William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Category: SAMT (page 30 of 33)

A tour through Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles.

Summary Against Modern Thought: God Is Not Made Of 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.

A relatively simple argument today. God is not made of stuff. Who would disagree? Pagans, perhaps. For example, the god of the atheists is a demiurge, a sort of superior created or “evolved” being, and therefore made of matter. But not God. What’s nifty about today’s discussion is the role of “chance”. For that, we turn back (again) to Aristotle.

Chapter 17: That in God there is no matter

1 FROM this it follows that God is not matter.i

2 For matter, such as it is, is in potentiality.ii

3 Again. Matter is not a principle of activity: wherefore, as the Philosopher puts it,[1] efficient and material causes do not coincide. Now, as stated above,[2] it belongs to God to be the first efficient cause of things. Therefore He is not matter.iii

4 Moreover. For those who referred all things to matter as their first cause, it followed that natural things exist by chance: and against these it is argued in 2 Phys.[3] Therefore if God, Who is the first cause, is the material cause of things, it follows that all things exist by chance.iv

5 Further. Matter does not become the cause of an actual thing, except by being altered and changed. Therefore if God is immovable, as proved above,[4] He can nowise be a cause of things as their matter.v

6 The Catholic faith professes this truth, asserting that God created all things not out of His substance, but out of nothing.vi

7 The ravings of David of Dinant are hereby confounded,vii who dared to assert that God is the same as primary matter, because if they were not the same, they would needs differ by certain differences, and thus they would not be simple: since in that which differs from another thing by a difference, the very difference argues composition.

Now this proceeded from his ignorance of the distinction between difference and diversity. For as laid down in 10 Metaph.[5] a thing is said to be different in relation to something, because whatever is different, differs by something, whereas things are said to be diverse absolutely from the fact that they are not the same thing.[6]

Accordingly we must seek for a difference in things which have something in common, for we have to point to something in them whereby they differ: thus two species have a common genus, wherefore they must needs be distinguished by differences. But in those things which have nothing in common, we have not to seek in what they differ, for they are diverse by themselves. For thus are opposite differences distinguished from one another, because they do not participate in a genus as a part of their essence: and consequently we must not ask in what they differ, for they are diversified by their very selves. Thus too, God and primary matter are distinguished, since, the one being pure act and the other pure potentiality, they have nothing in common.


iFrom last time, of course.

iiMatter can change, thus it is in potentiality, and we have seen from last time that God is not in potentiality.

iiiThis doesn’t appear controversial, but we have scarcely outlined the nature of cause. There are four kinds of cause: the formal (the form of the thing), material (what the thing is made of), efficient (what brings about the change), and final (the end or direction of the change). The material of the statue, say, is not its efficient cause. Much more on this later.

ivWe are now at Yours Truly’s favorite material. Aristotle (from 2 Phys iv):

Some people even question whether [chance and spontaneity] are real or not. They say that nothing happens by chance, but that everything which we ascribe to chance or spontaneity has some definite cause, e.g. coming ‘by chance’ into the market and finding there a man whom one wanted but did not expect to meet is due to one’s wish to go and buy in the market.

Similarly in other cases of chance it is always possible, they maintain, to find something which is the cause; but not chance, for if chance were real, it would seem strange indeed, and the question might be raised, why on earth none of the wise men of old in speaking of the causes of generation and decay took account of chance; whence it would seem that they too did not believe that anything is by chance…

There are some too who ascribe this heavenly sphere and all the worlds to spontaneity. They say that the vortex arose spontaneously, i.e. the motion that separated and arranged in its present order all that exists. This statement might well cause surprise.

For they are asserting that chance is not responsible for the existence or generation of animals and plants, nature or mind or something of the kind being the cause of them (for it is not any chance thing that comes from a given seed but an olive from one kind and a man from another); and yet at the same time they assert that the heavenly sphere and the divinest of visible things arose spontaneously, having no such cause as is assigned to animals and plants.

Yet if this is so, it is a fact which deserves to be dwelt upon, and something might well have been said about it. For besides the other absurdities of the statement, it is the more absurd that people should make it when they see nothing coming to be spontaneously in the heavens, but much happening by chance among the things which as they say are not due to chance; whereas we should have expected exactly the opposite.

Others there are who, indeed, believe that chance is a cause, but that it is inscrutable to human intelligence, as being a divine thing and full of mystery.

