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Taking Aquinas Serieslessly

July 8, AD2013 10 Comments


Current presentations of the Aristotelian/Thomistic arguments of the Unmoved Mover and the First Cause reject infinite series while often appearing to endorse finite series. This is especially true of analogies. A common analogy for the Unmoved Mover is that of a locomotive imparting motion through a finite series of railway cars. A common analogy for the First Cause is the first progenitor-pair as the first cause of succeeding serial biological progeny.

In these analogies the intermediate elements are initially receivers and secondarily transmitters of motion or causality. The terminal element in the finite series is a receiver only, but may later function as a transmitter. The first element in the finite series is solely a transmitter of motion or causality. The first element in the series differs from all others in its not being a receiver. However, as a transmitter in the analogies it is not distinguishable in function from the other elements in the finite series. It is in the lack of a function (reception) and not in the performance or quality of a function (transmission) that such unmoved movers and first causes differ from the subsequent elements in the finite series. All of the transmitters in the series from first to last, as transmitters, are equal to each other.

A modern analogy would be the first cause of a file on a computer. Let the file not originate with the computer in question. Let it be received from another computer. Either that computer originated the file or received it from another computer. However, the series of computers receiving and transmitting the file cannot be infinite. There must be a first computer, i.e. a computer in which the file originated. Thus the series must be finite. This first computer all men call God.

That, of course, is a parody of these two arguments for the existence of God. As Peter Kreeft pointed out both arguments are based on the principle of sufficient reason, but not the sufficient reason of anything at all such as the motion of railway cars or the biological generation of progeny. No, these arguments, which lead to the existence of God, refer solely to the sufficient reason for existence. Kreeft states: “We never deny the Principle of Sufficient Reason itself. No one believes the Pop Theory: that things just pop into existence for no reason at all. Perhaps we will never find the cause, but there must be a cause for everything that comes into existence.”

Of course, Kreeft meant: Perhaps we will never find the cause, but there must be a proximate cause of everything that occurs. His primary argument is that we do know the ultimate and proximate cause of everything’s coming into existence, namely God.

The principle of sufficient reason is universal. It applies to everything including existence. Everything has an explanation. Everything is reasonable. If it were not true, there could be no human knowledge and nothing for one human to communicate to another. The following proposition is a corollary, but it nevertheless impels us to acknowledge the validity of the primary proposition. Logic in its totality would be destroyed, if there were one exception to any rule of logic. The primary proposition is the principle of sufficient reason: All that exists is reasonable in its existence without exception. All that exists makes sense in its existence without exception.

Consider a kitten or an adult cat. A kitten is an integral entity. It subsists in itself. It is not passive. All that we know of it, we know of it to the extent that it is in act, i.e. in being. Every property, every operation of the kitten has its sufficient reason in the fact that it is a kitten. Its moving about has its sufficient reason in the fact that it is a kitten. Its being the biological progeny of its parents is explained by its being a kitten. Oops there is one thing: the very existence of the kitten itself. Thus, everything about the kitten is explained by its nature, its kitten-ness (its cat-ness), except its very existence. The sufficient reason for the existence of the kitten must be outside of the kitten and its nature. If all cats were extinct, that fact would not change the nature of cat.

The only being which could explain its own existence would be a being, whose nature was to exist. Its nature and its act of existence would be identical. It would not only be the sufficient reason of its own existence, but the sufficient reason of the existence of all beings within our human experience. None of the things within our experience explains its own existence because its existence is completely distinct from its nature. For all of the things within our experience, existence must be an add-on from a source external to the source of their reasonableness, i.e. their nature. Only a being whose entire nature is its very act of existence could explain its own existence, as well as being the explanation of all other beings whose nature is indifferent to existence.

The Unmoved Mover and the First Cause of Aristotle and Aquinas are unmoved and first at the level of existence. The unmoved mover moves everything else that exists into existence without any mediation. The first cause is the cause of the existence of everything else that exists without any mediation.

Only God can impart existence. God as the first cause of the existence of every other being is not first as in a series. God is first cause in the sense of solely and immediately. The first question in the penny catechism is: Who made you? The answer: God made me. From our childhood the Church teaches us unadulterated wisdom. Also, the Blessed Trinity is not a series of persons, but a unique complementarity of eternal persons (CCC 248).

Aquinas’ five ways of proving the existence of God reject all series, both infinite and finite, and all mediation in being. Analogies of finite series, as well as analogies of local motion are misleading and should therefore be avoided.

© 2013. Bob Drury. All Rights Reserved.

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Filed in: Education

About the Author:

Bob Drury is retired. He has been fascinated with the reasonableness of the Faith since his junior year in high school in the mid-20th century for which the religion text was entitled, "Faith and Reason". That fascination has continued throughout his education in philosophy, math and science. In his essays he hopes to share that fascination with others. Read more at his website, They Have No Wine.

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