Thomas Aquinas for Beginners

Listening closely to theist arguments–and Aquinas. As an agnostic, I’m not sure whether God exists or not, nor whether Thomas Aquinas’s metaphysics is wholly correct, but I’m also not the sort of person who is interested in practicing confirmation bias (counting the hits, but not the misses, for my pet theories; never reading the books of those whose views are different from my own, etc.). When I lean toward a thesis, and the issue is important to me, I try actively to seek out evidence and arguments against my thesis, and not be too fast in dismissing the views of others. The following quote of Spinoza’s ought to be better known: “Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere.” (Not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand.)

So though an agnostic, I’m interested in understanding exactly why the most articulate theists are certain that God exists (or, at least, think it’s highly likely). And the most articulate theist who has ever lived is Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Edward Feser. The strongest contemporary proponent of God’s existence, in my view, is the Thomist philosopher, Edward Feser, and in his book, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (2009), he has a superb chapter–chapter 2–introducing the metaphysics upon which Aquinas based his arguments for, well, everything–including God’s existence. Feser stresses repeatedly that you can’t really understand Thomas Aquinas without understanding his metaphysics.

Feser’s chapter on Aquinas’s metaphysics, however, is long–53 pages–so what I thought I would do is digest some of the key ideas from the chapter. If you want to go deeper, you can get Feser’s book here. My examples and elaborations will tend to be my own, not Feser’s, and if a Thomist thinks I’ve botched a concept, or illustrated it with an improper analogy, blame me, not Feser.

Ontology: the study of being. An especially helpful thing in Feser’s metaphysics chapter is his definition of ontology, and it’s a good place to start. Here’s Feser (31):

Aquinas, following Aristotle, regards metaphysics as the ‘science which studies being as being,’ rather than (as other sciences do) studying some one particular kind of being among others (In Meta IV.1.529). (For this reason, metaphysicians in the Thomistic tradition have often preferred the label ‘ontology’–from the Greek ontos or ‘being’–as an apt name for their discipline.) Act and potency, form and matter, essence and existence, substance and accident, and the like are all merely aspects of being, and thus their study gives us greater understanding of it.

OK, so we’ve got the first step in getting our heads around Aquinas’ metaphysics: it’s the study of being, not non-being or particular beings, and Aquinas, usually following Aristotle, treats being as consisting of paired aspects: act and potency, form and matter, etc. These conceptual pairings can assist one in thinking clearly about the nature of being from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) perspective.

Act and potency vs. being and nothingness. If ontology is the study of being, what about non-being? Why don’t Aquinas and Aristotle–like, say, Buddhists–start their philosophizing with non-being–with emptiness or nothingness–instead of being?

The reason is that Aquinas and Aristotle think that the Presocratic philosopher, Parmenides (c. 515-450 BCE), gets something fundamentally wrong. Parmenides argues that change is an illusion, for “the only thing other than being is non-being, and non-being, since it is just nothing, cannot cause anything” (9). For Parmenides, in other words, non-changing being is always non-changing being. It always already exists, and there’s nothing with the power to change it. We don’t experience it this way, but Parmenides claims that this is how it really is. “Nothing can come of nothing” (to quote King Lear in Shakespeare)–and so being, having nothing external to move it, doesn’t change.

Aristotle and Aquinas don’t respond to this as a Buddhist might. A Buddhist, following the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna (c. 150-250 CE), would likely say something like this: non-being (emptiness, nothingness) opens up a space for things to happen; things can change into other things because they’re essentially empty, a nihil, nothing. “No flower in the flower,” says the Dalai Lama. It’s through nothingness that transitory things can exist at all, and it’s because transitory things exist that nothingness is known. Neither being nor non-being is prior to the other; there is a middle way between the ideas that nothing really exists and everything really exists. Every particular thing that exists actually has no substantial essence or permanent existence, but is an unstable, spontaneous, and mutually interdependent arising out of the dynamic emptiness. And reality is thus non-dual because there is no thing that exists in the flux that is independent of all the other things in the flux. Particulars arise, ripen, and pass away, but they add up to nothing. Unstable interconnection and emptiness make way for change.

But this isn’t Aristotle and Aquinas’s tack concerning change. They agree with Parmenides (and King Lear) that nothing can come of nothing–but contra Parmenides, to get non-illusory change, they posit that whatever exists possesses two aspects: act and potency (actuality and potential). A living cat, for instance, actually exists and has the potential to change into a dead cat if an external agent moves it in the direction of that potential (as when a car runs over it). Act and potency–actuality and potential–are the dual aspects of the cat’s being. It’s what the cat is. And the potential of the cat is, as it were, in the cat, in its nature; its very being.

