Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Simpler Version of the Argument from Change

Normally, I argue against an infinite regress of sustaining causes of change in support of the Aristotelian-Thomistic argument.  However, the following argument is logically valid:

1. Everything that changes has an external cause. (Premise)

2. The universe changes. (Premise)

3. Therefore, the universe has an external cause of its change. (From 1 and 2)

Premise (1) simply reiterates that no potentiality can actualize itself.  If it could, then it would be self-caused, and would be existent and non-existent simultaneously, which is absurd.  Premise (2) is obviously true, barring some radical version of metaphysical skepticism.

The only objection truly worth noting is the idea that the argument commits a composition fallacy.  Just because every part of a mountain is small doesn't mean the mountain as a whole is small.  Likewise, it is surmised, just because every part of the universe has an external cause of its change doesn't mean that the universe as a whole has a cause of its change.

I think this objection is dubious at best.  After all, an explanation of the change in every part of the universe would not explain why there is any change at all to begin with.  Moreover, many times the whole is like its parts.  If every part of a mountain is made of rock, then the mountain as a whole is made of rock.  Sticking with this analogy, we know that the mountain as a whole has an external cause, e.g. the accumulation of various geological processes.

I think the argument summarized above most resembles the latter type of part-to-whole relationship.  If I'm correct about this, then we have an argument for an Unmoved Mover, which exemplifies no potentiality.  It must, therefore, not only be immutable, but purely actual, eternal, indestructible, unique (for to differ from actuality is to be non-actuality.  Other things are distinct insofar as they exhibit various levels of potentiality), as well as omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.  In defense of these three latter attributes, if the Unmoved Mover were limited in any of these respects, that would entail potentiality, which is impossible for the Unmoved Mover.

*Update: Given that the universe as a whole exhibits both actuality and potentiality, it follows that we have an even stronger argument against the composition fallacy objection.  Since no potentiality can actualize itself, and the universe exhibits potentiality, it necessarily follows that the universe as a whole must have its potentiality actualized by some external cause.  This could only be a timeless, changeless (for time is a measurement of change), immaterial, and very powerful entity, e.g. the Unmoved Mover.


  1. Premise (2) is obviously true, barring some radical version of metaphysical skepticism.

    Believe it or not, I recently came across a skeptic who held that the universe is a four dimensional block that does not undergo change.

  2. That's interesting, especially considering that B-theories of time don't deny the reality of change per se, but rather the fact of temporal becoming. For example, even if a B-theory is true, t1 contains states of affairs that are distinct from t2.

  3. If I understood him correctly, he would grant that t1 and t2 contain different states of affairs. But this would be analogous to how page 1 and page 2 of a book contain different states of affairs. It would be wrong to say page 1 changed into page 2 just as it would be wrong to say the t1 "slice" changed into the t2 "slice".

    My objection consisted of noting:

    (1) The change that our minds undergo seems to indicate that at least some change occurs (i.e., our mind is moving through the block).

    (2) The existence of change seems to be on firmer grounds than his metaphysical theory of time.

    (3) He supported his claim by appeals to science (the relativity of simultaneity) but I think his view would lead to an anti-realist approach to science. The state of affairs at t1 would have no impact on the state of affairs at t2 but scientists assume the opposite.

    (4) A-theories of time can deal with his arguments for B-theories of time.

  4. Inevitable QM objection to premise one. I think that Feser's reply here is pretty solid:

    To summarize, Feser shows that you can't logically jump from "QM describes quantum event/systems without reference to a cause" to "quantum events/systems have no cause." He also mentions that causality isn't necessarily just "billiard balls knocking into each other." What a cause IS in the first place is a question for philosophy. And as you know, the AT metaphysical framework recognizes many different causes. But if you have time, I'd like to see how you would personally reply to the typical "Premise one is false. Things like quantum fluctuations and beta decay occur without an external cause."

    (Of course, in the case of beta decay at least, you could make an appeal to final causality:

    "Beta decay is one process that unstable atoms can use to become more stable."

