I talked about the atheist’s fallacious demand for evidence last time and what would constitute as logical evidence for God’s workings in the universe. It’s interesting that after three hundred or so comments, no atheist actually understood the classical theist’s argument for God.
To be fair, I didn’t grasp it for most of my Christian life either, so it’s understandable. And some of the brightest atheists like Bertrand Russell, and more recently, Richard Dawkins and his ilk, have abysmally misconstrued the argument and have only debunked a caricature born from their own imaginations.
Because it’s so widely misunderstood, I will attempt to dumb down this series of arguments, putting them in simple bite-size sections in order to help us grasp it. Of course, you could read Thomas Aquinas’s brilliant 3,500 page Summa Theologica yourself but that may take a lot longer and much harder to understand.
We will start with the argument from motion. This was Aquinas’s adaptation of Aristotelian Act-Potency Distinction. It’s important to point out that these arguments involve deductive reasoning from general features of everyday experience and principles of causation to a most fundamental metaphysical source. Which means that an eternal universe, quantum vacuums, multiple dimensions, or multiverses have absolutely no bearing on the argument. Hopefully, you’ll see why as we go.
Let’s begin with a very simplistic analogy using my music example in “God is not a god.” In order to make the analogy clear I will only include the most basic elements and leave out all the physics involved.
Imagine that the cosmos is the music that a musician plays on his guitar The music is real and can be experienced in the here and how, but it only exists as long as the musician plays. We could break this down further; again, in a very simplistic way:
- The music is made of fluctuating sound waves.
- The sound waves rely on the vibrations of the strings of the guitar.
- The vibrations of the strings rely on the musician plucking the strings.
- If any part of this causal chain is inhibited at any moment—the sound waves, the string vibrations, the plucking of the strings by the musician—the music would immediately cease to exist.
But, like all analogies, this one breaks down if you press it further. For instance, the musician is also part of the distal chain that relies on a more fundamental source in order to continue to exist. Nevertheless, this truncated illustration can help us get a crude grasp of what classical theists mean by something “ordered essentially (per se).” This is a critically important concept if we’re going to understand the argument.
Here’s the argument from motion (below). Keep in mind that these are summary statements from the argument not the fully-0rbed argument itself.
Argument from Motion (First Way) – Thomas Aquinas
- It is evident to experience that some things are in motion (“motion” meaning actualization of a potential.) How something exists right now (actual), or could be (potential), given its nature.
- Here’s an example of what classical theists mean by “motion”: a deciduous tree’s green leaves turn colors in the autumn. The actuality of the leaf is green in the summer but it has the potential to become red or yellow. When the leaf turns colors, it’s now actualized as a red or yellow leaf.
- Anything in motion this way cannot actualize itself. For example, the leaves change colors because of changes in the length of daylight and changes in temperature, etc. These are all outside forces.
- Nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality except by something in a state of actuality; whatever is in motion must be put into motion by another (causation).
- Then we must ask whether that thing that put our object into motion is itself in motion; if it isn’t, then we’ve arrived at the prime cause (“unmoved mover”). If not, we must find a more fundamental cause.
- An essentially ordered series of movers (in the here and now) cannot regress infinitely.
- Since more distal members derive their power from more fundamental members, infinite regress is impossible in such a series.
- To say that such a series regresses infinitely is to say that our autumn leaves (1.A)ultimately don’t derive their motive power from anything, which is a logical absurdity. If it doesn’t derive its power from anything then there’s no way it could do things, like a leaf changing colors, which plainly contradicts experience.
- Even if the series could regress infinitely, something outside the series would still have to supply its motive power.
- Therefore, there must be an unmoved mover (First/Prime Mover, Pure Act, Subsistent Existence Itself).
- This is logically unavoidable. Think of the guitar music analogy. Without a prime mover (musician), the whole chain collapses and ceases to exist in the here and now.
The main point is that the motive power (ability to actualize a potential) in each member in the series is essentially derived from a more fundamental member. If any more fundamental member fails, the rest of the series necessarily fails. Also remember, we’re talking about actualizing potentials in the here and now, not in the distant past or by any chronological sequence (“accidently ordered”).
It’s important to understand that we must continue digging down through the fundamental chain until we reach a member not receiving its motive power derivatively like all the others in the causal chain. Otherwise, we have not explained its being.
We’re not done with this argument but this post is long enough. We also have not brought “God” into the picture yet. We’re simply establishing that there must be a fully-actuated “unmoved mover,” which means it cannot be in any state of motion (potential-actual).
We will look at this “unmoved mover” in more detail next time.