The “which all call deus” clause in the Five Ways

St. Thomas gives no explanation of the “which all call God/a god” premise in his Five Ways, which allows for multiple interpretations. My suspicion is that St. Thomas left the interpretation open since there are multiple true ones. OFloinn states the common interpretation with maximal elegance by saying STA could have just said “This is what all call God: details to follow”. Dovetailing with this, I’ve also argued that the very thing STA is proving, namely deus, gives him a far broader target to hit than a proof for what an English speaker calls God with its noticeable capital “G” and absence of an indefinite article, since one has to prove a complex of properties to show the existence of God which aren’t necessary to show the existence of a god, but one can prove the existence of deus by merely proving the latter.* St. Thomas certainly thinks that the god is proving the existence of is in fact God, but his word deus gave him enough breathing room that he could take his proof as establishing a being that could be shown to be God in the “details to follow”.

So let’s assume this is how we should read the Five Ways: they prove a god or “something divine” exists and then fill out the details showing how it is not just a god but also God. But why does it immediately follow from the proofs that we get to so much as a god? My claim is that all of them conclude to the existence of a sort of cause that no one can reasonably call natural, and I’ll show this for the first three arguments.

The First Way is the most manifest way to conclude to a divinity since, as STA understands things, the mobile is natural and vice versa, and so to conclude to something that acts without being in motion is ipso facto to call it a supernatural cause. Notice that St. Thomas is claiming more than that the first mover in the series is immobile with respect to the peculiar motion it causessince this is true even of, say, the way a bicycle axle is immobile with respect to the wheel or the way an inertial reference frame is immobile with respect to the things moving in it. He’s saying that the mover conveys an actuality without having to change along with the potency it acts on, so, for example, it is like an axle that could be a cause of the wheel moving without having to be in motion along with the wheel, or an inertial reference frame whose boundaries would not change even relative to the mobile thing in it, or like a magnetic field that wouldn’t change and be in flux along with the ferrous objects it tugged on. As an example of natural activity, this is completely crazy, and imagination fails out in trying to visualize the sort of mover the First Way is arguing for. The motions one sees around himself all presuppose some kind of supernatural activity. 

While the First Way arrives at the supernatural by way of negation of natural motion; the Second Way arrives at transcendence by way of agent causality considered formally. Agents can never be the agent cause of what they they have in common with their effects, i.e. a match lighting a candle doesn’t cause fire in the sense of what is common to the match and the candle but only the fire that is peculiar to the candle. Because of this, a first efficient cause is one that has nothing in common with the agents we find around us. If the things around us exert agency by being massive or spatial (like the counterweight on a trebuchet), then the first agent cause cannot have either mass nor spatial extension; if they exert agency by having mass-energy or momentum then the first agent cannot have these things. I insist that this is formally contained in the idea of an agent cause – it is not some additional premise about agency. This is why equivocal causes are described as formally causal whereas univocal ones – which have something in common with their effects – are seen as only causal instrumentally or “materially” (not in the sense of material cause). So here too we arrive at the supernatural, though by a way not tied to the definition of nature but by way of our need to negate whatever is efficiently causal in nature – mass, energy, momentum, etc.

The Third Way concludes to a necessity beyond the necessity that allows for things to exist always in time. It is crucial here to recognize that STA is staring with the generated, that is a thing that did not exist at one time. What this means is that if you took a picture of all the things in the universe at once, then if everything is generated all you would have to do is count back in time to a point where nothing existed.  (Please, fertheluva Pete, stop seeing a quantifier shift in this proof. There’s nothing of the kind) All the first stage of the proof concludes to is that there must be something like matter or energy that is not generated, and these things count as “necessary beings” in the context of the proof (please, please, also stop calling the third way the proof from contingency. Matter, the universe, physical law, and logical structures are all non-contingent, but are obviously not God.)  What St. Thomas argues is that this sort of necessity is derivative, presumably because one could not establish the necessary existence of mass or energy simply by considering mass or energy as such. St. Thomas calls this the difference between what is “necessary by another” and what is “necessary by itself” – and I take him as understanding the second sort to be “necessary by definition”, i.e. something whose existence you could be certain of just by knowing its definition. But nothing in nature is like this, so you need something outside of it.**


*the Latin of STA’s time did not use capital letters as honorific nor did it need to use indefinite articles.