    But how would you reply in regards to act and potency?

  5. Besides Feser's reply that there are four distinct Aristotelian causes (efficient, material, formal, and final), we could begin by pointing out that not all interpretations of QM entail indeterminism. Take the model of David Bohm, for instance, which is entirely deterministic. Secondly, even on an indeterministic interpretation of QM, fluctuations arise out of the existing energy contained within the vacuum and have probabilities governed by quantum laws. Whether they arise spontaneously or not, quantum fluctuations don't actualize their own potentialities. Unfortunately, some have assumed that "spontaneity" is synonymous with "uncaused," and that's simply not the case.

    1. Doug
      Your premise is that everything that changes has an external cause, and on some indeterministic interpretations of QM, the vacuum changes due to causes internal to the vacuum instelf and the result is fluctuations.
      So, as long "spontaneity" is possibly synonymous with "caused by internal factors", some interpretations of QM do offer a sound objection to your premise 1.

      I am not saying that those interpretations are correct, but they offer a solution that, until porven false, is far more plausible than the notion that a completely unchanging entity caused everything else around it (or rather even nothing at all) to change.
      The QM hypothesis is hard to grasp, but the unmoved mover hypothesis, properly understood, is infinitely worse than magic.

    2. Just answer this one question: can a potentiality actualize itself? You seem to assume that on indeterministic QM interpretations, it all has to do with "internal" factors, and that's simply not the case. There is an environment surrounding the quantum vacuum that needs to be taken into consideration.

    3. What 'environment' might that be?
      And to answer your first question, I do not think the notions of potentiality and actuality correspond to any sort of reality, so I cannot answer that question.

    4. Remove the energy contained within that vacuum (internal). Remove the laws of nature that govern quantum mechanics. Remove all space surrounding quantum activity. Ergo, no quantum fluctuations, spontaneous or otherwise. Your rejection of potentiality and actuality? Fine, but it goes against everything we know about change.

    5. What you are saying is that if there is no quantum vacuum, there can be no fluctuations. Nothing you describe here has anything to do with some kind of external environment, except maybe the laws of nature, but the staus of those laws as external to what thye 'govern' is highly debatable, and saying that they are necssarily external is begging the question.
      As to my rejection going against everything we know about change, it only goes against the Aristotelean notion of change, which assumes a basic teleology, but it does not go against notions of non-teleological change, an example of which would be a non-deterministic interpretation of QM.
      Basically my notion of change entails that every existing entity is necessarily changeable. And this is not just my private view, it is held by a significant number of philosophers and scientists.

    6. You forgot to mention the surrounding space of the quantum vacuum. Space isn't some empty thing. It's all interconnected. Secondly, it's not "highly debatable" that the laws of nature are external to specific instances of quantum fluctuations. It doesn't matter if the laws of nature are built into physical matter and energy. In fact, I think they are. Finally, what you call a non-teleological change is just a negation of the Aristotelian concept. It's not a concept in its own right, so you really don't seem to have any notion of what change is. There's also that little bit about matter being necessarily changeable. I agree with that. It's what it means to be a physical object (which is something that exemplifies actuality and potentiality), but a thing's being changeable does not entail that it actually changes.

      But, let's suppose that we grant that QM provides exceptions for the general rule that potentialities do not actualize themselves. So what? Macro and cosmic objects do fall under that category, and since we're talking about the universe as a whole, the argument is not at all undermined.

    7. I am talking about a hypothetical situation in which a quantum vacuum is everything that exists. In that case,I am not aware of any physicist who would claim that there cannot be fluctuations because there is no space surrounding it. And since you know admit that even the laws of nature are not external to the quantum vacuum it seems clear that you cannot back up your claim that "it's simply not the case" (that it all has to do with internal factors).
      And if you grant the QM provides execptions
      for the general rule, that means that your first premise is false and hence your argument falls apart.

