Summary Against Modern Thought: Arguments Against The World Being Eternal

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 had several arguments for eternity which were disproved. This week the arguments are switched around: the A- and B-source are complete in one chapter (which I label separately). The last paragraph “A, B End” is also Aquinas’s. Notice that Thomas is not arguing in every case for definitive proof, but only for understanding. Next week we finally get to ‘chance’!

Chapter 37 Arguments by which some endeavour to prove that the world is not eternal (alternate translation)

A1 Now there are some arguments brought forward by certain people to prove that the world was not always: they are taken from the following.

A2 For it has been proved that God is the cause of all things. But a cause must precede in duration the things made by its action.

A3 Again. Since all being is created by God, it cannot said to be made from some being, so that it must be made from nothing, and consequently has being after non-being.

Notes And consequently had a start, i.e. is not eternal (assuming the premises!). See also this week’s podcast to illuminate the next argument.

A4 Also, because it is not possible to pass by an infinite number of things. Now if the world were always, an infinite number of things would have now been passed by: since what is past, is passed by, and if the world was always, there is an infinite number of days or an infinite number of solar revolutions.

A5 Further. It follows that an addition is made to the infinite, since every day something is added to the past days or revolutions.

A6 Moreover. It follows that it is possible to go on to infinity in efficient causes, if there was always generation; and we are bound to admit this latter if the world was always: because the son’s cause is his father, and another man is the latter’s father, and so on indefinitely.

A7 Again. It will follow that there is an infinite number of things: namely the immortal souls of an infinite number of men.

Notes Now begin the counter-arguments, which, I re-emphasize, are not meant to be conclusive.

B1 Now since these arguments do not conclude of absolute necessity, although they are not devoid of probability, it is enough merely to touch upon them, lest the Catholic faith seem to be founded on empty reasonings, and not, as it is, on the most solid teaching of God. Wherefore it seems right that we should indicate how those arguments are met by those who asserted the eternity of the world.

B2 For the first statement that an agent necessarily precedes the effect brought about by its operation, is true of those things which act by movement, because the effect is not until the movement is ended, and the agent must necessarily exist even when the movement begins. On the other hand in those things which act instantaneously, this is not necessary: thus as soon as the sun reaches the point of the East, it enlightens our hemisphere.

Notes Yes, the second example fails because light is not instantaneous, though it then seemed to be. But this example isn’t necessary. A better modern example is the creation of a particle out of the vacuum, which appears instantaneous. (But which might not be, since this would appear to require infinite energy, something only possessed by God.) Can you think of other things, such as quantum tunneling?

B3 Also, that which is said in the second place is of no avail. For in order to contradict the statement, Something is made from something, if this be not granted, we must say Something is not made from something, and not, Something is made from nothing, except in the sense of the former: whence we cannot conclude that it is made after not being.

Notes But we sure can suppose it in the sense of the question Why is there something rather than nothing?

B4 Again, the third argument is not cogent. For though the infinite in act be impossible, it is not impossible in succession, since any given infinite taken in this sense is finite. Hence each of the preceding revolutions could be passed by, since it was finite. But in all of them together, if the world had been always, there would be no first revolution. Wherefore there would be no passing through them, because this always requires two extremes.

Notes Contrary to this metaphysical statement is the observational evidence we have of change starting from a point (Big Bang); plus other inferences involving thermodyanmics, etc.

B5 Again, the fourth argument put forward is weak. For nothing hinders the infinite receiving an addition on the side on which it is finite. Now supposing time to be eternal, it follows that it is infinite anteriorly but finite posteriorly, since the present is the term of the past.

B6 Nor is the argument cogent which is given in the fifth place. For it is impossible, according to philosophers, to have an infinite number of active causes which act together simultaneously: because the effect would have to depend on an infinite number of simultaneous actions. Such are causes that are per se infinite, because their infinity is required for their effect. On the other hand in causes that do not act simultaneously, this is not impossible, according to those who assert that generation has always been. And this infinity is accidental to the causes, for it is accidental to the father of Socrates that he is another man’s son or not. Whereas it is not accidental to the stick forasmuch as it moves the stone, that it be moved by the hand, since it moves forasmuch as it is moved.

Notes Indeed—Chapter 13!—is was the impossibility of an infinite chain of per se causes that provided the key step in the proof of God’s existence.

B7.1 The objection taken from souls is more difficult. And yet the argument is not of much use, since it takes many things for granted. For some of those who maintained the eternity of the world, asserted that human souls do not survive the body. Some said that of all souls there survives only the separate intellect, or the active intellect according to some, or even the passive intellect according to others. Some have held a kind of rotation in souls, saying that the same souls after several centuries return to bodies. And some do not consider it incongruous that there should be things actually infinite in those which have no order.

Notes We’ll do souls later; Thomas says it survives at our deaths.