Aristotle says things which are for the sake of something can be caused by chance, and he gives this example (2 Phys v):

A man is engaged in collecting subscriptions for a feast. He would have gone to such and such a place for the purpose of getting the money, if he had known. [But he] actually went there for another purpose and it was only incidentally that he got his money by going there; and this was not due to the fact that he went there as a rule or necessarily, nor is the end effected (getting the money) a cause present in himself — it belongs to the class of things that are intentional and the result of intelligent deliberation. It is when these conditions are satisfied that the man is said to have gone ‘by chance’. If he had gone of deliberate purpose and for the sake of this — if he always or normally went there when he was collecting payments — he would not be said to have gone ‘by chance’.

Notice that chance here is not an ontological (material) thing or force, but a description or a statement of our understanding (of a cause). Aristotle concludes, “It is clear then that chance is an incidental cause in the sphere of those actions for the sake of something which involve purpose. Intelligent reflection, then, and chance are in the same sphere, for purpose implies intelligent reflection.”

And “Things do, in a way, occur by chance, for they occur incidentally and chance is an incidental cause. But strictly it is not the cause — without qualification — of anything; for instance, a housebuilder is the cause of a house; incidentally, a fluteplayer may be so.”

Chance used this way is like the way we use coincidence. But there is also spontaneity, which is similar: “The stone that struck the man did not fall for the purpose of striking him; therefore it fell spontaneously, because it might have fallen by the action of an agent and for the purpose of striking.”

Lastly, “Now since nothing which is incidental is prior to what is per se, it is clear that no incidental cause can be prior to a cause per se. Spontaneity and chance, therefore, are posterior to intelligence and nature. Hence, however true it may be that the heavens are due to spontaneity, it will still be true that intelligence and nature will be prior causes of this All and of many things in it besides.”

vIn short, since God is not movable, he can’t be made of matter, which is always movable.

viSuch a misunderstood word, nothing! It means just what it says. No thing. No fields, no forces, no fields, no equations, no quantum thises or thats, the absence of all entities. Now just you imagine what kind of Being could create something about of this real nothing. Only one: Being itself, I Am That I Am; which is to say, God.

viiZing! More proof that even saints can be contemptuous when the need arises. Notice very carefully that St Thomas does not ask for dialogue with David of Dinant, but is satisfied to destroy his argument.

Next installment.

[1] 2 Phys. vii. 3.
[2] Ch. xiii.
[3] Chs. viii., ix.
[4] Ch. xiii.
[5] D. 9, iii. 6.
[6] Sum. Th. P. I., Q. iii., A. 8, ad 3.

Summary Against Modern Thought: God Has No Passive Potentiality

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 started with a in-depth proofs that there must exist, for anything to change, an Unchanging Changer, an Unmoved Mover. We call this “entity” God. Why? To merely label this Primary Force (to speak physically) “God” felt like cheating. Why does a physical force have to be called God? Isn’t that topping it high? That’s because we don’t yet know that it’s the logical implications of the foregoing proof that insist this force is God. So far, we know the force must be eternal, i.e. outside of time. Today, we see that it must be without potentiality. Still not enough to come to God, as He is usually understood—but we have many chapters to go! Today’s proofs are so succinct and clear they need little annotation.

Chapter 16: That in God there is no passive potentiality

1 NOW if God is eternal, it follows of necessity that He is not in potentiality.i

2 For everything in whose substance there is an admixture of potentiality, is possibly non-existent as regards whatever it has of potentiality, for that which may possibly be may possibly not be. Now God in Himself cannot not be, since He is eternal. Therefore in God there is no potentiality to be.ii

3 Again. Although that which is sometimes potential and sometimes actual, is in point of time potential before being actual, nevertheless actuality is simply before potentiality: because potentiality does not bring itself into actuality, but needs to be brought into actuality by something actual. Therefore whatever is in any way potential has something previous to it. Now God is the first being and the first cause, as stated above.[1] Therefore in Him there is no admixture of potentiality.iii

4 Again. That which of itself must necessarily be, can nowise be possibly, since what of itself must be necessarily, has no cause, whereas whatever can be possibly, has a cause, as proved above.[2]iv Now God, in Himself, must necessarily be. Therefore nowise can He be possibly. Therefore no potentiality is to be found in His essence.

5 Again. Everything acts according as it is actual. Wherefore that which is not wholly actual acts, not by its whole self, but by part of itself. Now that which does not act by its whole self is not the first agent, since it acts by participation of something and not by its essence. Therefore the first agent, which is God, has no admixture of potentiality, but is pure act.v

6 Moreover. Just as it is natural that a thing should act in so far as it is actual, so is it natural for it to be passive in so far as it is in potentiality, for movement is the act of that which is in potentiality.[3] Now God is altogether impassible and immovable, as stated above.[4] Therefore in Him there is no potentiality, namely that which is passive.

