William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Summary Against Modern Thought: God Brought Things Into Being Out Of Nothing

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

We’re only to start the proof of the title’s contention; we’ll finish it next week. Don’t complain. I once sat through a two week proof of a theorem in a long-memory course. This is peanuts next to that.

Chapter 16 That God Brought Things Into Being Out Of Nothing(alternate translation)

[1] FROM this it is clear that God brought things into being out of no pre-existing thing as matter.

[2] For if a thing is an effect of God, either something exists before it, or not. If not, our point is proved, namely that God produces an effect from no pre-existing thing. If however something exists before it, we must either go on to infinity,–which is impossible in natural causes, as the Philosopher proves (2 Metaph.)–or we must come to some first thing that presupposes no other. And this can only be God. For it was shown in the First Book that He is not the matter of any thing, nor can there be anything other than God the being of which is not caused by God, as we have proved. It follows therefore that God in producing His effects requires no prejacent matter out of which to produce His work.

Notes We did this in Book One. Y could cause Z, and X could cause Y, and W cause X, and so on, but we have to bottom out somewhere to get the process going. There has to be some A which is the root or fundamental cause from which all other things have their being. prejacent = preexisting.

[3] Further. Every matter is constricted to some particular species by the form with which it is superendued. Hence to produce an effect out of prejacent matter by enduing it with a form in any way belongs to an agent that aims at some particular species. Now a like agent is a particular agent, since causes are proportionate to their effects. Therefore an agent that requires of necessity prejacent matter out of which to work its effect, is a particular agent. But God is an agent as being the universal cause of being, as was proved above. Therefore He needs no prejacent matter in His action.

Notes You, dear reader, a particular agent, can make an astray, a form within a species of ash-catching devices, out of preexisting clay. But you cannot make the clay out of nothing, where by nothing Aquinas means the complete and utter absence of any material thing or energy (the two are now known to be equivalent in a certain sense). superendued = endowed = superinductam in the original.

[4] Again. The more universal an effect, the higher its proper cause: because the higher the cause, to so many more things does its virtue extend. Now to be is more universal than to be moved: since some beings are immovable, as also philosophers teach, for instance stones and the like.

It follows therefore that above the cause which acts only by causing movement and change, there is that cause which is the first principle of being: and we have proved that this is God. Therefore God does not act merely by causing movement and change. Now everything that cannot bring things into being save from prejacent matter, acts only by causing movement and change, since to make aught out of matter is the result of movement or change of some kind. Consequently it is not impossible to bring things into being without prejacent matter. Therefore God brings things into being without prejacent matter.

Notes We’re back—as we often are!—to Chapter 13 of Book One. Aquinas, incidentally, does not mean that stones cannot be moved; he means they don’t self-motivate. That makes this the most fascinating part of this argument: “everything that cannot bring things into being save from prejacent matter, acts only by causing movement and change, since to make aught out of matter is the result of movement or change of some kind.”

Now physics is the study of movement and change. But physics is not science of how things are brought “into being without prejacent matter”. Too, that things are created out of nothing could not have been proved within physics proper. A physicist who doesn’t understand this can therefore misdirect his energy. Finding the precise point of intersection where metaphysics ends and physics begins isn’t necessarily easy, either!

[5] Again. That which acts only by movement and change is inconsistent with the universal cause of being; since by movement and change a being is not made from absolute non-being, but this being from this non-being. Now God is the universal cause of being, as we have proved. Therefore it is not becoming to Him to act only by movement or change. Neither then is it becoming to Him to need preexisting matter, in order to make something.

[6] Moreover. Every agent produces something like itself in some way. Now every agent acts according as it is actually. Consequently to produce an effect by causing in some way a form inherent to matter, will belong to that agent, which is actualized by a form inherent to it, and not by its whole substance.

Hence the Philosopher proves (7 Metaph.) that material things, which have forms in matter, are engendered by material agents that have forms in matter, and not by per se existing forms. Now God is actual being not by a form inherent to Him, but by His whole substance, as we have proved above. Therefore the proper mode of His action is to produce a whole subsistent thing, and not merely an inherent thing, namely a form in matter. And every agent that requires no matter for its action, acts in this way. Therefore God requires no preexisting matter in His action.