** Note the fascinating relation between the Third Way and the Ontological argument. The OA says, in effect, we know the definition of God and can conclude from this that he exists. St. Thomas denies that we can know this sort of definition, but he uses this very premise in the Third Way: we know the things of nature, and all the things of nature are such that their definitions do not give us information about whether they exist. Therefore, none of them can be necessary by definition or in themselves, and so natural necessity must be from another.

(Looking at the word count, I notice this post is getting way too long. But interestingly, it is almost exactly as long as the article containing the Five Ways. huh.)

Criteria for gratuitous evil

The argument from evil requires not just evil but gratuitous evil, but  this is something much harder to verify the existence of than mere evil. I don’t need any help to know how to commit an evil, but what if I want to commit a gratuitous evil? If we take Rowe’s account of it, I’d have to make sure that the evil I commit is such that God could have prevented it without losing some greater good. But how do I know I’ve done that? 

Presumably, martyring people is out. One can’t prevent this sort of unjust killing without losing the good of martyrdom, and so if I want to commit a gratuitous evil I’ve got to avoid killing persons for their beliefs. For the same reason, I couldn’t kill anyone who would die heroically. But this isn’t just true of killing but extends out to any wrongdoing. I couldn’t violate anyone who would use the occasion to grow in love or acceptance or forgiveness. I wonder if I could even harm someone without causing them to grow in a desire for justice, even if this desire was to some extent tainted by revenge. The growth through anger of the desire for justice is good one can’t get without evils, and one that gets more intense the more evil that is inflicted. So if I wanted to be sure I committed a gratuitous evil I’d have to make sure that the one I harmed didn’t even get angry about it.

But this wouldn’t be enough to ensure I committed a gratuitous evil. I’d also have to make sure that the evil caused no one else to respond to the killing with anger, love, acceptance or forgiveness. I can’t very well have the evil I commit igniting responses like that.  But it’s just here that the attempt to commit gratuitous evil hits a serious impasse: it’s hard enough to keep other human beings from responding to the evils we commit in these sorts of ways, but if the God that Christianity speaks of exists, then it is a logical impossibility for any evil not to elicit the response of anger or love or forgiveness, and here the anger is a totally unmixed desire for the good of justice, pure of any taint of irrational revenge or spleen. And so we have to presuppose that Christianity is false in order to make room for the possibility of gratuitous evils. Absent this, we cannot prevent an evil without losing the good of God’s own response to it either in a desire for justice or forgiveness.

Admittedly, one could argue that these goods are not “good enough” to balance out the evil that was done, but I think we simply lack the ability to know just how goods and evils can be compared like this. Just how good does divine anger or forgiveness have to be to balance out, say, drowning a kitten? Either we have to admit we don’t have the sort of units we need to put these two next to each other, or we’d say that any divine good is better than a good denied in a creature.

Tool use and human intelligence

Tool use seems proper to some sort of intelligence, but not human intelligence. Corvids, chimps, raccoon etc. use tools too. So can we add anything to tool use that allows us to target tools as a sign of human intelligence?

One clue might be that, if some primitive hominid species used the same tool for 250,000 years, we’d also shy away from considering such a tool as a mark of human intelligence. Human tool use fits into the broader field of human art, and human art is essentially restless.  Human art therefore divides into more and less primitive or developed and into diverse schools, themes, and styles. These all turn over at different paces, but they don’t change out of a mere exhaustion of the idea. We change the mode of the art even before we are sick of it and even before we have exhausted its possibilities. There is always an element in art of seizing its moment, and as soon as it ceases to do so it becomes either a museum piece or a sort of absurdity.

Human art marks out a new sort of behavior in relation to a new sort of environment, and so can be seen as meta-biological. It is responding to an environmental pressure, but one that comes from a meta-natural environment. It is this sort of environment that makes Gothic Cathedrals give way to Baroque ones, or jazz give way to rock or novels give way to whatever is coming after them. On a swifter moving current, it makes styles and fashions pass too quickly for most to keep up with them. One can see similar changes even in pure tools: handsaws, hammers, etc. that have a sort of fashion and development of their own, and not just one responding to development. Computers too change far more often than is necessary for the sort of uses most of us put them too. One can only get so far trying to explain this by economic factors – there is also the pure desire for change as such.

