Review: Feser – Part 4

Part1, Part 2, Part 3.

The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism: The Age of Aquinas

So time to cut to the chase. Thomas Aquinas 1225 to 1274, which was a long time ago but not as long ago as Aristotle and Plato. Aquinas wrote a lot and while much of it is related to both Plato and Aristotle his work was not simply a rehashing but an extensive program to put Catholicism on sound philosophical footings. You can read more here

For the purposes of Feser’s argument we can concentrate on a couple of related aspects of Aquinas. Firstly that he shares Aristotle’s notion of causality and secondly Aquinas’s ‘Five Ways’ of demonstrating the existence of god. Fewer claims these Five Ways are just one set of a larger set of arguments for god’s existence and Feser also concentrates on just three of the five. Here is Wikipedia’s account of the Five Ways.

the unmoved mover;
the first cause;
the argument from contingency;
the argument from degree;
the teleological argument

Of these Feser looks at 1,2 and 5. The fifth one he uses an alternate name of The Supreme Intelligence.

The unmoved mover or argument from motion takes us into a tricky issue with reading both Aristotle or Aquinas with modern eyes. Both writers touch on physics and physical concepts but do so based on their contemporary understanding which is often naive or mistaken. Additionally some of the references to physics are meant as examples rather than demonstrations i.e. the truth of the claims make do not necessarily lie with the physics discussed. So there is a danger of confusing errors in their physics with errors in their metaphysics. However, it is also true that their conception of how the world about them works informed their metaphysics and also informed those notions that they regarded as self-evidently true. Consequently we cannot ignore their mistaken physics either. Rather we have to tread carefully and consider what they wrote in terms of the context of their understanding at the time and evaluate it given our current understanding of the world around us.

Feser provides some assistance in this regard by noting that the term ‘motion’ in the argument from motion is better understood as change. Simply put in both Aristotle’s scheme change begets change and change only occurs because of change. And these immediate cause of change must occur at the same time – there can’t be an interval between them because otherwise there would be a period WITHOUT change. It is a notion that has a whiff of Zeno’s paradox about it and I’m not sure I am describing it how Aquinas would so let’s let Feser say it:

The motion of the stone depends on the motion of the hand, which depends on the motion of the stick, which depends on the firing of the neutrons, which depends on the state of the nervous system, which depends on its current molecular structure, which depends on the atomic basis of that molecular structure, which depends on electromagnetism, gravitation, the wak and strong forces and so on an so forth, all simultaneously, all here and now. The actualisation of one potential depends on the simultaneous actualisation of another, which depend on the simultaneous actualisation of another, which depend on the simultaneous actualisation of another, which depends on…

Aristotle wasn’t keen on the notion of actual infinities, so something has to be at the start of that change. Note that Feser isn’t arguing for a temporal chain running back in time but a simultaneous chain of reality – of nested explanations/agents of change. So according to Feser something is at the start of that chain and every other chain of change in the universe. What is it? An unmoved mover – a general principle acting at the fundamental level of the universe making change happen. That thing could be god.

Well it could midichorians or chi or something else but remember that this is just one of five proofs from Aquinas. He didn’t pick on five just to show off how many proofs he had but because each describe different qualities of some sort of supreme thing that underlies reality. Fewer talks about this unmoved mover as a single being of pure actuality – a description needed to establish there is only one such thing. If there were two then they would need something to distinguish one from the other but if they are ONLY actuality then there is nothing to distinguish them and hence there is only one. I suppose you could have lots of them in different places and if this unmoved mover is PURE actuality then it could be nothing else (i.e. have no other qualities) and that will create some issues for Feser but I am getting ahead of myself.

Do we need to accept any of this? No. Change of any kind seems to propagate no faster than the speed of light and so the simultaneity of Feser’s argument is not correct. It is a temporal chain if it is a chain at all. Further as we descend down Feser’s chain of change we find ourselves quickly in realms in which traditional causality (or in Aristotle’s terms efficient causes) does not play according to our naive understandings. This does not mean that somehow quantum physics means Aristotle must be wrong but it does mean that we can’t take his notions of change and causality as being axiomatically/self-evidently true. rather these are contingent physical questions about our universe rather than necessary metaphysical truths about existence.

With modern understanding the unmoved mover gets us no further than an argument for the universe having some sort of beginning point. Which is a reasonable conclusion but not a metaphysical one nor a proof of god.

The First Cause is easy to mistake for the unmoved mover but primarily because we tend to think only in terms of what Aristotle would call efficient causes and which these days we would think of being as arranged temporally. Basically the question here is what makes a thing be i.e. actually exist. That may seem like a stupid question but in Aristotle’s framework existing is just part of all the things that make up a thing. A thing (say a particular cat) has a range of essences that can be described and which are themselves things but a particular cat need not exist – it might be dead or fictional. Hence a particular cat also needs something to cause it to be. Worse being is not something that is essential to a cat but rather a contingent aspect of a particular cat and hence whatever makes a cat be/exist can’t be something inherently catty. That which makes something exist must be external to the cat and it must be constantly making a cat exist but a cat can’t exist just by virtue of being a cat.

And simply put, this is bollocks. No seriously.

We will get to the question of why thinkers drifted away or flat out rejected Aquinas’s scholasticism but this is a starting point. The whole argument rests on Aristotle’s modified Platonism and the issues it tries to resolve about existence only exist by virtue of it. Ignore it and the problem goes away. A cat doesn’t exist because of something willing cats to exist and there is no reason to suppose it does. Yes, there is an open question as to why there is a bunch of stuff at all but that is another matter.

Feser skips over 3 and 4 and moves onto argument 5 – The Supreme Intelligence or the teleological argument. This one relates to ‘final cause’ of Aristotle’s four causes – the purpose or role of a thing. Because this argument deals with the intent and the notion of a mind acting behind the universe it can be characterised as being like an intelligent-design style argument. Fewer points out that there argument is different from that notion but there are similarities. However Feser points out that:
“even if, per impossible, everything in the biological realm could be explained by means of natural selection this would not affect the Fifth Way.

The reason being is that in Aristotle’s model of causality all sorts of things have a final cause – as sort of role or end point for a thing animated or not. The intention is that the thing that gives everything such a purpose is some kind of supreme intelligence i.e. god.

So of the these three, the unmoved mover is god as pure actuality, the first cause is pure being and the fifth is pure intelligence – i.e. god makes things exist and cause them to change to suit his purpose. Of course god can’t be three different pure things but that is another issues. Yet each of the different notions of god tend to lead not to a Christina style god but a kind of pantheistic or Spinozan like god thing. An issue Feser has discussed on his own blog here:

In summary, each of the five ways requires assumptions about reality that are either not supported by our current understanding of the universe or which require a leap of logic to assert.


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