Notes It is not the form of the ash tray which, somehow Platonically, creates the ash tray out of the clay. It is you, the agent, which is the cause. The form in the clay is inherent, but the clay itself, its total matter-energy, is subsistent. But you still don’t have power to create the clay itself. God, since He is subsitence or being itself, can do what is impossible for you.

Next week we finish the chapter.

New Pope Video: Ain’t The Planet Great?

Well, you can see it for yourself. The Pope, God bless him, brightly lit from below and in a voice most mellow, emphasized by environmentally friendly music, tells us that the earth is swell and, to keep it that way, you should pick up your damn trash.

Who could argue?

Video has cute fish, cute frolicking kids, cute multi-cultural faces, bikes, greenery, lovingly fondled and in abundance, some shots of what looks like New Jersey, and dangling feet blocking the son.

Then there are words; chiefly these:

The relationship between poverty and the fragility of the planet requires another way of managing the economy and measuring progress, conceiving a new way of living.

Because we need a change that unites us all.

Free from the slavery of consumerism.

I can’t make much of the economics of planetary fragility and poverty, except as it relates to the ancient wisdom of not mixing the location of the food input and output cycle, if you catch my meaning.

But I sure understand the slavery of consumerism. I despise the word with its true connotations of greed, avarice, and insatiability. Try it. Say “I am a consumer“, thinking hard about what it means to consume.

Consumerism compliments, if that’s the right word, narcissism. Everybody knows that, yet we don’t often think about it. Pace:

Fine, eliminate the word, have folks live more “in tune” with nature. Let ascetics abound. Then what? Good question, that.

There are certain advantages to a more ascetic or stoical life than many of us currently lead. These advantages aren’t only spiritual, but physical, too. Buying less unnecessary food is an excellent way to drop those extra 80 pounds—and to zap the credit card bill.

So you heed the advice to cut back—or have it heeded for you—and now you’re at fighting weight and debt free. Then what? A little planet or nature worship, maybe? Well, not worship worship, as hippy Woopie might say. Instead a kind of deep, yoga-mat-carrying appreciation that nature—rather, Nature—is alive. And maybe even looking out for you. Or maybe just a recognition that life can be so spiritual.

Care and appreciation of the thin scraping of dirt and water that forms the surface of our planet can’t be a goal in and of itself. Keeping things neat and pretty can’t be our natural end or the ultimate reason for out existence. Rather, they can be. But they surely can’t be what the Pope meant, right?

Would turning somebody into an environmentalist make them more or less likely to embrace Christianity? How about a vegetarian or even, God help us, a vegan? How about just a more caring person?

Could go either way, but I think the answer is weighted toward no for any of these categories. Lot of folks will look at this video and think to themselves that all the Pope really wants is for us to be nicer to Earth, maybe even nicer to each other. Niceness isn’t enough, though. Sometimes it’s even the wrong thing. Anyway, since most people already think themselves nice, their next thoughts will turn to those they feel aren’t so nice. Like polluters. Who are they? Capitalists? Mean people?

It takes real work to think that a person will watch this video and worry about that state of his soul. Would a person watching even know he had a soul that might be imperiled?

Ah, but what can you do in a minute-and-a-half, anyway? It’s only seed planting. Besides, the Pope said proselytism is “solemn nonsense.”

Incidentally, the Pope is wrong about global warming.


Hat tip to our friend Steve Skojec where I first learned of this video.

Infinity, (Physical) Parameters, Fine Tuning, & Probability


Via Ed Feser I was led back to Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, which has a lot about probability. I’ll not do much of that today, but there is one point about assigning probabilities to a proposition that I want to make in the context of infinity.

Plantinga was speaking in the context of “fine tuning” of physical parameters, such as the speed of light c. It is a “parameter” because we only know its value by observation and estimation, which implies there is always uncertainty in its value (which should be, but usually isn’t, considered in equations which use the parameter).

Now fine tuning is a huge topic which I’ll only gloss. Some claim the light-speed parameter could have taken any positive value. By “any” they mean any real number greater than, or perhaps bounded from below, by 0. That’s a lot of points! An infinite amount of them. And not just a counting infinite number, like 1, 2, 3, …, but the infinity of the continuum, which are all the numbers between 1 and 2, between 2 and 3, …, and which therefore cannot be counted.