    8. We're talking about reality here, Walter, and not some hypothetical scenario. There is a huge universe that changes as a whole. I don't even agree that QM provides exceptions. I just granted it for the sake of argument. And, actually I do say that the laws of nature are external to the quantum vacuum. It's just that they are also present within it. Moreover, you ignore the argument I offer in support of the claim that no potentiality can actualize itself. So, do you have any objection to the argument I'm defending, or are you just going to fall back on QM as usual?

    9. certain interpretations of QM do support the claim that potentialities (if you insist on using that terminology) can actualize themselves. So far you have come up with some assertions about external factors, none of which you have actually backed up.
      So, theer is the possibility that there is at least one thing that can change without an external cause, hence your first premise falls apart and so does your argument.
      You seem to want me to go further and give you a complete cosmological theory of how QF's can give rise to a universe, but that's not the scope of my criticism.
      I might add that I have yet to see a single Thomist that can answer the question how an immutable being can make other things change (even some hypothetical scenario will do, in fact).

      That's all I have to say on this matter, but if you want the final word, go ahead.

    10. You haven't provided any examples of how any interpretation of QM would undermine the first premise. You've simply asserted it. Now, my own "assertions" about external factors aren't even controversial. The laws of nature are independent of any specific instance of a quantum fluctuation. Not only that, but you still haven't responded to my argument about the impossibility of a potentiality actualizing itself. Merely citing some one or two interpretations of QM does nothing to undermine the premise.

      What's really odd to me is that you think if you provide one exception to premise (1), and I don't even grant that, then the premise must be worthless. We can easily modify the premise to say: "Everything on a macro level that changes has an external cause of its change." Then what would be your objection?

      Finally, you say that you've never come across a Thomist who can explain how an immutable being can make other things change? I've given the following example about a dozen times. Imagine a man who views a beautiful painting. The man is said to be "moved" by the beauty of the painting because the painting is an object of desire. By analogy, the Unmoved Mover may move things as the supreme object of desire. That's just one example of many that Thomists have provided.

  6. Jayman, your responses are intriguing. In fact, it wasn't too long ago that I was entertaining the idea of transforming the AT arguments for God's existence to be compatible with a Kantian understanding of phenomena (what we perceive) and noumena (what a thing is in and of itself). The AT arguments would still hold under phenomena, even if they could not be established under noumena. Then again, what really can be established about the noumena? This seems to be in line with your first response.

    Still, I think the fact of change is still relevant on B-theories of time. We would just have to modify the premises to account for these blocks of states of affairs. For example, the state of affairs at t2 would not be instantiated had there been no t1. Nevertheless, I think your responses are more than adequate.

  7. Thanks for the reply.

    Jayman, I'm not sure if you would be able to answer this, but I have had a question about "block time." Lets use the book analogy. Page 1 and 2 both exist, and page 1 doesn't "become" page 2. My question is, why does page 2 "follow" page 1? Why doesn't page 75 "follow" page 1 instead? It is true that page 1 and 2 exist together without "temporal becoming" but page 2 still "follows" page 1 in terms of content. Page 1 might end with "The cat suddenly..." and page 2 thus starts with "...jumped on me." Why is it this way rather than:

    Page 1 might end with "The cat suddenly..." and the next page starts with "Grandma finally flew over from Europe."

    From the perspective of consciousness, why am I experiencing a "smooth progression" of equally real times rather than an "erratic progression" of equally real times? Why am I in my room studying in one time block 1, and then still studying in time block 2, rather than running outside in time block 2?

    I hope my question makes sense; it seems similar to your objection 1.

  8. ozero91, I think your first objection ties into my third point about scientific realism/anti-realism. The block universe he described seems to preclude the possibility of cause-and-effect. If there is no change and no cause-and-effect can there be science? I agree with you that, on such a view, there is no apparent reason why the events of yesterday are in anyway connected to the events of today.

    Concerning the apparent flow of time, I believe he chalked this up to an illusion. I find this no more an explanation than "explaining" consciousness by saying it too is an illusion.

  9. "Basically my notion of change entails that every existing entity is necessarily changeable. And this is not just my private view, it is held by a significant number of philosophers and scientists."