7 Further. We notice in the world something that passes from potentiality to actuality. Now it does not reduce itself from potentiality to actuality, because that which is potential is not yet, wherefore neither can it act. Therefore it must be preceded by something else whereby it can be brought from potentiality to actuality. And if this again passes from potentiality to actuality, it must be preceded by something else, whereby it can be brought from potentiality to actuality. But we cannot go on thus to infinity. Therefore we must come to something that is wholly actual and nowise potential. And this we call God.vi


iRecall that to be in potentiality means possessing the capability of change, but as was proved over the course of many weeks, God does not changed. He is the Unmoved Mover.

iiThis metaphysical truth is a hammer. Note very carefully that we move from this truth to God. We do not start with belief. Speaking very loosely, God is a theorem. And I only mention this to counter to frequent, and really quite ridiculous charge, that our knowledge of God is entirely “made up” (of beliefs).

iiiAin’t that a lovely point? Remember: it is not the potential of you being in Cleveland that actually moves you there. Something actual must do that. Actualities fulfill potentialities.

ivLinger over this one, dear reader. What is necessary must be.

vThis follows from God being unchanging.

viI adore these kinds of proofs. Once you understand what a infinite regression truly implies, understanding dawns brightly. The “base” of all must be actual and not in potential. Must be. St Thomas calls this “base” God. We still haven’t felt why he does this, but we’re getting closer.

Next installment.

[1] Ch. xiii.
[2] Ch. xv.
[3] 3 Phys. i. 6.
[4] Ch. xiii.

Summary Against Modern Thought: God Is 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.

Short, sweet, and entirely obvious proofs today. But I add some material from Aristotle on which St Thomas relied, which itself is fascinating and makes you wonder why people stopped reading the former. Review: for any change, there must be a first and unique (single) Unchanging Changer. What does that imply?

Chapter 15: That God is eternal

1 FROM the foregoing it is also clear that God is eternal.i

2 For whatever begins or ceases to be, suffers this through movement or change. Now it has been shown[1]ii that God is altogether unchangeable. Therefore He is eternal, having neither beginning nor end.

3 Again. Only things which are moved are measured by time: because time is the measure of movement, as stated in 4 Phys.[2]iii

Now God is absolutely without movement, as we have already proved.[3] Therefore we cannot mark before and after in Him. Therefore in Him there is not being after non-being, nor can He have non-being after being, nor is it possible to find any succession in His being, because these things cannot be understood apart from time. Therefore He is without beginning and end, and has all His being simultaneously: and in this consists the notion of eternity.[4]iv

4 Moreover. If anywhenv He was not and afterwards was, He was brought by someone out of non-being into being. Not by Himself; because what is not cannot do anything. And if by another, this other is prior to Him. Now it has been shown[5] that God is the first cause. Therefore He did not begin to be. Therefore neither will He cease to be: because that which always was, has the power to be always. Therefore He is eternal.vi

5 Furthermore. We observe that in the world there are certain things which can be and not be, namely those that are subject to generation and corruption. Now whatsoever is possible to be has a cause, because, as in itself it is equally related to two things, namely being and not being, it follows that if it acquires being this is the result of some cause. But, as proved above[6] by Aristotle’s argument, we cannot go on to infinity in causes. Therefore we must suppose some thing, which it is necessary to be.vii

Now every necessary thing either has a cause of its necessity from without, or has no such cause, but is necessary of itself. But we cannot go on to infinity in necessary things that have causes of their necessity from without. Therefore we must suppose some first necessary thing which is necessary of itself: and this is God, since He is the first cause, as proved above.[7] Therefore God is eternal, since whatever is necessary of itself is eternal.viii

6 Again. Aristotle[8] proves the everlastingness of movement from the everlastingness of time: and thence he goes on to prove the everlastingness of the substance that is the cause of movement.[9] Now the first moving substance is God. Therefore He is everlasting. And supposing the everlastingness of time and movement to be denied, there still remains the argument in proof of the everlastingness of substance. For if movement had a beginning, it must have had its beginning from some mover. And if this mover had a beginning, it had its beginning from some agent. And thus either we shall go on to infinity, or we shall come to something without a beginning.ix

7 Divine authority bears witness to this truth: wherefore the Psalm[10] reads: But Thou, O Lord, endurest for ever, and again:[11] But Thou art always the self-same, and Thy years shall not fail.


iEternal, which is to say, outside time, not part of time, unchanging. Eternal does not mean now, one second from now, two seconds from now, etc. It means no time.

