Freedom and unmoved movers

Contemporary accounts of freedom understand freedom as self activity. Here’s why: all arguments against freedom would work just as well against any claim that something moved itself. We would object just as much to a stone’s motion being insufficiently explained by its antecedent causal history as we would to a human choice.

This means our contemporary view of action and behavior is that everything in motion is moved by another. Given that Aristotle came up with this first, it seems to be in the running for one of the most certain axioms in physics. The possibility of self-activity (freedom) is therefore just what it has always been – it turns on the question of whether unmoved movers exist, and whether there can be more than one kind.

Unmoved movers exist if it is impossible that all movers be moved, and if not, not. The Aristotelian tradition framed their solution in terms of the impossibility of infinite series, in the sense of in-finite that rules out an arche or principle of some ordered progression. It is simply not clear what we think about this sort of argument – on the one hand our own science can be tortured into seeming to say that there are ordered progressions without arche: we have waves though nothing is waving (no aether) we have work done though nothing is working (energy is not a substance or form) we posit explanations of effects that we insist cannot be causes (abstract laws). Nevertheless, even raising these sorts of questions demands an ontology that is totally out of place in the scientific discourse itself. What physics text would take a break from equations to ask if energy was substantial? So our own science seems either baffled about whether all movers are moved or incapable of raising the question.

Let’s take our condition seriously and insist that we have nothing at all to say about the possibility or impossibility of freedom. Attempts to parlay contemporary science for or against free choice are, on this analysis, as impossible as trying to prove it from a pancake recipe or from the number of Legos in my couch. For the same reason, the sciences are neither determinist nor indeterminist. We are not compatibilist because we cannot establish that the possibility of determinism, we are not Naturalists because of methodological naturalism since the latter, in sufficing to explain the sciences, cannot suffice to solve the question of unmoved movers.


Contingency and necessity in propositions

Are simple propositions fundamentally necessary or contingent? A priori or a posteriori?

Say I believe in free will and I claim that Jones is a murderer. So “Jones is a murderer” must be a contingent proposition. The claim is true, but it didn’t need to be true. I can give Leibniz’s account of this or Hume’s or the possible worlds analysis, but the general outlines should be clear to everyone.

On the other hand, the claim is clearly made by relating Jones to an unseen world of moral ideals, human obligations, truths about the value of life, appropriate emotional responses to seeing his face, etc. Seen from this angle, the proposition is generated in the relation of an individual in time to a timeless and unchanging world, in which the necessary is functioning as the light in which we are seeing the flux of contingent events or, said a la Plato, the realty of the contingent it constituted by its relationship to the necessary, and the necessary is recognized in (or triggered by) the concrete instance.

The moral world of the above example is just one region of a general timeless and invariant space that also includes the scientific, the beautiful, the rigorous, the mythical, and infinitely other unexplored ‘spaces’. There is no need for this invariant space to be all that distinctly developed: Humans don’t relate to the world as real without keeping one foot in the contingent and another in the necessary, and even very small children are relating to the world as real.

This sense of contingent and necessary is prior to the propositions already constituted. So if we take the truth of the proposition modally, then necessity and contingency are fundamental, but if we take the truth of the proposition as its recording of reality then it is fundamentally a mix of the contingent and the necessary. But the second is more fundamental to the proposition.


On the Tower of Babel


And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Gen. 11

“To reach for heaven” adopts the Jewish custom of replacing “heaven” for the name “God”. Since these people are coming off the memory of the great flood their motive is to use technology to escape the consequences of divine judgment. As we’d put it, they’ll science themselves out of their (moral and religious) problems.

“Let us make a name for ourselves” plays on the scriptural idiom of “making a name” which is a properly divine act (cf. Genesis 12: 2, 2. Samuel,  1 Chronicles 17: 21, Zephaniah 3: 20). The sense is therefore that we will constitute ourselves as a people and set our own destiny apart from, and even in opposition to a divine action.

Both of these are only means to avoid being scattered over all the earth, which is an admirable goal that is even recognized as a divine act.  The ur-thought motivating this whole tower episode is the builders seeing that the unity of the whole world is a divine act. To achieve it by themselves, the builders know they must appropriate divine power for themselves.

God’s response to the project is two-sided. On the one hand, as many commentators point out, God has to “come down” in order to see the tower, IOW, any attempt to build to the heavens falls laughably short. On the other hand, God describes the danger in the unity of all persons as their unlimited growth in power, and so even if all human self-appropriations of divine power fall infinitely short of the genuine article they can nevertheless extend without limit.

As the myth describes, human power extends without limit through the hands, the imagination, and above all in speech. Our skill in building and making things suggests infinite power to the imagination,  and we proceed to make ourselves divine beings within the world created by speech. Some things really do exist within speech, above all political order and its possibility of extending indefinitely. If everyone imagines and says you are king, it does not follow that you are an imaginary king existing only in speech. This is the sense of the unity in speech, together with some technological skill* as giving rise to as sense that humanity can achieve the divine act of unifying all nations.

