I’ve compiled some objections and some brief responses to this argument for the existence of God. Some of these are specific to the argument, some apply to arguments in general. Please comment! Be sure to bring up any other objections, and feel free to pursue these questions deeper. I’d love to discuss this more!
- How is that God?
- How is “Pure Act” a personal, intelligent being?
- Is this Cause all good?
- You haven’t proved it’s the Christian God!
- Dawkins: What caused God?
- What if the universe didn’t have a beginning?
- Something, something, fallacy of composition! What if the universe as a whole is uncaused?
- This argument is just an appeal to a “god of the gaps”!
- Quantum mechanics!
- Kant: one cannot argue from the causality of sensible things to transcendent things.
- Humean Causality: causes and effects are loose and separate.
- An “In house” objection: but Aquinas is a Catholic!
Certainly, we could discuss each one of these topics in greater detail. I’ve briefly responded to these objections to hopefully clarify the argument, and to at least point in the direction of a possible rebuttal.
Well, first of all, whatever else God is supposed to be, He is the ultimate cause of everything else, and we’ve at least shown that exists. Keep in mind, Aquinas and many other proponents of this argument have written a great deal showing how the unchanging cause of everything changeable, must be have all the classical divine attributes. I lack the space and skill to work through that here, but let’s examine this question briefly.
Second, the Latin word Aquinas uses for God is deus, and as James Chastik has pointed out, this could equally refer to a god, as well as the God of classical theism. Aquinas pointing out that, whatever else this unmoved mover is, it is nothing merely natural, and would be called deus by anyone.
Aquinas spends chapters upon chapters of supplemental arguments building upon one another to derive the attributes of classical Theism. However, if we really have concluded that Pure Actuality exists, a great deal follows very quickly.
Pure Act is:
- Immaterial, since physical matter is limited by potentiality in space, time, and other ways.
- Non-spatial, not having dimension or extension, quantity or measure, since to occupy a space is to be limited in space. The object in space is limited by potentiality, because it has the potential to be here, and not there, when it is actually there, and not actually here.
- Non-temporal, not limited by time.
- Immutable, because it is utterly unchanging.
- Unique, since there can be only one such being, even in principle. Being is only differentiated by potency, so pure act, or pure being, would be a Unity.
- Active, and not inert – since it changes all things changeable. The mental picture of some static, radiating energy field is completely wrong as an analogy.
How is pure act a personal, intelligent being?
A quick, positive argument for the intelligence of the Unchanging Changer is as follows. Intelligent changers, with respect to intelligence, are never the instruments of changers that are non-intelligent. But the reverse is often true. In other words, the creation of information always requires a mind, and a student is always taught by a teacher. To add or create information, requires a mind. A person can program a computer, or teach another person to do so, and the computer can copy and process information, but a computer will never generate new information, nor use a human mind as an instrument to do so. But all changers, even intelligent ones, are instruments of the first Unchanging Changer. Therefore, the Unchanging Changer must also be intelligent.
Additionally, if the argument from change is successful, ultimate reality is a unity. One being is the cause of all other beings; Pure Act the cause of all mixtures of potency and act. This includes all intelligent beings. Pure Act lacks nothing, since being is limited by potency. (The object in space is limited in space, because it has the potential to be here, and not there, when it is actually there, and not actually here. So we say potency places certain limits on a thing.) So then, whatever exists in a limited way in creatures, exists purely in Creator. Intelligence is not a lack, imperfection, or privation (like evil, for example), therefore Pure Act has intelligence, and to an unlimited degree.
A more rigorous argument for Pure Act having intellect and will is a long and in depth development of an entire philosophy of intelligence, and I can’t do that justice here. So, let me at least suggest the direction one would go.
For something to have a potential, it has to have an essence containing certain potentials. There must be some nature in virtue of which it has certain potentialities. So the concepts of Act and Potency lead to a philosophy of essentialism, and the concepts of form and matter.