iiThis is what Aquinas did in Chapter 13.

iii From the Philosopher, and don’t forget that when these gentleman use motion they mean change:

But neither does time exist without change; for when the state of our own minds does not change at all, or we have not noticed its changing, we do not realize that time has elapsed…So, just as, if the ‘now’ were not different but one and the same, there would not have been time, so too when its difference escapes our notice the interval does not seem to be time. If, then, the non-realization of the existence of time happens to us when we do not distinguish any change, but the soul seems to stay in one indivisible state, and when we perceive and distinguish we say time has elapsed, evidently time is not independent of movement and change. It is evident, then, that time is neither movement nor independent of movement…

Now we perceive movement and time together: for even when it is dark and we are not being affected through the body, if any movement takes place in the mind we at once suppose that some time also has elapsed; and not only that but also, when some time is thought to have passed, some movement also along with it seems to have taken place. Hence time is either movement or something that belongs to movement. Since then it is not movement, it must be the other…

But we apprehend time only when we have marked motion, marking it by ‘before’ and ‘after’; and it is only when we have perceived ‘before’ and ‘after’ in motion that we say that time has elapsed. Now we mark them by judging that A and B are different, and that some third thing is intermediate to them. When we think of the extremes as different from the middle and the mind pronounces that the ‘nows’ are two, one before and one after, it is then that we say that there is time, and this that we say is time. For what is bounded by the ‘now’ is thought to be time—we may assume this.

iv This is from Summa Theologica[4]—the debt to Aristotle is obvious:

As we attain to the knowledge of simple things by way of compound things, so must we reach to the knowledge of eternity by means of time, which is nothing but the numbering of movement by “before” and “after.” For since succession occurs in every movement, and one part comes after another, the fact that we reckon before and after in movement, makes us apprehend time, which is nothing else but the measure of before and after in movement. Now in a thing bereft of movement, which is always the same, there is no before or after. As therefore the idea of time consists in the numbering of before and after in movement; so likewise in the apprehension of the uniformity of what is outside of movement, consists the idea of eternity.

Further, those things are said to be measured by time which have a beginning and an end in time, because in everything which is moved there is a beginning, and there is an end. But as whatever is wholly immutable can have no succession, so it has no beginning, and no end.

Thus eternity is known from two sources: first, because what is eternal is interminable–that is, has no beginning nor end (that is, no term either way); secondly, because eternity has no succession, being simultaneously whole.

vIt’s high time to resurrect this word; so much more evocative than whenever.

viSince the first cause of the here-and-now change must exist, and cannot be caused by anything else, and therefore cannot change, this first cause must be eternal, i.e. outside time.

viiReview Chapter 13. What is not cannot cause what is. You can’t get something from nothing.

viiiWhatever is necessarily true, in the logical sense, will not be false at some point in the future, when circumstances change. True is always true, true outside of time, i.e. eternal.

ixThese proof by contradictions are, I think, especially convincing when they involve infinities. We’ll end with a portion of the footnote to Aristotle, more for the flavor than anything else (the paragraph break is mine):

Now the existence of motion is asserted by all who have anything to say about nature, because they all concern themselves with the construction of the world and study the question of becoming and perishing, which processes could not come about without the existence of motion. But those who say that there is an infinite number of worlds, some of which are in process of becoming while others are in process of perishing, assert that there is always motion (for these processes of becoming and perishing of the worlds necessarily involve motion), whereas those who hold that there is only one world, whether everlasting or not, make corresponding assumptions in regard to motion.

If then it is possible that at any time nothing should be in motion, this must come about in one of two ways: either in the manner described by Anaxagoras, who says that all things were together and at rest for an infinite period of time, and that then Mind introduced motion and separated them; or in the manner described by Empedocles, according to whom the universe is alternately in motion and at rest—in motion, when Love is making the one out of many, or Strife is making many out of one, and at rest in the intermediate periods of time…

Asserted by all not fearful of where this admission leads, that is.

[1] Ibid.
[2] xi. 5.
[3] Ch. xiii.
[4] Sum. Th. P. I., Q. x.
[5] Ch. xiii.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] 8 Phys. i. 10 seqq.
[9] vi. 3 seqq.
[10] Ps. ci. 13.
[11] Ibid. 28.

Summary Against Modern Thought: What’s God Like?

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.

If you haven’t yet been convinced of St Thomas’s argument for God’s existence, re-read all of the posts on Chapter 13, starting with this one. The terminology and concepts we have developed are absolutely necessary to know before continuing on. We have learned that the Unmoved Mover, the Unchanged Changer, must exist, or nothing else could move or change. But that’s all we learned. Today, we start with the consequences of this knowledge. But we’re not doing much in today’s lesson. Is everybody away on vacation?

