrect. You and Skeppy both provide objections aimed at strawmen which you appear unable to let go.

    Conversing with either of you is a waste of time.

  17. Well if you believe yout own lies, I'm sure it makes you feel good.