B7.2 Nevertheless one may proceed to prove this more efficiently from the end of the divine will, as we have indicated above. For the end of God’s will in the production of things, is His goodness as manifested in His effects. Now God’s might and goodness are especially made manifest in that things other than Himself were not always. For the fact that they have not always been clearly shows that other things beside Himself have their being from Him. It also shows that He does not act by a necessity of His nature, and that His power is infinite in acting. Therefore it was most becoming to the goodness of God, that He should give His creatures a beginning of their duration.

A,B End From what has been said we are able to avoid the various errors of the pagan philosophers. Some of whom asserted the eternity of the world; others asserted that the matter of the world is eternal, out of which at a certain time the world began to be formed; either by chance; or by some intellect; or else by attraction and repulsion. For all these suppose something eternal beside God: which is incompatible with the Catholic faith.

Notes And again, we do “chance” next week. Exciting stuff!


  1. You do not create single particles but pairs, which will annihilate each other. The net effect is that somethings has been there for a short while and then is gone again..

    Quantum tunneling is about a thing being in a place before a barrier, and then being on the other side of the barrier. It would take more energy than it has to pass the barrier in a classical way, but with quantum it can be done by some things, and not by others, even though they are of the same kind. To me, that sounds as good as it gets regarding the existance of uncaused events.

  2. There is not necessarily a need of a creation ‘event’ to create a universe, God also created the natural numbers, which are also eternal. A birth is not a creation, and the big bang – which Aquinas was unaware of – is not necesarily the beginning of the universe, there also exists the concept of the eternally oscillating universe.

  3. Particles may only appear to appear out of nothing:

    Professor John Lennox argues not with modern physics, of course it would be risky for any intellectual who wants to be taken seriously to argue with the consensus. That you cannot get something from nothing is not a problem, it is said. This we have from the expert on the subject. That ‘nothing’ isn’t what most people and what philosophy would call ‘nothing’.

    Particles ‘produced’ or appearing to be produced are doing so from what already exists. i.e from a quantum vacuum from which they are derived.
    They are not popping in and out of ‘existence’. Their ‘existence’ was already
    there in a different form.

    Physics think’s it’s copied the actions of God, the creator and I call this more hubris. Atheists don’t need to justify it.

    There are no authorities on the soul.
    It is impossible to prove God’s existence.
    There can be discussion and individual determination, faith or otherwise given the evidence.

    Nobody’s arm should be up their back or pier pressure brought to bare. That would be politics.

  4. the big bang – which Aquinas was unaware of – is not necesarily the beginning of the universe

    Indeed, this was the caution put forth by Fr. Lemaitre himself, the originator of the ‘big bang’ interpretation of the field equations.

    When a book is placed upon a table, the book pushes against the table; but by Newton’s 3, the table also pushes against the book. The reaction is simultaneous to the action.

  5. As usual, Ole Tom’s arguments can be condensed into what is, and always was, intuitively known by any sane person with powers of observation.

    Anything that “moves” (or changes qualitatively or quantitatively) or is “moveable” (changeable) cannot be eternal because any movement or change requires an agent to cause (to effect) the change and any change or changeability means that the “thing” is not qualitatively or quantitatively what it was or will be.

    Unless we assume the absurd notion that a thing that does not exist can cause itself to exist every cause must be greater than its effect. Even if we imagine an imaginary infinite regression of cause/effects, when you “reach minus infinity” you would have an infinite cause anyway. Of course, an infinite cause would not be bothered with an imaginary infinite progression to “arrive” at anything.

    Contemporary “science” magicians trying to flog the absurd notion that nothing spontaneously turns itself into everything for no reason or purpose, love to imperiously assert that “particles” spontaneously “popping” into and out of existence is evidential. That “particles” MAY appear to, and disappear from, detectors does not mean that they “pop” in and out of existence. Even the humble electron is never in an identifiable “where” or “place”.

    This can get too conceptually simple for “smarter-than-God” devotees to contemplate.

    Anyhow, all the evidence and logic proclaims that the World cannot be eternal. Even though Tom missed a few points when he said that he couldn’t “prove” that the World wasn’t eternal, he got it right in the long run. The mere existence of a temporal requires the “pre-existence” of the eternal.

  6. When a book is placed upon a table, the book pushes against the table; but by Newton’s 3, the table also pushes against the book. The reaction is simultaneous to the action.
    The table is not pushing against the book, both are pushing down towards the earth. If the book weighed a tonne and the table was cardboard the gravity on the cardboard table which allowed it to stay up would be overcome by the effects of gravity on the heavy book.
    The table is never pushing back. They are in a joint venture in the same direction.

  7. The table is never pushing back. They are in a joint venture in the same direction.

    If the net force is not zero then there will be motion. A book resting on a table doesn’t move. It is pushing (being pulled really) against the table but the table must be pushing back with equal force or the book will be in motion.