For Aristotle and Aquinas, forms do not exist in some Platonic realm as independent abstract objects. Instead, they exist 1) in concrete particulars that instantiate them in matter, and 2) in minds that abstract the universal forms from those concrete particulars. The intellect works by abstracting the universal form of the object from the concrete particular object, so that the intellect now holds the universal.
Couple this idea with the notion that in some way whatever is in the effect must in some way be in the cause (formally, virtually, or eminently). The effects “preexist” in the cause. So the flame in the lit candle was in the match that lit it first, or the carpenter had the form of the table in his mind before creating it.
So then, the cause of all possible things contains their forms, in a universal and abstract way, not in a concrete particular way, since this cause is immaterial. But that just is intelligence. It is omniscient intelligence too, since it is the cause of all possible things.
Also, since will (volition) follows from intelligence, the First Cause has a will (a perfectly informed will.)
Yes, but while this follows from the metaphysics that come out of Act and Potency, to fully flesh this out would take more time. Briefly speaking, goodness and truth are more real than evil. (They have positive ontology.) Evil is a privation, or a lack, in things, and does not have any independent existence itself. Now, this is not to say evil is an illusion, it’s very real. It is just real in the same sense that the hole in the donut is real, or blindness in an eye. If this is true, and there are very good reasons to think so, then what is Pure Being, or pure existence must necessarily be devoid of any evil.
Many Christian theologians would further argue that things like goodness and truth are the same thing as being, just considered from a different angle. In other words, at the ultimate level, being, goodness, truth, beauty, etc, are convertible with each other – they are one and the same concept. This would make God the very source and locus of goodness and truth. [Compare this idea with the words of Jesus in John 14:6.]
You’re right, this only proves the God of Theism. This would apply to Islam and Judaism, as well as Christianity. We’ll need further reasoning to conclude that God revealed Himself in Jesus of Nazareth.
This argument does, however, preclude Deism. Deism is the view that God got the world going, and has been hands off ever since creation. But the Argument from Change, if successful, shows that God is actively holding the world in existence. Deism says that God created a machine, and started it to run by itself; Theism says, creation is a song that God is singing.
Well, since the doctrine of the Trinity is one God and three persons, if you think the Triune God of the Bible cannot be Pure Act, and Being itself, then you most likely have a problem with the doctrine of the Trinity, and not the above argument.
Doctrines like the Trinity are revealed truths (or deductions from revealed truths), taken on faith. If you believe God exists, and believe the Bible is His word, you should believe what He says about Himself: that He is Triune. Christians do not claim that the Triune nature of God can be known without God Himself revealing that to us.
Yes. The doctrine of the incarnation is that the second person in the Trinity added human nature to His divine nature. So, the one person of God the Son has two natures. One is unchanging and beyond time, while one came to be in time and is fully human, but both natures are united in one person. Just like the doctrine of the Trinity, you’ll have to take His word for it.
This is not a serious objection to this argument. This argument starts with observing that change occurs, and works from what must be true for change to occur (act and potency), and deduces that there must be something that is purely actual, with no potential to change or to not exist. It concludes in something which is not a brute fact, but exists permanently and necessarily, from its own nature. The conclusion is something that is uncaused. We analyze that something, and call it God.
It’s not special pleading, since this very aspect of being uncaused is what is concluded by the argument.
The argument does not contain the premise, “everything has a cause.”
This argument doesn’t go back in time, and for all it cares, the universe could be eternal. Cosmological arguments in the style of the First Way, trace causes backwards in causality, not backwards in time. (The potter’s hand that curves to form a curve in the clay pot is causally prior to the curve in the pot, even though it is not prior in time.) Aquinas is actually famous for thinking the beginning of the universe could not be proven through reason (he believed it, but not based on philosophy). This argument shows there must be a purely actual actualizer here and now, for any change to be possible. The “First” Cause is first in hierarchy, or first in the order of causality.
At no point does the universe as a whole factor into this argument, nor is there any reasoning from parts to whole. All the argument requires, is one changing thing. For any change to occur in any particular thing, there must be a being who is Pure Act.
