William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Summary Against Modern Thought: Matter Doesn’t Always Matter

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.

Just a small point today, though there’s real meat in paragraph 5.

Chapter 40 That matter is not the first cause of the distinction of things (alternate translation)

1 FURTHERMORE, it is evident from the foregoing that the distinction of things is not on account of a diversity of matter as its first cause. For nothing determinate can proceed from matter except by chance: because matter is in potentiality to many things, of which if only one were to result, it must needs be that this happens in the minority of cases, and such is that which happens by chance, especially if we remove the intention of an agent. Now it was proved that the distinction of things is not from chance. It follows therefore that it is not on account of a diversity of matter, as its first cause.

Notes Remember, chance here does not mean a real thing, but in the sense of a unknown (or unintended) cause or causes.

2 Again. Those things which result from the intention of an agent, are not on account of matter as their first cause. For an active cause precedes matter in acting: because matter does not become an actual cause except in so far as it is moved by an agent. Wherefore if an effect is consequent upon a disposition of matter and the intention of an agent, it does not result from matter as its first cause. For this reason we find that those things which are referable to matter as their first cause, are beside the intention of the agent; for instance monsters and other mischances of nature.

But the form results from the intention of the agent. This is proved thus. The agent produces its like according to its form, and if sometimes this fails, it is from chance on account of a defect in the matter. Therefore forms do not result from a disposition of matter as their first cause; on the contrary, matters are disposed in such a way that such may be their forms. Now the specific distinction of things is according to their forms. Therefore the distinction of things is not on account of the diversity of matter as its first cause.

Notes Monsters! If you’re creating a sculpture and the stone has a flaw which cracks the work at an intended point, this is a defect in matter. Dysgenic mutations, too.

3 Moreover. The distinction of things cannot result from matter except in those which are made from pre-existing matter. Now many things are distinguished from one another which cannot be made from pre-existing matter: for instance, the celestial bodies, which have no contrary, as their movement shows. Therefore the diversity of matter cannot be the first cause of the distinction of things.

Notes Well, the science is not quite right here, but the argument isn’t dependent on stars. Think instead “virtual” particles popping into existence in the vacuum.

4 Again. Whatever things having a cause of their being are distinct from one another, have a cause of their distinction: because a thing is made a being according as it is made one, undivided in itself and distinct from others. Now if matter, by its diversity, is the cause of the distinction of things, we must suppose that matters are in themselves distinct. Moreover it is evident that every matter has being from something else, since it was proved above that everything, that is in any way whatsoever, is from God. Therefore something else is the cause of distinction in matters: and consequently the first cause of the distinction of things cannot be a diversity of matter.

Notes If molecules are made of atoms, and atoms quarks, and quarks strings, and strings whatever, then eventually we must bottom out at a first cause of being. That cause cannot be nothing.

5 Again. Since every intellect acts for the sake of good, it does not produce a better thing for the sake of an inferior thing: and it is the same with nature. Now all things proceed from God Who acts by His intellect, as stated above. Therefore inferior things proceed from God for the sake of better things, and not vice versa.

But form is more noble than matter, since it is its perfection and act. Therefore He does not produce such and such forms for the sake of such and such matters, but rather He produced such and such matters that there might be such and such forms. Therefore the specific distinction in things, which is according to their form, is not on account of their matter: but on the contrary matters were created diverse, that they might be suitable for diverse forms.

Notes What a remarkable argument! The distinction must be in logical priority. If matter is required for forms to exist, then since prime matter has no form, both must be created simultaneously, though matter must be logically prior to form.

6 Hereby is excluded the opinion of Anaxagoras, who postulated an infinite number of material principles, which at first were mixed together in one confused mass, but which an intellect subsequently separated, thus establishing a distinction among things: as well as the opinions of any who held the distinction of things to be the result of various material principles.


  1. Sander van der Wal

    June 19, 2016 at 9:25 am

    All the sub-atomic particles have a form, because that form apparently makes them the kind of particle they are. In that view there is no such thing as prime matter. there are a number of different interacting particles that can turn into each other, or like an photon being absorbed and its energy being used to push an electron in a different state.

    I.e. prime matter and the form of the elementary particles are so tightly coupled that you cannot tell them apart. Not even logically.

  2. Ye Olde Statistician

    June 19, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    All the sub-atomic particles have a form, because that form apparently makes them the kind of particle they are. In that view there is no such thing as prime matter.

    Heisenberg suggested that the prime matter was “mass-energy” simpliciter. “[T]he atoms or elementary particles themselves,” he wrote, “are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”

    But that which is pure potency cannot actually exist. To actually exist requires the thing to be in act, that is, to have form. Hence, in the experienced world, every thing is some thing.

  3. Do not the differences in potential strictly limit the magnitude of some act/action? Cannot both be measurable, thus physical?

  4. “All the sub-atomic particles have a form, because that form apparently makes them the kind of particle they are. In that view there is no such thing as prime matter. ”

    The second sentence does not follow from the first, or from any view of “sub-atomic particles” there is or could be. The reason Aristotle and his scholastic progenie posit prime matter (and posit here is apt, because prime matter is not something that could ever be hit upon or sensed or perceived or interacted with) has to do with explaining substantial change.

  5. I must confess that I have some difficulty in coalescing matter, form, essence, substance from this little Thomistic dissertation.

    Perhaps accidents and essences require a bit more descriptive definition than Ole Tom provided. But I doubt that. More likely, I think, that present popularised notions of “isness” and “isn’tness” are defective.

    Anyhow, since Creation is consistently ordered its mechanisms are inherently knowable even if perception is mired by a fog.

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