It’s God All The Way Down
Talk about causality without foreshadowing a tie to God is coming and, if they can maintain an interest in the subject, people are receptive and willing to debate the argument on its merits. But hint that God is at the bottom of it all, as He will be here, and scholarly repose morphs into a sharp and anxious wariness. People tear into the argument with the zeal of Bill Clinton lecturing us about is. This is fine if the criticisms which arise from the increased scrutiny are valid, but usually they are not. In their suspicion that no good can come from tying causality to God, people are apt to convince themselves of objections which have long been refuted.
So I repeat the warning which I gave as we commenced this review: unless you are a specialist, it is unlikely the counter-arguments which occur to you are valid; further, it is highly probable that they are common and have well known rebuttals. This warning is not proof that the argument to come is valid, of course. It is instead a reminder that space is limited; I can only present a sketch while Feser offers chapters (in TLS and Aquinas). Dip into these volumes if you are convinced of a fallacy.
History, as it has been said, is one damn thing after another. Events which are one damn thing after another often form part of a causal series. Moe slaps Larry which causes him to slap Curly which induces him to slap Moe, etc. (start at 30 seconds). My great grandfather William produced a son William, my grandfather, who in turn produced my father William, who had a hand in me (William), and then I had a go with my number one son, William. This is where this time series stands at the moment.
Both of these are examples of causal series per accidens, first one thing, then another, etc. The object to notice is that my great grandfather, after he had done the work which resulted in my grandfather, no longer had to be present when my grandfather helped produce my father, and so on. And my grandfather need not have been alive when my father made me, etc. And this is so for all series per accidens: whatever set the chain in motion need not be present for the continuance of the chain.
This is not the only kind of causal series. There is another called per se, or essentially ordered causal series. This is the juicy kind, which when understood proves that God exists, and so forms Aquinas’s First Way.
Suppose you are incensed that the owners of Chick-fil-A have political opinions which dare to differ from your own. And so you buy up a bagful of chicken sandwiches and head over to the Family Research Council offices with gun in hand with the intent of teaching Chick-fil-A a lesson. You take out the gun and pull the trigger. Out flies the bullet, wending its way toward and eventually lodging itself into the arm of a security guard. So far we have a series ordered per accidens: you fire, the guard is eventually hit.
But consider the moment you squeeze the trigger. The movements of the hammer and of your finger happen simultaneously. The pressure of your finger is in turn simultaneous with the nerve impulses sending the squeeze signal to your muscles. The contraction of the muscles is simultaneous with the individual molecules in the muscles changing from one state to another, which in turn in simultaneous with the changing of the atoms in the molecules, which in turn is simultaneous with the changing of the forces operating to change the various sub-atomic particles, which in turn in simultaneous with whatever it is that operates on those forces which cause the change, and so on. But not “and so on” forever. This simultaneous, here-and-now series must come to an end: it cannot extend infinitely, otherwise nothing would ever get moving.
Now recall our earlier lesson: nothing that is a potential can be a cause, only something actual can be a cause. As Feser says in the article quoted below, “No mere potency can actualize a potency: only something actual can do so.” All those changes in the trigger-per se series are changes into potentials caused by something actual below them, and this series has to end in a first mover.
Now, a first mover in such a series must itself be unmoved or unchanging; for if it was moving or changing—that is, going from potential to actual—then there would have to be something outside it actualizing its potential, in which case it wouldn’t be the first mover. Not only must be be unmoved, though, it must be unmovable. For notice that, especially toward the “lower” levels of the series we were considering—the nervous system’s being actualized by its molecular structure, which is in turn actualized by its atomic structure, etc.—what we have is the potential existence of one level actualized by the existence of another, which is in turn actualized by another, and so forth…[T]he only way to stop this regress and arrive at a first member of the series is with a being whose existence does not need to be actualized by anything else. The series can only stop…with a being that is pure actuality. [Feser uses the example of a hand holding a stick moving a stone.]