It’s nothing of the sort. In no way does the argument jump from something not yet understood to “God did it.” God is not a hypothesis, posited to explain something. God is the conclusion of a philosophical demonstration. Which also means…
No scientific discovery could invalidate this. Now, the argument might be wrong, but it would not be wrong because of some new empirical evidence. That would be like doubting the Pythagorean theorem because we might find a new triangle someday that disproves it. If the theorem is wrong, it’s wrong on mathematical grounds. Likewise, if Aquinas’s First Way is wrong, it is wrong on philosophical grounds.
Don’t confuse deterministic causality with causality as such. Quantum Mechanics seems to show that there are events that happen non-deterministically. They can only be predicted with probability, not certainty, even if all initial conditions are known perfectly. But that in no way means that some potentiality in a quantum system is actualized without a cause at all.
Not all causes are deterministic. My decision to write this blog was caused by many things, but if free will is true, none of them deterministically caused me to do so. Neither Aristotle nor Aquinas were determinists, and both describe spontaneity in the macroscopic. They would not have been surprised to find it in the microscopic.
Kant: one cannot argue from the causality of sensible things to transcendent things.
We come to know causality from sensible things, certainly. Aquinas held, “nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses.” However, effects have causes not insofar as they are sensible, but insofar as they exist. We understand causality from sensible objects, but the applicability of causality to sensible objects is not because of their sense-ability, but because of their existence. It is completely reasonable to therefore apply causality to non-sensible things that exist, if we have reason to believe such things exist. And The First Way is such a reason: any sensible object is changeable, therefore there is at least one thing we can know exists that is not detectable by our senses: The Unchanging Changer.
Now, an objector is welcome to argue for a Kantian epistemology, but until he or she does so, the above objection simply begs the question against the First Way. From what I can tell, Kant’s system is much more radical than most people are willing to accept. It seems incoherent, however, to cherry pick a critique of a cosmological argument from Kant, without fully embracing the philosophy that supports it.
Hume: we cannot know if causality is not just the frequent correlation of two events.
To Hume, cause and effect are “loose and separate” with no necessary connection. But this does not follow if causes are not temporal events, but instead causes are things. Actual things have causal power, and actual things produce effects. Causes are directed towards certain outcomes, by their nature, and so there is a necessary connection between a certain cause and a certain effect.
Feser’s primary thesis in the Last Superstition is that the modern philosophers abandoned Aristotelian causality (especially final causality) without warrant. The skepticism of Hume, and the radically limited epistemology of Kant that follows from it, just doesn’t hold if Aristotelian causality is not rejected. And since the core of Aristotelian philosophy, including the four causes, derives from Act and Potency, the Humean objector would have to start by refuting that.
I thought you were an evangelical, but Aquinas is a Catholic!
First of all, keep in mind that he was a pre-reformation Catholic, and most notably a pre-Trent Catholic. Catholicism looks very different from what it did 800 years ago. You’ll have to analyze Aquinas’s theology more carefully in order to critique it.
Ultimately, this is an argument for classical Theism. This is not an exhaustive Biblical Theology. (As I said before, even a Muslim might agree up to this point.) An evangelical would disagree with Aquinas over matters of special revelation, but he need not disagree over matters of natural theology.
I am hardly endorsing all of his Theological views. But as others have shown, Aquinas’s basic system of philosophy is very much compatible with evangelical theology.
We must search the scriptures to see if these things are true, with everyone. We should test all things, and hold fast to what is good. Because he is a medieval Catholic, our vigilance in guarding against error, might need to be increased, but his words should not be dismissed out of hand. If you think this description of reality does not correspond to the Bible’s description of it, let’s discuss it.
Further reading: Just Thomism, Edward Feser
David Oderberg, Article: ‘Whatever is Changing is Being Changed by Something Else’: A Reappraisal of Premise One of the First Way, a response to Anthony Kenny’s critique of the First Way’s first premise, available online here.