Are tools and art are part of us. They are things we find and express ourselves in. The restlessness we have with them arises from their inadequacy to exhaust this role, and so we find ourselves with a continual need to go beyond the tools we use and the art that speaks to us. Even where the same tool gets used over time, it shifts its sense over that time. We find ourselves saying something different to the world if we use a 2001 Toshiba Satellite in 2014 than if we are using it in 2002. It place in the meta-biological environment changes, even if our use of it does not.

And so when we make tool use the mark of human intelligence, we seem to be gesturing at developmental tool use, which is only one subset of our restlessness with all of or art, arising from its unstable and changing existence both in, and in response to, the meta-biological environment that human being find themselves inhabiting alone.

Being and Knowing

Say that the difference between being and knowing is the difference between hearing the sounds coming out of someone’s mouth and understanding what he says. So I hear a discussion in Farsi or look at the script of linear A and see very little beyond sound and shape, but for the one fluent in either there opens an incomparably deeper dimension.

For one aware of the Aristotelian tradition, this seems to suggest that being is the potency or matter of knowledge. But we are arguing by analogy here, and we can’t take it for granted that the act/potency binary is the salient feature in the analogy. Perhaps there is something in being and knowing that transcends act potency in a crucial way, or perhaps there are different modalities of act and potency in play between hearing the sounds of another and knowing his meaning and being and knowing.

The analogy does minimally seem to get at the fact that knowledge adds something to mere existence.  But just saying this is problematic enough: what could one possibly add to existence? Outside of existence there is simply nothing. To simply throw words at the problem like “subjective being” and “objective being” obscures more than it reveals since it leaves one with the impression that there are two parts making a whole, when in fact there is the more paradoxical notion of a whole to which an addition is made, leaving just the same whole as was before.

So call this thing I’m gesturing at an ontological distinction, or a difference in being. What it means in this peculiar case is a totality which admits of an addition that makes it neither larger nor more developed.

Hypothesis: The addition that one makes to the totality either presupposes the existence of the totality, or it does not. If it does not, it must give existence to this totality and this sort of transcendent action is what we mean by causality. If it presupposes it, then, since it does not add a new part or aspect, it must consist in lifting this totality into the presence of some larger totality, and this is what we might call knowledge. 

I here follow Cajetan in seeing causality most formally as consisting in what transcends an order or genus. Within one genus, one has causality only materially and instrumentally. In this sense, the only act that is causal without qualification is creation. I’m also following Cajetan in defining knowledge as an elevation to a higher totality, though it is not clear that knowledge is the only thing that could do so.

We can’t avoid a metaphor-picture of a layer cake of being, but I here want to point out that it is precisely the “layers” that are totalities, though there is still relation between the layers through causality and knowledge; through infusion/creation and elevation.

Dialogue on being and knowing

A: I want to start with this as the basic fact that a theory of knowledge has to explain: there is a difference between something being and its being known.

B: What sort of struggle is there to explain that? All that exists is a being, but not all that exists is known. One’s a class and the other’s a sub-class. End of problem.  It’s no more mysterious than to point out that there’s a difference between existing and being a cow.

A: So it is just a difference between the more and less general? The less distinct and the more distinct?

B: Right. Being can be divided into the known and unknown. End of problem.

A: But the things we know either exist or not, right? They either have being or not?

B: Right – same with the unknown as well.

A: But that makes being both more and less universal than knowledge: one and the same thing is both more and less determinate with respect to exactly the same thing. Worse yet, you’ve made “non-existent” a subset of being or existence. Twice.

B: Okay, so that’s a problem. What do you think?

A: Well, if all we did was summarize what we said till now, I’d say that knowledge and being differ in being, where “in being” is meant to indicate that one is not a subset of the other, nor are both parts of some larger genus.

B: But certainly they have to both exist, right?

A: True, but they also are both known. There is a mutual indwelling of the one in the other.

B: I don’t know anything about “mutual indwelling” so leave that off for the moment. What more can you say?

A: Traditionally, these were taken as different modes of being. Take any scientific classification or porphyrian tree. It is indifferent to being taken as a classification of existents or things known. Taken in the first way, we speak of the mode of existing, taken the second way, the mode of knowing.