Nevertheless, human words can’t speak things into existence, and even if real political power arises from opinion, opinion as such need not rest on anything, and the attempt to make a name for ourselves is just this sort of substanceless opinion.

*In Genesis 11, this consists in advanced brick-making and building materials technology referenced in v. 3 

Will in knowledge

Part of extending knowledge beyond a certain point requires getting the will involved in the object of knowing. In things below us, our appropriate stance is of domination and control of the object, and so the dialectical extension of knowledge of what is beneath us uses operational definitions, experiments, imaginative models, etc. In things that are not beneath us the appropriate stance can never be domination but is an act of love.

Remedies for oppression

Say  that Eighth grade class B is underperforming and failing to get into High School, and everyone knows that a big part of the problem is that High School admissions boards have irrational prejudices against the letter B. You could do a lot of things, but you choose the following two-prong approach:

1.) You increase high school access to all members of class B.

2.) To combat the irrational prejudice against class B, you include lots of pictures of persons from that class in your High School promotional literature, proving that members from that group can succeed and making it clear to everyone that you strongly reject the irrational prejudice against them.

Assume the upsides of your approach are evident. What are the dangers?

The main danger is that by increasing access you will not do anything to help class B as a class but only increase the representation by the outliers of the group. The oppression of class B is a statistical cluster, and merely picking off the outliers from the group is carries at least three dangers:

1.) None of the systemic problems of the group are being addressed. Picking off outliers from a group not only leaves the statistical cluster unaffected, it will intensify it.

2.) The outliers of the group will tend to be the most talented, industrious, charismatic, attractive, etc. In other words, they are exactly the sort of persons that could be of greatest service to the group were they to stay within it. By separating them from the group we predict a brain drain and an absence of those who could have led the group to better itself if our policy pursued real empowerment.

3.)   We delude ourselves into thinking we are making real change when in fact we are strengthening dominant culture with the window-dressing of oppressed culture. The efforts we think are extending equality are in fact exaggerating divisions between groups.





Notes. 3.14.

-Image and likeness. If you can point to a map and say “This is Russia” you can point to a soul and say “This is God”.

-Before the Sixteenth Century we would not have expected anyone to relate to a text as their own. Texts took up to a year to copy and cost as much as a farm, and so could only be corporately owned. We’d no more expect a privately owned text than we would now expect a privately owned aircraft carrier or cell phone network. So of course the Bible was owned by a corporation and not an individual, and therefore at the disposal of a corporate body and its high-level agents and not any unaffiliated individual believer.

If some technology made cell phone networks much cheaper then I suppose future historians could look back at our time as the dark ages when a small corporate board controlled everyone’s ability to talk to each other and “kept the network to themselves”, or as the time before we had separated corporation and communication, but it doesn’t seem like a particularly illuminating way to describe life as I experience it.

The moral problem is unanswered. Say technology makes X able to be owned by anyone. Whether this is a wise move will depend on the X – Is it health care? Networks? Race cars? Atomic weapons?

-The Reformation and its Catholic response is therefore also a technological problem. Like all such problems it tends to be treated as self-justifying or at least inevitable. Why is technological power greeted with a sense of moral powerlessness?


“Like us in all things except sin”

The phrase isn’t understood until we hear it almost as a joke.

Nothing counts as a sin unless it is an abuse of human life and a squandering of properly human talents. Sin is to being human what sabotaging cars is to mechanical skill or torturing people is to surgical skill. So if ten men went to medical school and nine of them used their knowledge of the nervous system to cause maximal amounts of pain while extracting confessions while the other went on to work in a hospital, the last guy would be a surgeon like the others in all things but torture, just as Christ is a man like all others in all things but sin.


Short form of the Second Way

The short form of the Second Way is even briefer than the First Way:

1.) Some agent causes do not have agent causes.

2.) All agent causes that do not have agent causes are divine.

The proof is identical to the last two steps of the First Way, with “mover” replaced by its synonym “agent cause”.

1.) If this is false, then all agent causes have agent causes, and so to appeal to agent causality would not explain anything. A causal explanation would not be an explanation.

Notice that the argument does not depend on the principle of sufficient reason, but simply to the principle of contradiction. The claim is not that “there must always be an explanation” but that giving causes does give an explanation, and explanations must explain.

2.) An agent cause is any extrinsic cause of activity which is not a goal. This is, again, a vast and variegated group: the hand throws a ball, the shortening day causes the leaves to turn, the Moon causes the tides, the Theia impact caused the Moon, etc.

But then why can’t causes like this be both explanatory and infinite? The Moon causes tides, the Theia impact causes the Moon, some cluster of unnamed causes causes the Theia impact, etc… It looks like there is no end to a series of agent causes that explain.