  8. The table is not pushing against the book

    Sure it is. Freshman physics. Newton’s Third Law.

  9. Dav, YOS, I stand corrected despite my continued arguing.
    It doesn’t need saying that what I know about physics could be written on a postage stamp. So when I say what I say the sentences could be constructed as questions; but!
    If the table is empty it doesn’t collapse into the earth because it is in equilibrium. It’s not pushing anything except the earth. The weight of it’s top isn’t great enough to splay the legs, forcing it to move.
    Add the book and it still has equilibrium. Book and table both pushing down!
    The table doesn’t start pushing back just because a book is placed on it.
    Are you saying that the table top is also being pushed by the legs as well?
    I suppose so. It’s offering resistance which equals the weight of the book?

    However, on the matter of particles popping in and out of existence Something else is happening. I am fully aware of how dumb that sounds.

  10. Joy,

    Well who really knows what is occurring between the table and the book? But the model in physics is that both are pushing against each other. This leads to better predictions. It’s the predictions that count. Anything else is functionally irrelevant.

    People worry to much about what “really” happens. This Sunday series is an example. It too is functionally irrelevant. There is no way to verify its connection to “reality” (whatever that is) and there never will be. All of these ramblings never give a clue as to how one would do this verification.

    Like mathematics, it’s a universe unto itself. Math might be useful when modelling “reality” (meaning its use provides a way to make predictions) but its connection to “reality” is incidental. This is sometimes (and, unfortunately, too often) forgotten.

    The same could be said about Quantum Physics and String Theory. Hopefully though they can produce testable predictions with at least enough differences to determine which of the two is the more useful fiction of “reality”. The tunneling mentioned above is an example. Helps to make predictions about the tunnel diode and perhaps elsewhere.

    Just like with all the flavors of religion, there are fervent (and at times quite vocal) adherents. People seem to have a need for these beliefs and most anything will do. Like what is the best movie, car, computer, etc. Their version of reality is what counts and many will attempt to convert you to their view. A social thing.

  11. It’s the predictions that count. Anything else is functionally irrelevant.

    Oy! An instrumentalist in this day and age!

    People worry to much about what “really” happens.

    Ja. The Tychonic model made all the same predictions as the Copernican model. Better in some cases. Who cares what “really” happens.

  12. The Tychonic model made all the same predictions as the Copernican model. Better in some cases.

    The point is they both made predictions. So their usefulness can be evaluated. What predictions arise from the ramblings of Aquinas? Without predictions, all the musings about reality amount to nothing more than entertainment.

  13. @DAV:

    “What predictions arise from the ramblings of Aquinas? Without predictions, all the musings about reality amount to nothing more than entertainment.”

    Now, now, let’s be fair. If “Without predictions” then it all amounts to nothing more than “entertainment”, then alongside “the ramblings of Aquinas” one has to list: history, mathematics, literary criticism and all wisdom literature, your extremely dull inane ramblings, atheism, naturalism, etc. and etc. (the list can be continued indefinitely).

  14. The point is they both made predictions. So their usefulness can be evaluated.

    Your contention was that it did not matter which was more true to physical reality.

    What predictions arise from the ramblings of Aquinas?

    Predictions about what? It is the nature of natural science to make predictions about measurable and controllable matter. Mathematics, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, history, literature, and all the rest are playing different sports. We do not need a second natural science. See Jaki’s “The Limits of a Limitless Science” for details.

    Without predictions, all the musings about reality amount to nothing more than entertainment.

    Recte: “…all the musings about measurable and controllable reality…”

  15. then alongside “the ramblings of Aquinas” one has to list: history, mathematics, literary criticism

    History is supposed to be about what HAPPENED. A recording. One should not be predicting the past. And its all people and what they have done; nothing else. This is a useful endeavor. Presumably, the claims of history can be verified.

    Literary criticism is entertainment. If fact, it’s entertainment centered about entertainment.What other purpose does it have?

    Mathematics, too. It isn’t at all about “reality”. It’s a world in itself. That others have found it useful at times to make predictions doesn’t mean mathematics itself is inherently useful and it doesn’t try to be.

    None of those make claims about reality (well, maybe history) — particularly claims which can’t be verified.

    If it makes you feel better, there is entertainment is not without value.

    Interestingly you brought up atheism and naturalism. These too are pointless and unverifiable musings.

    Recte: “…all the musings about measurable and controllable reality…”

    Recte? Wrong! ALL musings are just that: MUSINGS. If the musings can’t be verified then they can have no effect (outside of the effect the thoughts of others have an effect on oneself) and thus are meaningless. Leads to the question: “so what?”. This is particularly true when one dives into metaphysics. You might as well be talking about what it’s like to be a Klingon. Interesting perhaps but still entertainment.