Chapter 14: That in order to acquire knowledge of God it is necessary to proceed by the way of remotioni

1 ACCORDINGLY having proved that there is a first being which we call God, it behooves us to inquire into His nature.

2 Now in treating of the divine essence the principal method to be followed is that of remotion. For the divine essence by its immensity surpasses every form to which our intellect reaches; and thus we cannot apprehend it by knowing what it is.ii But we have some knowledge thereof by knowing what it is not: and we shall approach all the nearer to the knowledge thereof according as we shall be enabled to remove by our intellect a greater number of things therefrom.iii

For the more completely we see how a thing differs from others, the more perfectly we know it: since each thing has in itself its own being distinct from all other things. Wherefore when we know the definition of a thing, first we place it in a genus, whereby we know in general what it is, and afterwards we add differences, so as to mark its distinction from other things: and thus we arrive at the complete knowledge of a thing’s essence.

3 Since, however, we are unable in treating of the divine essence to take what as a genus, nor can we express its distinction from other things by affirmative differences, we must needs express it by negative differences. Now just as in affirmative differences one restricts another, and brings us the nearer to a complete description of the thing, according as it makes it to differ from more things, so one negative difference is restricted by another that marks a distinction from more things.

Thus, if we say that God is not an accidentiv, we thereby distinguish Him from all accidents; then if we add that He is not a body, we shall distinguish Him also from certain substances, and thus in gradation He will be differentiated by suchlike negations from all beside Himself: and then when He is known as distinct from all things, we shall arrive at a proper consideration of Him. It will not, however, be perfect, because we shall not know what He is in Himself.v

4 Wherefore in order to proceed about the knowledge of God by the way of remotion, let us take as principle that which is already made manifest by what we have said above,[1] namely that God is altogether unchangeable.vi This is also confirmed by the authority of Holy Writ. For it is said (Malach. iii. 6): I am God (Vulg., the Lord) and I change not; (James i. 17): With Whom there is no change; and (Num. xxiii. 19): God is not as a man…that He should be changed.vii


iOED: “The method or process of examining the concept of God by removing everything which is known not to be God; (also) a thing known not to be included in a concept.”

iiThe analogy given earlier is that we can know, say, that infinite numbers exist, and even describe some of their characteristics, but we cannot know everything about the infinite; we certainly cannot experience it. For example, Don Knuth invented the following notation: 10\uparrow 10 = 10^{10} , or 10 billion, where the arrow has replaced the caret, but then 10\uparrow\uparrow 10 , which is 10 raised to the 10 raised to the 10 raised to the 10, etc., 10 times (the arrow iterates the caret) Now that’s a big number! We can write it down all right—Knuth calls it K—but we cannot know it, cannot form a real appreciation for it. It’s too big.

Knuth, a computer scientist, invented the terminology because, as he says in his classic paper, “Finite numbers can be really enormous, and the known universe is very small. Therefore the distinction between finite and infinite is not as relevant as the distinction between realistic and unrealistic.” That’s true for mechanical computer operations, but if you rely, as some are tempted, on “really very big” to replace “infinite”, you’ll go astray. The two just aren’t the same. Even K is still infinitely far from infinity. It is a small number in that sense, but incomprehensibly large to us. But we are not God.

iiiIt’s too tempting not to quote Sherlock Holmes here, expressing a related sentiment: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
[1] Ch. xiii.

ivaccident: “In Aristotelian thought: a property or quality not essential to a substance or object; something that does not constitute an essential component, an attribute.” OED again!

vFinite minds cannot grasp the whole of the infinite. Most of us cannot even remember what we had for lunch two weeks ago Tuesday.

viThis was proved in Chapter 13. It’s the Unmoved Move, the Uncaused Cause, the Unchanging Changer. It followed from the premise that whatever is moved is moved by another. The Unmoved Mover is not moved by another, and is therefore unchanging. Now we called this necessary force, the Prime Mover, God, but that to modern ears sounded like a cheat. Why call what after all is a physical force “God”? Well, that’s what we’re about to find out. Not uncoincidentally, Ed Feser was talking about the First Cause argument the other day.

viiThere are any number of poor critiques of Biblical passages in which God is shown to have changed, because, for instance, He “changes his mind.” Atheists are awfully prone to read the Bible everywhere literally and, worse, are then satisfied that they have plumbed all possible depths.

Next week we learn God is eternal. Eternal? Change? What’s that? Stick around.

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