There are several questions. About physical parameters, the goal is to find simpler arguments from which we can deduce the values of higher-order parameters. That means there might be a set of axioms (which we know via a version of induction) that allow us to deduce c must be this-and-such value and none other. This could be true for c and for every other physical parameter, such as Planck’s constant and so forth.

Either way, it is not true that c could be “any” value in the continuum. Something actual caused the value of c. The equations we might discover might given insight into this cause and then again they may only allow us to determine the value of c. What’s the difference? Knowing the cause means knowing essence of the active power that made c what it is and, just as important, what it isn’t. Mighty task, especially considering we’re skirting along ancient arguments about why there is something rather than nothing. This is the point at which physics and metaphysics meet.

To determine a parameter is much easier. For instance, we have several formulas that allow us to determine the value of π or of any of its digits. Now π is transcendental, meaning its digits go on forever, in the same spirit of the continuum. That means we’ll never know all the digits of π Anyway, these formulas allow us to determine, in the sense of know, particular digits, but none of these formulas tell us why π takes the value it does and not some other. In other words, we don’t know, and I’m guessing we can’t know, what caused π to take the value it does.

You have the idea by now. Fine tuning arguments about parameters will say nothing about what caused any parameter value. That means fine tuning arguments are about our knowledge of parameters and not their cause. This is important. If we knew what was causing the values of parameters, we wouldn’t need to, and shouldn’t, speak of the “chances” parameters take certain values. We could just speak of causes.

But if we don’t know the cause(s), then probability is appropriate. Since probability is always conditional of the premises assumed, we have to figure which premises are useful in fine-tuning arguments. Which premises are “best”? I don’t know. Which premises are good or useful? Let’s examine one. Is the premises that, for example, c can take any value in the continuum north of 0 a good one? I don’t think so. Here’s why.

The first problem is the end point, which is infinity. Are we right, in our premise, to entertain that light speed can be infinite? What knowledge do we have that makes this assumption plausible? Well, I don’t know of any but that’s far (far) from proof there isn’t, so assume that some exists. All right, so c can be “any” number inclusive between 0 and infinity. Wrap your mind around this. Try. You can’t. Nobody can. It is impossible to think of the continuum in the sense that you can think of all the numbers in it. Since probability is a matter of epistemology, i.e. our thoughts, we can’t then know all the probabilities of all the numbers in the continuum. We are left in a state of mystification. That being so, probability is of no help to us.

This is why assigning probabilities to the continuum when infinity is involved doesn’t work (or work without lots of provisos), and is the reason (cause) of any number of paradoxes that have been discovered.

Here’s another way to think of it. Suppose we knew (somehow) c could be any number in the set {s_1, s_2, …, s_n}, where s_n can even be infinity (don’t argue with me that infinity isn’t a number), but where n itself is finite. Given just that premise, and none other, the probability that c takes value s_i is 1/n. No problem.

Now let n grow, but remain finite. Let n = googol, or let n = a googol tetrated a googol times. You don’t have to understand that except to realize this number is hugeous. It’s big, baby, big. But as big as it is, the probability that c takes value s_i is still 1/n (now a teeny tiny number, but not 0). Let n grow as large as you like, but keep it just this side of infinity, and again, probability is not damaged.

Large n obviously are no practical limitation, at least as far as measuring values of any parameter. If we create instruments that allow us to peer closer at c, then however large our n, the probability is still computable. This is important because we need some kind of measurement to inform us of c.

Without understanding the finer mathematical details, you can see that large numbers are no trouble, but the continuum is. Infinity (at either end) isn’t the real problem, but the uncountable nature of the continuum is. Think: how many numbers are there between 0 and 1? More than a countable infinity. We have another continuum! And if we try and assign probabilities to all the numbers in [0,1], paradoxes arise just as if we had [0, infinity].

That means we have to think of these things in a different way. We can’t in probability start with infinity or the continuum. We have to start with something finite and comprehensible, and then head off to infinity. But it turns out the path you take to the continuum or infinity matters. Infinity is a big place! You can end up in different corners of it depending on the road you use to get to it. This is why we can’t glibly speak of probabilities of parameters taking “any” value. There’s just too many values!

Incidentally, I have a greater discussion of all this in my upcoming book, Uncertainty.