B: So there is an indifference in things to existing and being?

A: Maybe so – that seems to be what I’m saying.

B: But what has this indifference?

A: I’m not sure what to say here. We show up to this problem saying that there is no higher unity of the known and the existent, nor is there a unity of the one containing the other.

B: So perhaps mode isn’t the best word here. It’s not as if there is some stuff that underlies both, and wich has various modes.

A: Right.

Freedom of

Freedom of expression, like all widely held political ideals, can be anything from a proud and noble account of some inherent human dignity to a vacuous slogan-idol, and perhaps one so corrupted by the more concrete principles that flesh it out that anything resulting from it can be called freedom of expression only ironically.

Any account of freedom of expression is limited by harmful speech. Minimally, this includes all cases of slander (to harm someone by false speech) and at least some cases of detraction (to harm someone by true speech, like publishing trade secrets). English gives us no general name for the genus “harmful speech”, and so we’re stuck calling it “harmful speech”. Just what gets to count as a case of harmful speech is a problem that can never be resolved by the general principle, and the drama of freedom of expression is resolving the structure it has through the negative space of harmful speech which defines it.

Freedom of expression is allowed when (a.) it impossible to get a consensus over whether X is true or false but (b.) there is a broad consensus that being wrong about X causes no further evils, or at least none worse than an enforced consensus would cause. Historically, one such X was the public expression of the proper confessions of different Christian groups. The idea was that we might never be in a position to get a consensus over the authority of the Pope or the validity of infant baptism, but that belief in this area wouldn’t lead to any further harm, like breaking a man’s leg or picking his pockets, or at least not to a harm as great as enforced consensus.  Taken in this sense, freedom of expression is allowed either for various harmless and therefore trivial errors or at least for things that can be trumped by other values, and so freedom of expression applies only to what is trivial or secondary value. On this account we can discern the ultimate values of a group among the topics which are barred from free expression. Thus freedom of expression is not just compatible with the barring persons from holding certain beliefs – whether publicly or privately- it seems to demand that we do it about something or another. We can’t identify what is of secondary value except in light of what is primary.

And so freedom of expression is defined in relation both to harmful speech and to speech about things of ultimate value. Freedom of expression thus concerns expressions about goods of secondary value.

The same sort of reasoning can probably be generalized to other sorts of freedom followed by some objective genitive.


Summula on the IEM

David Papineau:

[T]he case against interactionist dualism hinges crucially on the empirical thesis that all physical effects already have physical causes. It is specifically this claim that makes it difficult to see how dualist states can make a causal difference to the physical world.

But just look at how these physical causes explain the physical effect of, say, actual motion. Why is that car actually moving? Because its wheels are actually moving, because the crankshaft is, because the engine is, because ignited gas is, etc. At each stage, all your explanation amounts to is “A is actually moving if it is connected to an actually moving B, and connected in such a way as to cause actual motion”. It makes no difference if you explain the wheel-motion by the engine-motion or the motion of the gas from the motion of chemical bonds breaking – the actual motion never gets explained, just shown to be a part of a larger, actually moving whole. And so A gets explained by B only by making A a part of the mobile AB, AB gets explained only by making it a part of the mobile ABC… and so either we go on like this to infinity or we say that A is moving because it is moving, and either way we get no explanation. Both options succeed only in making the mobile more complex and no more explained. It is impossible in principle to get anything more than a vacuous tautology – it’s moving because it is.

This is why if you want to explain the actual motion of something you’re forced into positing a non-physical cause. This is an object that, by definition, no one has any sense experience of and so which is understood primarily by negation. Unlike physical causes, this thing cannot change along with what it changes, i.e. unlike a magnetic field or electrical current, which are in flux and changing along with the objects they act on, the explanation of the mobile cannot change along with it.

The immobile explanation of motion (IEM) must be present wherever it can explain. If it is present only at a finite location X, it could never move something out of X. But then it would be impossible to explain the motion out of this location which either means the motion is impossible or that the explanation does not explain. The second is a contradiction; and it is probably impossible to have a space that it was impossible to move out of, though we don’t need to concern ourselves with it since it wouldn’t be a mobile. And so the IEM is completely and present in its totality in every possible division or non-divided portion of finite space.