    Strangely, the claim that AGW is false arises from the mistake of being predictable. Outside of that, it isn’t much different than other claims about reality. Aquinas cleverly avoided this trap.

  16. Your contention was that it did not matter which was more true to physical reality.

    In the long run, it doesn’t. It’s what gives a better prediction or perhaps just easier computation within some acceptable error. With satellites it is often easier to assume the Earth is the center of the Universe and the sky is a globe with objects on its surface — onboard anyway. Makes pointing calculation easier. Computing the ephemerides to send to the spacecraft may involve other viewpoints. It all depends on ease of computation and acceptable error.

  17. or perhaps just easier computation within some acceptable error.

    Eek! Platonic woo-woo raises its pointy little head!

  18. Eek! Platonic woo-woo raises its pointy little head!

    So you have no counterargument? That’s your best response?

  19. @Joy

    “The table is never pushing back. They are in a joint venture in the same direction.”

    Sure it is, given that the table is a condensed object with a surface. The atoms on the surface have an electron cloud that projects outward. When you place another condensed object on it, the ‘bottom’ surface has an electron cloud that also project outward. The two clouds electrostatically repel each other. Throughout the whole objects, the ‘forces’ project as vectors, summing and differencing to a net force. The net force is zero when both the book and the table are at rest, so the net downward acceleration from gravity gets countered by an equal and opposite electrostatic repulsion.

  20. only thing saving them from incoherence and self-contradiction is a manly unwillingness to follow the train of thought to its end.

    LOL! Please elaborate on how what I’ve said (and not some straw man) is self-contradictory. Be specific. I submit you are flailing about and just making more useless (baseless, even) claims.

  21. @DAV:

    You forgot your own ramblings, which fail any usefulness test there could be. But since you are only interested in whether they are useful (useful for what? for who?), not whether they are true, there is no point in even refuting them.

  22. G. Rodrigues,

    Lets see. You start with some assumptions and maybe some observations then reach a conclusion. The assumptions must be unproven else they wouldn’t be assumptions. So, pray tell, how would you determine (or at least build confidence) that your conclusion has not strayed from “reality” when you can’t show your assumptions true statements? IOW, Garbage In, Garbage Out.

    One way (and the only as far as I know) is to verify the conclusions match “reality” through further observations. When you can’t do this — and that seems to be the claim for all things metaphysical — then how can you claim certainty? All that you’ve done is claimed the conclusions are reality GIVEN your assumptions.

    In what way is demanding independent verification of these claims self-contradictory?

    As for the rest of my, er, ramblings, they are essentially paraphrasing Occam. Is Occam self-contradictory, too?

  23. Dav,
    I appreciate the honesty of your reply regarding the table and the book.

    The problem comes when that which can’t be measured is approached in the same way.
    Each academic discipline approaches truth seeking differently.

    There can be more than one description of a thing. Like how or why the kettle is boiling.

    As you say, some think a lot abut why. Or concern themselves about ultimate reality. I am one of those although worry isn’t the right word. It can be fun or painful to hear what others think.

    I once asked an electronics engineer to explain electricity to me once and for all. Like tax when someone starts on abut amps and volts I glaze over, it’s so dull. It transpires that the reason it’s boring is because nobody actually knows what it IS. Everybody is measuring it, describing how it behaves, and all accept the limitations of the description except the ignorant (like me) who mistakenly thought they’d got it all sussed. They’ve got enough of it sussed to be able to use it and build from it. That’s good enough. What it “is” is quite another thing. That is why it is hard to grasp. They should teach young children this because it’s a real distraction to listening and learning. “You are never going to be satisfied with the explanation.”

    I’m waiting for the time machine though. It’s not going to happen. Someone on TV rubbish had a wormhole in their basement in America and that was how the ghosts were getting in! (I’d go Georgian,)

    Lawrence Kraus saying there is no such thing as “why?” Is the craziest thing I’ve heard from a scientist.

  24. cdquarles,
    That is helpful and it makes perfect sense. but!

    I’m just objecting to the word ‘push’ perhaps.
    It’s the concept that there’s a moment in time when the table’s not pushing and then it is. I can’t imagine it. It seems to give the table life, as if something switches on.
    It’s quite a moment when you actually think about it.

  25. @DAV:

    “As for the rest of my, er, ramblings, they are essentially paraphrasing Occam.”

    (1) Not ramblings, but inane and dull ramblings (2) no, you are not paraphrasing Occam, that is just one of the many many things where you are laughably wrong. But to repeat myself, since you do not care about the truth as you candidly admit in June 7, 2016 at 2:29 PM there is nothing to discuss.

  26. Such a pleasant fellow you are. I’m glad my dull ramblings were still interesting enough that you continued to read and comment on them. You need to work on that reading problem of yours, though.

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