Update Had a good question about measurement from Geert de Vries on Twitter.

Length (a meter) is defined as a function of c. If we take c = some definite value (with 0 uncertainty), then meter will be fixed because the value of c is also fixed by assumption. There is no problem with this because “meter” is arbitrary. We can define any number of things based on assuming a fixed c or any other parameter.

But if we really want to know the actual distance from here to there (and light is involved), then we must take the uncertainty in c into account because meter inherits that uncertainty. Simple as that. Of course, for many applications this uncertainty will be negligible. But negligible does not mean non-zero. It only means that in this decision the true inherent uncertainty does not change any decisions we make based on the distance.

This brings up a whole other discussion of how to decide. But one thing should be clear: decision and uncertainty are not the same thing.

On The Freedom Of Religion And Satanism

Egalitarian justice.

Egalitarian justice.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Satanists to give prayer at city council meeting:

Members of a satanic group are set to give the prayer at an upcoming meeting of the Phoenix City Council…

Satanic Temple members Michelle Shortt and Stu de Haan are expected to give the invocation at the council’s Feb. 17 meeting after the group submitted a request in December. Despite the objections of some council members, the city has decided to let the satanists speak as scheduled.

Phoenix City Attorney Brad Holm released a statement Thursday evening, defending the city’s position. The city typically holds a short invocation at the start of formal council meetings and has included members from a variety of faiths, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Sikhism.

“Consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s direction, the city cannot dictate religious viewpoints or the content of a prayer,” Holm wrote. “In addition, government may not exclude a denomination or a religion from praying under these circumstances.”…

Meanwhile, Mayor Greg Stanton and Councilwoman Kate Gallego said they support letting the satanists speak. Stanton released a statement, saying, “the Constitution demands equal treatment under the law” even though he disagrees with the group’s message.

Gallego also pointed to First Amendment protections, adding, “I just believe we’re a diverse society and if we have prayer, we welcome all points of view.”

The men who approved the words “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”, while they knew, or rather acknowledged, more about the insanity of man than we do, their education being genuine and not as propaganda-laden, they did not anticipate the lunacy we moderns would slip into. Only an insane person would construe the policy of forbidding the central government from establishing an official religion as logically implying that local governments must entertain all religions.

Logically, of course, you can’t get there from here. No valid, sound argument exists connecting the two propositions. I invite the reader to try, but please don’t cite the “law”, which would be circular; it is the law which I am disputing. If you say the government allowing a particular religion a venue is tantamount to endorsing that religion, thus making it at least part of the State’s official religion, then because government must allow all religions a venue, all religions are thus part of the State’s official religion, which is absurd.

Anyway, since that path is blocked, some other explanation must exist why Mayor Greg Stanton and Councilwoman Kate Gallego and others support allowing degenerate Satanists to preside over official ceremonies.

Well, there is no drama, the answer is obvious and given by Gallego herself: “we welcome all points of view.” Half effeminacy, half egalitarianism.

Only a fool “welcomes” all points of view. The charitable interpretation is that Gallego was speaking loosely, where all doesn’t mean all, but only most or many. But, no. Because she said “all” with the understanding that Satanists were coming on over to city hall with a fresh spell to cast, or whatever.

Egalitarianism is, as I’ve often said, corrosive. At the very least it rots the minds of those who entertain it; at the worst, it destroys the society which embraces it. Gallego is no longer able to say, and perhaps even unable to think, that this religion is bad or this religion is worse than that religion. That kind of reasoning is so judgmental.

Not only is it judgmental, it implies there is an objective standard by which religions can be weighed. And if there is an objective standard, then reason demands it must be sought out, understood, and referred to. And if it is to be sought out, understood, and referred to, then it is possible to conclude a particular religion is so debased that it should be proscribed.

And if it is concluded that a particular religion should be proscribed, then it becomes the duty of the government to proscribe it (at government functions; publicly is another matter).

That logical conclusion frightens many because they worry this duty to proscribe will become a weapon. It is a rational fear. But the weapon can only be misused when the objective standard is misunderstood, willfully or accidentally. If accidentally, then there is hope for correction. If willfully, then it doesn’t matter if we allow proscription or instead seek egalitarianism, because we are then dealing with liars seeking power, and in both cases we meet a bad end.

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