Moved by another and self-motion in nature

Aristotle holds both that everything in motion is moved by another and nature is an intrinsic source of motion. Belcher argues that this is contradictory (pp. 28-32 here), or at least that we have to choose between how Aristotle ultimately understands the first claim and the truth of the second, since he takes the “moved by another” claim to mean that anything in motion is moved by another individual, even while he says that some things are moved by themselves, i.e. not by another individual.

The two claims, however, are really just two ways of considering the fact that natural things are wholes composed of parts. The “moved by another” claim does originally mean, as Belcher notes, “no whole can be in motion unless it has parts which are moving”. This is clearest in organic wholes: if a hand is going to move, then the muscles need to move the tendons, and the tendons the bones. But this is also true of the inorganic: if some whole stone x is flying through the air and you stop a part of it, then either the whole x will stop altogether, or a part of it will break off and you will no longer have the whole stone. Either way, the relevant whole you were considering stops moving. Considered in this way, the only way one could have something natural in motion without its being moved by another would be if nature were composed of Euclidean points, but this seems impossible both a priori and on the basis of experiment. Nothing in nature is infinitely small.*

But just as every whole depends on the motion of its parts to move, we can also consider the way in which some parts cause the whole to move. Here again there is a division between the organic and the inorganic: in the first the parts move the whole in the sense that a system carries out various processes for the whole living being: the circulatory system controls all the circulation for the animal; the nervous system carries out all of its information processing; the respiratory system governs its oxygenation, etc. To the extent that this system-part moves the whole, the whole is called “self-moving”. Even among the non-living, it’s still true that the parts of the thing are necessary to move the whole, and, since the parts of some whole count as its own, even the inanimate can be considered as a source of its own motion.

And so in any natural motion we must take the whole-part composition as given, and so the principles of a natural motion have to be partless. On the most basic level, this partlessness in the material order is just the most homogeneous part. Such a part is not the smallest part, since this is only a relative designation, it is the most undifferentiated part, which Aristotle called an element. But though such things in some sense count as the first principles, they cannot be such absolutely, since they still fall under the sort of whole-part analysis given above. On a higher level, there are partless principles like soul in animals and plants. Here there is a higher sort of partlessness, but it is not entirely separated from being a part. Something only counts as a first principle of motion or nature altogether if it is entirely partless or incomposite: it acts upon nature without interacting with it; it exercises power over nature without this exercise being able to render it either more virtuous or more wicked; and all of nature is at once the unfolding of its moving act (since all its motions are just developments of this aboriginal motion) and is nevertheless entirely separate from it (since this absolutely partless reality cannot enter into composition with nature and remain what it is).

*Electrons in some sense have no parts: no amount of spinning them has ever been able to send them flying apart. Nevertheless, the very possibility of spinning presupposes a translation of parts from one position to another. It makes no sense at all to spin a Euclidean point, even if we can make sense of spinning a quantity at or on a point.  But this is, self-evidently, the spinning of a quantity. 


  1. December 2, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    Off-topic question: Vox Day apparently holds to a form of inherent omniscience. What does Thomism have to say about inherent and total omniscience? (That is, Thomas and the glosses since.)

    • December 2, 2013 at 9:49 pm

      I’ve never heard of the terms, what distinction is he driving at? Calling omniscience “total” seems redundant to me

      Omniscience is usually a question whether God knows all actual and possible things, and teh solution rests on a good deal of previous argument, viz. The fact that the divine eternity comprises time, and the fact that the being of all things is, most fundamentally, just different modes of participation in the divine being – and so if God knows himself perfectly, he knows all these things perfectly too.

      It would be difficult to hash out these problems with someone who, for example, hadn’t even figured out a good reason why he should think that God knows anything at all (Plotinus, for example, thought we couldn’t call God an intellect since intellects are perfected by what they know.)

      One of the common mistakes in all of this is thinking that omniscience means knowing everything in every way it can be known, i.e. that God could not be omniscient unless he had a nose to smell things, pit organs to detect infrared radiation, a brain to form imagined-audible proposition with, echolocation to fly around caves, etc. I accuse William Craig of making just this sort of blunder in his critique of omniscience.

      • December 3, 2013 at 2:19 am

        He doesn’t call it that — that category was one commenter’s attempt to describe Vox Day’s position using Wikipedia. Instead, Vox invented a new term:

        Voliscience: The ability to know whatever one wishes to know at any given moment. This is distinguished from omniscience, which requires knowing all things at all times.

        It’s more fleshed out elsewhere on his blog. It has some aspects in common with Open Theism, because “time is relevant” to God under this view.

        It came up in discussion of the cosmological argument. He uses a form which relies on a finite beginning point of the created order, and it came out that he doesn’t see creation as a constant act of God. (He also denies the Trinity, but that’s more common.)

      • December 3, 2013 at 7:08 am

        By his definition, a voliscent being is a temporal being, and thus belongs to the space-time cosmos, collecting information about it and interacting with it. A proof for such a being is therefore a matter of sensation: just look around and see if you find one, perhaps after finding a clue or two to point us up the right mountain or behind the right star. A satellite photo from Google earth or the Hubble would do fine. If, in response to this, he wants to have his god be a spacio-temporal unobservable, then his problems become far worse. I’d say the same thing to anyone who makes god an entity in space time,and wants to base belief in it on rational argument.

      • December 3, 2013 at 9:51 pm

        Thank you. That is very helpful.

  2. Timotheos said,

    December 4, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    “Nothing in nature is infinitely small.”

    Indeed, I think the idea of infinitesimals is inherently contradictory; how can a thing be infinitely small but yet have some finite size?

    Some may say that non-standard analysis has removed such a contradiction from the idea of infinitesimals, but they would be wrong. Non-standard analysis does not show that infinitesimals are non-contradictory; it shows that the answers they produce are equivalent to standard analysis ones. Remember, Robinson was a formalist, so while his infinitesimals may not be contradictory in a formal system, this doesn’t mean there is no contradiction in the notion.

    The real ontological ground of Euclidean points is in the limit concept, an idea that David Oderberg explores in his lovely paper Instantaneous Change Without Instants

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