Not quite: Look closer at the series tides, Moon, impact. Either the series is meant to explain tides or not. If so, then you’re positing the impact as the cause of the tides, i.e. you’re seeing the rise and fall of the tides, along with the orbit of the Moon, as ways in which the impact continues to happen.  In other words, you’re treating the Impact-tides sequence as being as much of a whole as the airburst-mushroom cloud sequence of an atom bomb exploding. If you’re not explaining the tides this way, then the impact is irrelevant to your explanation. Still, the explanation from the impact remains a possibility, and cutting the explanation off at the Moon is simply a practical matter. We acknowledge that the Moon has an agent cause, but ignore it in our explanation.

One can expand on agent causes indefinitely, but not infinitely. Agent causes are indefinite so far as there is no intrinsic limit on how far removed in time we might go in giving an agent cause for any given action, but when we say the causes are infinite we deny the existence of the one that serves as the explanation of the event. In a similar way, we might make a line segment indefinitely longer, but to make it infinitely longer makes it no longer a line segment.

When we say the causes are indefinite, we mean that there is no a priori way to tell how many subordinate agent causes the primary agent cause used to achieve any given effect, or how long it took these secondary causes to act. This still allows that these secondary causes might have acted over an infinite time, since the secondary causes are not finite with respect to each other but with respect to the primary cause.

The primary cause cannot be the universe, not because it’s obvious that the universe had an extrinsic cause but because the parts of the universe are always extrinsic causes to other parts. We can view physical systems either as moved (the First Way) or as movers (Second Way)

The primary cause is therefore a partless mover acting neither specially or temporally. This applies in some way to the human soul, and, as said above, STA has no problem seeing the soul as somehow divine. But divinity properly speaking would have to account for the unified action of the universe as such, and this all call deus. 

First Way in least terms

Put in simplest form, the First Way is four claims:

1.) All potentials are moved (or actualized) by a mover

2.) All things in motion are potential.

Thus, all things in motion are moved by a mover.

3.) Not all movers have movers.

4.) All movers without movers are divine.

1.) “The mover” is a portmanteau term for things that trigger motion, assemble something that moves, push a thing along, give objects a position with potential energy, create some nature that moves in some way by nature, etc. Potentials as such are reservoirs that various movers can draw upon, not agencies that initiate or continue activities. The claim is more or less just a recognition of what “potential” means, whether used in common speech or physics.

2.) All things in motion are able to be so. They are a lot of other things too, but they are at least this.

3.) This claim is based on a conceptual incoherence. STA tends to express this as a denial of an infinite regress, but shifts in our notion of infinity have made the old formulation more a liability than a source of insight. Even if one had infinite movers responsible for an action, not all movers could be such.

It’s this incoherence that demands transcendence of the sensible order. It demands that no matter how much activity or motion is explained by causal interaction, there is at least one cause that does not act in this way.

To give movers to all movers is to fall into the contradiction of positing something as an explanation which in incapable of explaining anything. If we explain the stability of the earth by resting it on a turtle we venture an explanation that cannot explain, and “the infinite regress of turtles” that arises from this is only way of pointing to the inherent contradiction of positing things that cannot explain as explanations.

4.) “Divine” means an immaterial and therefore non-interactive source of natural motions. On this account, even a human intellectual soul would count as in some sense divine, and STA has no problem with this. But if nature is in any way a unified system then there is a single divinity for its activity, and our sense that the incompatibility of Relativity and QM means that both are incomplete arises from just this sense of nature as a unified system.


Logic of the Five Ways

Most presentations of the Five Ways explain them in the same order STA presents them in his text, but this order is different from the logical order of his thought. We know this since STA is more explicit than most about what his logical order looks like. Four features are relevant:

1.) All argumentation for some claim seeks to give a middle term. STA recognizes two kinds of truth. Self-evident truths are those where the predicate is immediately belongs to the subject, all other truths are known mediately and therefore require some relation to a middle term. There is no single definition of “middle term” but there is an account of “middle” for any universal affirmative claim, namely a term that is more universal than the subject and less universal than the predicate.  Because of this, the middle term proving a universal affirmative proposition will be said of its subject while the predicate is said of it. IOW, we will prove the claim by a Barbara syllogism.

2.) More general terms are more knowable. This is why the the term that mediately proves some claim has to have a generality midway between the subject and predicate of the conclusion, thereby forming a Barbara syllogism. This is, in fact, exactly why those in the Aristotelian tradition call it a middle term, i.e. it has a generality midway between the major term (major = greatest in universality) and the minor term (minor = least in universality)

General terms are more knowable in the intellectual order since intelligence first knows ens commune, i.e. being as so general that it includes both the real and the fictional, the factual and the illusory. Logic starts with this crash of confusion and uses argumentation to winnow it down, first to exclude some object from the all-but-infinite things it is not and then establish, at least generally, what the object is.

3.) In proofs that X exists, the middle term is what the word X means. Language refers not immediately to things but to things through thought, and our thought comes to us first only as significant, not as specifying objects that are clearly seen as real as opposed to fictional or factual as opposed to illusory. Proving that something is only takes one step beyond this initial confusion, it doesn’t go all the way to placing something in a genus. In fact, in any of the Five Ways it is impossible to place the object in a genus.

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