The IEM shares a property with an abstract entity, i.e. it is wholly present in a diversity of concrete instances, the way redness is perfectly instantiated by any apple in the bushel. Just as a red surface is just as red in the smallest part as in a whole, so the IEM is present in all space, or any domain of nature. But it also shares a property of the concrete in that it is directly responsible for an actual change in the world, unlike abstract entities, which can only cause real events by the mediation of intelligences which are motivated by them. The IEM therefore must be understood as transcending the opposition between the abstract and the concrete. It follows from this that IEM cannot be named by us by any single name, nor can it be understood merely as an abstract entity, like goodness or merely as a concrete entity, like a person desiring the good. We are forced to multiply names without seeing the unity that backgrounds them.

By being entirely present in all space, the IEM is also present in all time; and just as the IEM is present in all spaces without being another spacial object added to them, so too it is present in all times without being another temporal object. Again, just as the IEM exemplifies the abstract and the concrete in all things, it does so in time.

Where intelligence is reduced to the unintelligent, it is seen as explaining away the intelligence. And so if it were ever possible for there to be a motion or action in space that would be described as intelligent or loving, it is necessary for the IEM to be inteligent and loving. But some action is not just possibly but really intelligent, therefore, etc.

The absolute and the relative

Take all ten categories except relation. This group has in common that the description of the thing you have will not change if you act merely on something outside of it. If you want the description of what substance you have to change, you have to act on it somehow – by killing it, burning it, dropping it in acid, etc. Merely acting on something else won’t do the trick. If you want its color to change in a real and not merely apparent way, you have to change something about its surface; if you want its size to change you have to make it grow or shrink; if you want it to be in a different position you have to do more than just arrange other things around it. Relation has the odd property of changing the description of the thing you have while acting entirely on things outside of it: if you eat the thing that was half the size of X, then X is no longer its double; if you emancipate a man’s slaves he ceases to be a master; if the store burns down on your way to it, you can’t be actually directed or ordered to it, etc.

Arguendo, grant a guy that is perfectly aware of all the changes happening to him or to any of his parts. He couldn’t fail to be unaware of changes of size, quality, position, dress, or of what it was acting on or suffering. But it might very well fail to grasp his different relative descriptions – like whether he was shorter than his great grandfather, or whether his slaves were emancipated while he slept or whether the store he was driving to had burned down or not.

Historically there has not been a dispute over whether the relative is divided from the absolute, but only whether this is a division in being. The later Scholastics wanted to see being as such as absolute, and so relation was treated as an ens rationis or mind dependent being. But any argument for this carries the heavy burden of having to be more evident than the conviction that words like father, double, supervisor, similar, compatible with, ordered to… and several thousand others like it are descriptions of something real. But all these things seems to have just as much pound-the-table existence as qualities or positions.

The relative is thus a distinct mode of being in opposition to the absolute being of substance and accident. While it is true that all the relations of our experience are also accidents,* this is not because relations are intrinsically accidents, since this would lead to the contradiction of making the relative a species of its contrary. Relation as such is characterized by a co-existence  as opposed to the existence-in-itself of substance or the existence-in-another of accident. It has a co-dependence that is neither independence nor dependence.

The failure to appreciate the relative as an ontological tertium quid leads to intractable problems. If “a known object” as such is an accident of a knower, then we are entirely trapped in our own heads; if it is an accident of the thing known, then one needs no knower to account for its existence. Similar absurdities follow from thinking it’s a substance. If the persons of the Trinity are substances, then we have tri-theism or Arianism; if they are accidents then they are only different descriptions of a single entity. Likewise, when we think about of speak of things that do not exist, then since what does not exist “is either something positive or nonpositive. [and] If it is nonpositive, then it is a negation; if positive it can only be a relation, because every positive and absolute being is understood not in relation to something else but as having its own independent being.” (John of St. Thomas)


*Even this is perhaps not as clear as might seem at first glance. While greater, equal, similar to, or compatible with all are clear instances of accidents, father, state, son, supervisor, and parade are all relative beings too, though they seem a lot more like substances than accidents. Unicorn or leprechaun or the present king of France all turn out to be instances of relative being too.

