Saturday, August 9, 2014

Understanding the First Way

Many (but not all) atheistic detractors of the First Way (the argument from change) often misunderstand the purpose of the argument.  Why, they ask, does the Unmoved Mover have to possess the attributes of God?  This is a strange question, to say the least.  After all, Thomas Aquinas spends very little time on the Five Ways, and much more time offering demonstrations that the Unmoved Mover/First Cause is God.  It's almost as if Richard Dawkins, an even the philosopher Michael Martin, haven't bothered to read the rest of Thomas' writings that bridge the gap between Unmoved Mover/First Cause and God.  At least Martin doesn't succumb to the "what caused God?" objection, which is laughable to virtually all atheistic philosophers.

With that said, the argument from change has two parts: a) demonstrating the existence of an Unmoved Mover; and b) demonstrating that the Unmoved Mover is God.  In this post I will only focus on the first major contention.  The argument may be summarized as follows:

1. Changing things exist. (Premise)

2. Changing things exhibits actuality and potentiality. (Premise)

3. No potentiality can actualize itself. (Premise)

4. Either an Unmoved Mover exists, or there is an infinite regress of potentialities being actualized, or there is a circularity of potentialities being actualized. (From 1 - 3)

5. There cannot be an infinite regress or a circularity of potentialities being actualized. (Premise)

6. Therefore, an Unmoved Mover exists. (From 4 and 5)

Virtually nobody doubts premise (1).  To doubt it and maintain that change is illusory not only affirms the existence of Pure Actuality (which the atheist does not want to do), but to come to the conclusion that all change is illusory itself constitutes a change.

Premises (2) and (3) are easily defensible.  In support of premise (2), an acorn is merely an acorn in actuality, but is an oak tree in potentiality.  Premise (3) can be defended by pointing out that if a potentiality were to actualize itself, then it would both exist in potentiality and actuality simultaneously, which is contradictory.  Moreover, we have many examples that confirm this premise.  An acorn doesn't become an oak tree all by itself.  Rather, it requires sustaining causes of its change, such as water, sunlight and soil.  If any of these sustaining cause were removed, then the acorn's development would cease to continue.

(4) logically follows from premises (1) through (3), so what about premise (5)?  First, why can there not be an infinite regress of potentialities being actualized?  Thomas Aquinas offers three distinct reasons, but I'll only appeal to one.  Even if the past is infinite (and empirical evidence makes such a scenario virtually impossible), the past is still composed of finite periods of time.  At each finite period of time, the regress of sustaining causes of change (not originating causes) begins anew.  This means that during a finite period of time, there cannot be an infinite regress of sustaining causes of change.  Why not?  The reason is simple.  Given that the regress begins anew, it is impossible to arrive at infinity.  No matter how many numbers are counted, there will always and indefinitely be another number to count before arriving at infinity.  Hence, it is impossible for the regress of sustaining causes of change to be infinite.

Now, what about a circularity of causes of change?  This is even easier to eliminate as a possibility.  We have already established that no potentiality can actualize itself.  With a circularity, say, A causes B to change and B causes A to change at the same time and in the same sense, A and B would have to exist in both potentiality and actuality simultaneously.  Since this is impossible, the only conclusion we can make is that an Unmoved Mover exists.

Now, objections to an Unmoved Mover I've found to be quite weak.  One common objection is that in order for A to change B, A must also change.  However, imagine a beautiful painting.  While gazing upon the painting, a man is drawn to it (a change) because of its beauty.  Of course, a painting, being a material thing, is changing in terms of time and molecular movement.  However, the Unmoved Mover is immaterial, as is demonstrated in the second major contention.  Therefore, the attempt to point to a disanalogy fails as an objection.

The "what changes the Unmoved Mover?" objection is perhaps the worst objection I'm aware of.  The causal premise states that no potentiality can actualize itself, and yet, the Unmoved Mover does not exhibit any potentiality.  Rather, the Unmoved Mover is Pure Actuality, as the second major contention states.

I look forward to expanding on these arguments, including the second major contention, in my Master's thesis for an M.A. in Philosophy.  All I can say for now is that the objections to the First Way I've found to be extremely weak, sometimes based on misinterpretations, and other times simply due to not doing enough research.


  1. Doug

    What I keep missing in all defenses of the First Way is proof, or at least strong evidence, that "actuality" and "potentiality" are two really seperate thing, raher than just being two ways of looking at the same thing. An acorn can become an oak tree, which eventually becomes dead wood, which is eaten by fungi etc. That is the way things are. To exist is to change. We don't have to wonder where change comes from because change is a fundamental aspect of reality. That's essentially Herakleitos' view.
    In that view, what you call "actuality" is the way a thing is in the absense of time, while "potentiality" takes time into account. So, under this view, the First Mover does actually move, in virtue of its existence. This First mover can be ultimately simple because it only has one porperty: it exists and existence is movement and movement is change.

    So, no, nothing both exists in actuality and potentialty simultaneously. That is impossible because "simultaneous" denotes time and "actuality" is timeless.

    I also have some issues with your presupposition of teleology and with your beautiful painting analogy, but I'll save that for some other time.

  2. Walter, just FYI, it's spelled "Heraclitus." I don't see anywhere in your post where you defend the claim that to exist is change. And, of course an acorn is potentially an oak tree, dead wood, and eaten by fungi. That simply means the acorn has many potentialities. Are you really committed to the notion that an acorn is the same thing as an oak tree, and that they're just two ways of looking at the same thing? If so, we have a knockdown argument against the legality of abortion.

  3. Your spelling of Heraclitus is actually correct, if you're using the original Greek spelling. It's worth noting that his concept of the Logos is of an immutable cause of change, sort of a precursor to Aristotle's Unmoved Mover.

  4. As a rebuttal to your assertion (I didn't find any argument) that potentiality and actuality are not really distinct, allow me to borrow a friend's reductio ad absurdum. I am currently in Texas and potentially in Peru. Your contention would entail that there is no difference between being in Texas and being in Peru, which is a contradiction. Q.E.D.

  5. Doug

    If we weer able to "freeze" this moment, what we would see is you being in Texas. That's the "actuality", and maybe if we "freeze" the moment in a couple of months, you'll be in Peru.
    Of course the actual state of being in Texas is not the same as the actual state of being in Peru.
    I am saying that, because everything that exists is changing, what we have is a series of actual states. Depending on whether time is discrete or continuous, those actual states are real or illusory.
    As to an argument, I could just point out that I do not know of any concrete entity that is not changing (or moving, if you prefer). Everything we encounter is continually moving, the whole universe "vibrates". Among ordinary concrete temporal entities there simply is no such thing as a state of actuality. This state only applies if time can be frozen.
    As to a knockdown argument against abortion, this is irrelevant to the argument at hand.
    I am aware that Herclitus (or Herakleitos) had this concept of an immtuble "logos". I don't agree with him in that respect, just as I agree with Aristotle (or Aristoteles) in many respects, but not in others.

  6. Walter, your argument simply dismisses the argument I provide for an Unmoved Mover. You haven't given me any reason to think the First Way has at all been challenged. With that said, I'm simply going to walk away from this debate. You can have the last word.

  7. Doug

    My argument doesn't attempt to show an Unmoved Mover is impossible or incoherent, it provides a possible alternative for a Unmoved Mover.
    That's it.