Why the quantifier shift objection to the Third Way is shortsighted, irrelevant, and wrong

The charge of a quantifier shift occurs at a part in the argument that is trying to prove the existence of something like matter or natural laws, which is why (a) there is no quantifier shift and (b) no one would care if there were.

(a) The charge is that it is fallacious to move from saying that if everything did not exist at some time then there is some time at which everything did not exist. First off, STA only makes this claim about the generated, not about everything – his argument is in fact trying to show that the generated be less universal than everything.

Take all generated things, which in STA’s sense means things that did not exist at some time and later did. Maybe this is an infinite set (like prime numbers) or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s existed for all time, and maybe it hasn’t. The question is whether everything could be this sort of thing. STA says no since if this would require that natural generation would reduce to nothing at all, and so could not even occur naturally.* By “the natural” he’s including things like matter, absolute space and particles, mass-energy, quantum states, natural laws, and/ or whatever background stuff our physical theories might reduce a universe or multiverse to. In other words, he’s trying to give a reason why every physical theory from Thales to Sean Carroll says that the fundamental physical reality is something everlasting and ungenerated. STA isn’t saying that if the set of generated individuals must have a some time at which they don’t exist, but that if there is no such thing as matter, absolute space and particles… etc. then generated things could not arise naturally, though they obviously do.

(b) Most persons would simply grant STA’s point without argument, or by an inductive argument that pointed to every physical theory ever devised, which seeks to reduce the generated (in STA’s sense) to the ungenerated. All the evidence we have of seeking to understand nature, whether by science, art or myth, points to the axiomatic character of reducing the finitely-temporal and compound to the everlasting and simple.

There are objectors, of course. Smolin and Unger want to deny the axiom, and this would put them in a tradition that seems to begin with Nietzsche who bases his whole philosophy on the mistake of trying to reduce the phenomenal and evanescent world to a deeper unchangeable reality (see “Reason in Philosophy” in Twilight of the Idols for his simplest and most magisterial treatment).** While Heidegger’s thought is incomplete and with at least one fundamental shift, he seems to want to articulate some sort of fundamental reality to the purely temporal. At minimum, he clearly sees this Nietzschean pan-temporality as the fundamental problem of contemporary thought, and in this he sees a good deal further and more clearly than almost everyone.

This helps to manifest just how far the charge of the quantifier shift misses the mark. The argument STA actually gives is a refutation of physical nihilism and a defense of physics as a fundamental science. Cosmological arguments usually articulate diverse levels of reality that are more and less godlike (a point that will be made explicitly in the Fourth Way) and the Third Way does this in a way that establishes the godlike character of the simple and everlasting entities that we seek in order to articulate a physical theory.


*If something natural could not occur naturally, it either occurs from some other-than-natural means or it doesn’t occur at all, and STA takes the second fork in his argument. There’s more than one reason to do this (1) it allows him to prove the existence of a deus in the hardest possible case and (2) it establishes a level of godlike existence in nature itself, which both gives us an analogy to understand God and makes for a greater manifestation of his power.

**The doctrine of “eternal return” is not an exception to this, but is either a clumsy and ill-fitted addition to his thought or a metaphor for the purely temporal existence of all things.




  1. robalspaugh said,

    July 8, 2016 at 10:19 am

    Aaaand now I understand the Third Way less than before. “STA says no since this would require…” and suddenly the rest of that sentence hurts my head. I can’t follow that reason. It sounds like you are equating and then opposing the natural and the generated. Can you re-tackle that sentence for poor me?

    • July 8, 2016 at 10:27 am

      Huh. We must have been thinking the same thing since that’s exactly the sentence I went back and rewrote before I saw your comment.

      The steps of the Third Way are (1) look around. Some things did not exist at some time and later did. Who knows how many there are (infinite? Finite?) or how long they have been here (four thousand years? Forever?) – the crucial question is Can these be the only sorts of things that exist? Step (2) is to say No. There also has to be something like:

      Thales: water and gods.
      Plato: Eternal ideas
      Aristotle: Matter and form
      The Atomist tradition: Atoms or fundamental particles.
      Newton: Absolute Space, time, forces and particles
      Einstein: mass-energy and space-time.
      QM: quantum states and vacuum energy.
      Sean Carroll: The everlasting cascade of entropy.

      Why do we need things like this? Do they all share something in common? Are they all attempts to flesh out a single axiom? STA thinks they are, and argues that without these ungenerated things then at some time nothing would exist. IOW, without a more fundamental level of existence beneath natural generation, natural generation could never have occurred, though (just look around) it clearly did.

      STA’s next, final step (3) is the more interesting one, which could be fleshed out in greater detail. The ungenerated things we encounter in step (2) are all necessary, but necessary in a manner that makes them dependent on another. Again, STA doesn’t explain step (3) concretely (in fact, he can’t, since one of the guiding principles of the Five Ways is to abstract from any concretely given physical system) but it becomes clear when we consider all the various modes of everlasting existence given at (2). The simplest proof for this would be to point out that physical necessity is never logical necessity, and so the merely physically necessary always points to some deeper level of explanation. Another approach might point out that physical explanation always occurs in media res, with, say, a hypothesis that is taken as merely stipulated but can never be simply stipulated (as though we could form hypotheses at random), or with actions working within a physical system that can only be taken as there even though the system provides us with no reason for why it should be there at all. There are other approaches as well to showing that the entities we prove must exist in (2) are what STA calls “necessary by another”.

      • robalspaugh said,

        July 8, 2016 at 11:31 am

        Perhaps proof that I have finally learned a few things following you all these years! Or something.

        Thanks for the clarifier. The comment I follow well, and I get the idea of the Third Way as you’ve laid it out. Still not sure about it, but now I have some direction!

        There was a point in my teaching when I thought I saw this as by far the most obvious and best of the Five, although that time has passed.

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