    Hi Walter, I'm not seeing how this view excludes act (real concrete things) and potency (possibilities that exist in real concrete things). Also, if this metaphysical view on change is indeed popular, does it have a name? Or perhaps a SEP article or something that you could link us to? (For example, Aristotle's metaphysical account of change is called the doctrine of act and potency.)

    1. ozero,
      It does not exclude act and potency in the way you describe them, but it says that potency is a necessary aspect of every entity. IOW 'pure act' is impossible and so is 'pure potency'.

      The 'name' that comes closest to my view would be 'process philosophy'. There is an entry on it in the SEP.

  10. Walter, your view resembles that of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus. Now, I'm not calling you a Heraclitean, for it would be inappropriate for me to designate a name to you; that's your prerogative. It's just that Heraclitus views all things in a state of change. He's famous for saying that one cannot step into the same river twice. He simply adds that there exists a Logos, which is the ordering principle of change, but is moreover change itself and is part of the cosmos. For Heraclitus, however, the Logos is also an intellect, something you would presently reject, an assumption I base on our previous discussions.

    Heraclitus is definitely worth reading, even though I don't always agree with him. Just thought I'd share.

    1. Yes, I know about Heraclitos and my view resembles his, but is not derived from his.
      I arrived at my conclusions independently of Heraclitos or any other philosopher.
      Whether the Logos is an intellect or not is actually an open question for me. I fully reject that it is in any way personal, but there might be a sense in which it could be called an intellect.

    2. Just curious, then: you agree there is a Logos, intellect or not? I gathered as much from what we've talked about before, but I wasn't sure if you'd be comfortable with the term, "Logos."

    3. I don't fancy the term "Logos" too much because it might give the impression of a deity of some form, but I do think some sort of necessary substrate for the universe is the most plausible explanation right now. in that respect I actually agree with WL Craig's KCA.

    4. Do you mean Craig's version of the LCA?

    5. No, I mean Craig's KCA, which admittedly does not specifically argue for a necessary cause. That's my personal feeling.

  11. I'm not sure I understand your comment above then: "I do think some sort of necessary substrate for the universe is the most plausible explanation right now." If the KCA doesn't bring us to a necessary entity, then in what respect is it that you agree with the KCA?

  12. I agree ith the KCA that the universe as we currently know it, has a sort of 'cause' (in a very broad sense of 'cause', I would actually cause it a condition.
    That's the conclusion of Craig's KCA. I personally add to this that this 'condition' may be necessary, which is not, strictly speaking, part of the KCA.
    Of course I reject Craig's claim that this cause or condition is personal, mainly because I agree with Wes Morriston's excellent critique of the KCA (which ,BTW, I came up with independently of Morriston). But that's another matter

  13. I commend you for reading Morriston. He's a Christian, by the way! That's just a side note of interest, since it shows that one can be a theist without accepting all theistic arguments. Similarly, one can be an atheist without accepting all atheistic arguments. Morriston indicates that belief in God is properly basic and that he sympathizes with the fine-tuning argument. Anyway, I digress. Morriston is a first-rate philosopher. I'm not sure if you'd read Craig's response to him, but it's available on Anyway, Craig and I have different views of God's relationship to time, so I have my reservations about Craig's argument bridging the gap between first cause and personal creator. It's just a reservation on different grounds. I don't believe God enters into time, but remains timeless. Hence, the doctrine of divine immutability.

    Looks like we're now having a discussion, instead of a debate! :) On that note, how's Manchester United doing this year? Most Americans just haven't gotten into soccer (the "true" football), but it's improving.

    1. We are not in any way obligated to have a debate, a discussion is fine to me.
      Yes, I have read Craig's response to Morriston and it fails. And I know Morriston is a Christian, which means he does not suffer from any atheism bias.
      ManU is doing fine, BTW, but I prefer Manchester City and Chelsea, both with Belgians in the team.

  14. Gotcha. Is it your son who's the big ManU fan?