And that being is, as Aquinas said, what we call God. Now I know that this example is too telegraphic to be convincing, or lastingly convincing. But let’s be clear what this argument is not saying. There isn’t one word here about the origins of the universe. For Aquinas, the universe could have begun at a single point in time, or existed forever, or even existed as a multiverse. Consequently, any physical discovery about branes or M-theory or cycles in big bangs, or whatever, have no bearing. This is not an argument about what caused things to be, or what set things moving as in a series per accidens, but about what causes any change whatsoever here and now.
To emphasize: the Unmoved Mover is an argument about what happens now, right now, this second, this very instant, about what is the first cause of every change. Anything that becomes actual is subject to a per se causal series, which must always terminate in a first cause, which is Pure Actuality. Feser continues:
[There cannot be] more than one being who is Pure Actuality [because] in order for there to be two (or more) purely actual beings, there would have to be some way of distinguishing them, some feature that one of them had that the other lacked…For to lack a feature is just to have an unrealized potentiality, and a purely actual being, by definition, as no unrealized potentialities…
A being of Pure Actuality, lacking any potentiality whatsoever, would also have to be immaterial, since to be a material thing entails being changeable…The Unmoved Mover is in any event that to which every motion or change in the material universe…traces back.
Besides monotheism, other traits of God can thusly also be deduced: like Omnipotence, Omniscience, Goodness, and so forth. Feser lays these out well, but in his discussion “privation,” which explains how God who has every perfection, relates to causing the absence of perfection, he stops short. It would surely be a privation to you if you were have your arm bitten off by a shark, but it would be a privation to the shark to miss his lunch. So there appears to be an order or hierarchy of privations (or perhaps this is only apparent due to my poor reading).
He also says little on the implications of the Unmoved Mover to us as rational creatures. Intrigued readers will be left with questions. Since God causes everything, at base, that seems to imply that God is with you as you err, even helping you pull the trigger, as it were. Is this God doing evil? Well, it was your will to do evil, not His. But since you’re dragging Him along in the per se trigger series, no wonder He’s not so happy about sin. Good grief! Can any of that be right?
True, Feser was not attempting to give us a complete theological treatise, but since his purpose was to show the errors of New Atheism, he might have expected to cause a few conversions, that some of his audience would want to know What’s Next?, where to go to resolve the tougher questions. Perhaps then in his second edition, he can provide a reading guide. It’s unlikely many will jump right to the Summa Theologica or Summa Contra Gentiles. A list of intermediate works would thus be of extreme utility.
Feser gives us two more of Aquinas’s Five Ways (in Aquinas, which he highly recommends, we get the whole package), each as compelling, but we’ll skip these and move on to his discussion of the soul.
Here is a quotation from Feser’s article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” published in American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. This version of the proof won’t be to everybody’s taste; but as somebody trained in mathematics and physics, I find its shape familiar and the chain of reasoning particularly compelling. Perhaps you will as well.
- That the actualization of potency is a real feature of the world follows from the occurrence of the events we know via sensory experience.
- The occurrence of any event E presupposes the operation of a substance.
- The existence of any natural substance S at any given moment presupposes the concurrent actualization of a potency.
- No mere potency can actualize a potency: only something actual can do so.
- So any actualizer A of S‘s current existence must itself be actual.
- A‘s own existence at the moment it actualizes S itself presupposes either (a) the concurrent acutalization of a further potency or (b) A‘s being purely actual.
- If A‘s existence at the moment it actualizes S presupposes the concurrent actualization of a further potency, then there exists a regress of concurrent actualizers that is either infinite or terminates in a purely actual actualizer.
- But such a regress of concurrent actualizers would constitute a causal series ordered per se, and such a series cannot regress infinitely.
- So either A itself is purely actual or there is a purely actual actualizer which terminates the regress of concurrent actualizers.
- So the occurrence of E and thus the existence of S at any given moment presupposes the existence of a purely actual actualizer.