The Second Way and Classical physics

-The First Way predicts that physics will only seem complete if it makes the first mover of things non-physical. And so the attempt to make physics a complete causal account leads us to the strange ontology of impetus, forces, momentum and energy, which come to be viewed as a sort of motive substance passed from one thing to another while remaining forever unchanged of itself. They are not the activities of anything, but a sort of subsistent activity. That all motion rests on subsistent activity is correct, but we’re (rightly) embarrassed to articulate what the ontology of energy as subsistent would have to be.

-That activity reduces to subsistent activity is the conclusion of the Second Way. In Physical things, action is always interaction, and activity of efficient causality always exists in the interface between the agent and what it acts upon. Something pushes only so far as it is resisted (otherwise, the two things just float along in contact) and so too with pulling, twisting, pressing, and any other action of a physical agent cause. Transitive powers exist not just by imparting act but in being resisted. If the stone did not press back on your hand, you couldn’t push it.

-Here we hit Newton’s Third Law – the example just given was simply taken from Newton’s own account of the law. The problem is that if the activity really exists co-dependently on an active and resistant force: activity could never result in action. The reaction is always equal to the action, for there is in fact only one action and one force. It is just this equality that is so puzzling, since we don’t see a stasis of equality but an overcoming by the stronger. How can a reaction be always equal to an action but sometimes overcome by it, i.e. be unequal to it?

-Minimally, we have to introduce some causal power into the equation that is not an interactive one, and thus not a natural one. Here we discover yet another way in which the “interaction problem” is profoundly misguided – a purely interactive set of movers would never succeed in moving anything.

-Lets look closer at this point, which modern physics only intensifies. Say that an object the size of the solar system collides with an object the size of a golf ball. As any physicist would tell you, it makes no difference if you view the golf ball at rest and hit by the big thing, or vice-versa. And yet there is some sort of overcoming involved in the action: the golf ball sized thing impedes and even shifts the other by some amount, and vice versa. But there is no warrant in this overcoming in the interaction itself: we might just as well assume one was not overcome at all or even that it moved. The physics would stay the same if we held one body to be absolutely rigid and the other absolutely elastic.

-Overcoming adds something to interaction, and there is overcoming in nature but only interaction in efficient causes or forces.

Notes on the First Way and Classical physics

-Physics never explains motion, it just makes some given mobile larger. Mobile thing A is explained by being linked to B, which gives us only the larger mobile AB.

-The engine moves the wheels, and the wheels in turn move the rest of the car, engine included. At each stage, the motion of one part accounts for another. We co-ordinate one motion with an earlier one. We can push this to the chemical realm too, but only to get the same sorts of explanation. This wouldn’t be a problem if not for motion – or at least the transition from motion to rest –  is the paradigm case of what needs an explanation.

-At best, inertia is an account of why states continue after initiation. So taken, inertia is essentially a secondary cause, preserving the activity of some initiating cause. Inertia not only does not explain the transition from motion to rest it is defined as an impediment to this transition.

-One unwritten history of classical physics is that by placing inertia at the foundation of physics (as happens in Newton’s First Law) we enshrine the fact that physics treats only of secondary causes of motion.

-Newton’s insight is that physics does not explain motion as such but the transition from one state or velocity to another. This does not mean that “change of state” is a tertium quid with the state of motion and rest, but that physics explains the transition of one to the other.

-When Aristotle says that physics is about mobile being, he is speaking about what is given, not what is an object of explanation. The object of explanation in physics is state or velocity transition, not motion. Motion is only an object of explanation in metaphysics.

– A shorter version of the First Way, if “God” is taken as “explanation of nature outside of nature”*

What is, is explicable by something.

What is given is never explained.

Motion is given in nature.


*And if we assume there is more than one such explanation, like angels or souls, then we understand God as the highest possible such explanation. Souls are clearly not entirely outside of nature but are always defined in relation to it (either as forms or movers of the physics) and angels are defined as mediating intelligences – the very word angel specifies the mediating function of delivering a message.

I’m unimpressed by critiques of the First Way – here I’m thinking of Joseph Bobik – which state that it could just as easily conclude to an angel. This would be true only of our idea of angel was not essentially intermediary, but it is. No theory of angels as angels has ever even suspect that they were the highest beings.

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