First Way Notes

– Objection: The First Way concludes not to pure act, but to something that is immobile with respect to the motion one starts with. The first mover of an object that changes place can still have the potency to heat up or cool down.

Response: This is true but it misses the point. Something that causes motion without being in motion is self-evidently non-natural. It would be a soul that did not move along with its body; a force that did not move along with what it was forcing; a skyhook that didn’t have to ascend with what it lifted, a magnetic field that didn’t flow and warp with the iron it tugged, etc. It’s evident that such a mover can’t be a body (and so is a spirit). Given this, things have to be present to him as things are present to spirits, i.e. by being known.

-If our explanations of motion give no account of the first mover, their logic is identical to resting the world on a stack of turtles. The whole problem with the turtle is that just as one can’t explain motion by mobile movers, he can’t explain stability by stabilized stabilizers.

Objection: the point of science is not to reduce to ultimate causes but to co-ordinate phenomena to each other.

Response: False – and in fact deeply false in a way that doesn’t understand the first thing about science. Energy is not a phenomenon. Who observes a single reality that can be cashed-in from motion to heat to friction to height to chemical bonds? Feynman is right that it is unthinkable that a single reality should be preserved though all these changes.

It would be truer to say that science continually tries to explain the concrete through the abstract, i.e. phenomena in light of the ideal or simple form. The Thomist quip about “reducing all causes to material and efficient causes” is ill-considered. Science wants to reduce everything to formal causes: abstractions like laws, idealizations, blackboard realities, etc. The First Way is thus in keeping with the scientific spirit as it’s actually practiced, as opposed to the press junket that talks about limiting ourselves to the observable.

-Motion is relative only when we cease to consider the asymmetry of action and passion. I am not “moving with respect to” anything when I act. Pushing is not just the translation of matter (which is relative) but an activity exerted on something. It makes no difference to a physicist whether I push down a woman or she pulls down my hands when she throws herself down, but to say that there is no physical, asymmetrical reality to observe here is nonsense.



  1. Roland said,

    November 11, 2015 at 8:13 am

    The first objection recently occurred to me, too. With regards to your first response, how do we know that the conclusion of the argument isn’t just an angel? Is there a sense in which angels are moved when they move others?

    • November 11, 2015 at 12:26 pm

      Perhaps our first account of God does not allow us to distinguish between God and angels in the same way that our first account of fish doesn’t allow us to distinguish between fish and whales. but I don’t think it’s quite like this. Any clear account of what an angel is will have to understand him as actualized by another or a part of a larger whole, and so one could not take the First Way as concluding to the angelic.

      Said another way, describing what one means by an angel requires more than articulating how they are above nature – it also requires an account of how they are under God (which is why Scripture calls them “messengers” or “Sons of God”). This gives them a mixed character of both worlds that will be very hard to articulate without notions of being composed, being a part, being actualized by another, etc., all of which rule them out from being the entity one reaches to in the First Way.

      Another take: God is supernatural without qualification, angels only with some qualification (since angels are intermediaries, any account we give of them has to both set them apart from nature and also show how they are univocally one with it.) If you want the unmoved mover in the First Way to be an angel, you have to put some qualification on what you mean, and since the First Way has no such qualification, it concludes to God an not an angel. Paradoxically, the absence of a qualification is why it concludes to God and not something beneath him.

  2. Jeff P. said,

    November 13, 2015 at 8:58 am

    A little off topic. What of the objection to Thomism that since causality via motion/change from potentiality to actuality is based on observing reality in our universe, this need not be the same in other universes whether parallel or preceding our own where laws of physics (or logic?) may be different?

    • Roland said,

      November 13, 2015 at 9:42 am

      It assumes the premise that “whatever I abstract from data evident to me through my senses is only applicable to what I could here and now sense” where “here and now” refers our current sensory context, whatever that may be. It seems this premise is false and I suspect even self-refuting (since it seems to be the kind universal claim it aims to preclude).

      When Aristotelians analyse change, as the actualisation of potency as such, they have in mind any kind of change and not specifically this or that particular instance of change they can point at. We pick out the general notion of change from the particular instances of it through abstraction. People do this all the time in every kind of science, including the science that suggest parallel universes and study logic(s).

      Of course, physical reality could have been different so that the exact details of this or that causation might have been different, but it’s these kinds of differences that Aristotelians (and people more generally) are abstracting out.

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