So that’s how Aristotle and Aquinas posit that change can occur within being itself: it has two aspects (act and potency), not one, and it can be moved by an external being that is itself in motion (think of a line of dominoes enacting their potential for knocking one another over).

Contra the Buddha and Nagarjuna, then, non-being need play no role in getting change to occur because the car that threatens to drive over the cat also possesses act and potency (the actuality of existing and the potential for movement). The car is really real; it’s not nothing. And in this instance, if it were to begin rolling, it could become the external source that moves the cat from being alive to being dead. Likewise, gasoline would be one of the reasons the car got rolling in the first place. Everything that exists, in short, is accompanied by potencies that can be realized when an external source acts upon them. No thing moves of itself, it needs an external cause. So on Aquinas and Aristotle, this is how being changes. Chains of causation move the world. Causation is central to A-T metaphysics.

But what does it mean to say that the cat is not only actual in this moment, but has, in its very being, other potential ways of being? Where do these potentials–these potencies for change–reside? Can we bring them out of the cat that we might see them?

Essentialism. We can’t place the cat’s potentials on a table like they’re material objects and literally see them before they manifest, but according to Aristotle and Aquinas they’re in the cat just the same, and we can imagine them. The cat, for example, might be sleeping in a sunny spot on the table, but it nevertheless possesses the power to wake and scratch. It’s part of the cat’s nature to do such things. In asserting this, Aristotle and Aquinas are, like Plato, realists, not nominalists, in that they think we actually discover our abstractions about what cats are–we’re not just making them up as we go along (as a nominalist might suppose). Our conceptualizations concerning what a cat is, and is capable of doing and becoming, are not arbitrary. They’re not mere conventions of language or ideas solely serving human purposes, but real. The cat possesses a real essence (it is a domesticated carnivore), and this essence is manifested in its properties (it eats meat; it has instincts for hunting), potencies (it has the power to scratch), and potentials (it is inclined to sharpen its claws on furniture on awakening, and it might do so when it awakens).

The cat may also have accidental features not essential to its nature as cat qua cat, such as the color of its fur. Feser quotes Aquinas as making the essence-accident distinction in these words: “What makes something exist substantially is called substantial form, and what makes something exist accidentally is called accidental form” (13-14). In other words, if you change something essential about a thing (turning a carnivorous cat into a vegetarian), it’s a substantial change, and if you change something non-essential (the color of the cat’s fur), it’s a trivial, non-important, accidental change. Here’s Feser: “Those features deriving from the essence, such as Socrates’ ability to learn languages, are…referred to as ‘properties,’ since they are proper or necessary to a thing in a way that its purely contingent features (like Socrates’ being in Athens or having been a soldier) are not” (25). Put another way, if we identify and define Socrates’ substantial form as most essentially that of being a rational animal, the sorts of properties that go with that substantial form are such things as humor and the ability to learn languages, not whether Socrates wears blue or green socks.

But where, again, does the essence of Socrates or a cat reside? From where do these properties and potentials manifest? Is the Dalai Lama right that there is, ultimately, “no flower in the flower”–no essence of Socrates really in Socrates, and no cat really in the cat–or are Aristotle and Aquinas right that there are real essences that can be known and that truly exist somewhere beneath the appearances of things?

Hylemorphism (from the Greek words hyle–matter–and morphe–form). Aristotle and Aquinas are certainly not Buddhists or nominalists–they think things really and truly exist. Nor are they Platonists in the sense that the essence of the cat–the perfect cat–resides in a Platonic heaven of ideal forms (alongside the perfect chair, the perfect triangle, etc.). Instead, Aristotle and Aquinas are hylemorphists.

Hylemorphism is a term out of classical philosophy (first used by Aristotle, later picked up by Aquinas) where a designer takes raw material and uses her mind and hands to impose purpose and form on it, as when St. Paul writes, “Shall the clay say to the potter, why have you made me thus?”

A blog post, for example, is a hylemorphic project, where the matter of words is ordered by the author into a very definite form. As is a poem. Or a building. The soul of a thing–its essence–is its matter and form combined with the intention of its author.

So both Aristotle and Aquinas believe in hylemorphism. They believe that essences reside in an inseparable combination of two things: matter and form. If you want to know where a cat’s animal soul, nature, essence, potentials etc. reside, they’re not in its matter–the organic chemistry of which the cat is composed–nor in its heavenly form (the ideal cat), nor in some part of its body or head (such as in the brain), but in its matter and form as a whole when combined. That’s what it means to exist.

Think again of St. Paul’s clay pot. The pot is not just its matter (the clay), and not just its form (the pot’s shape). It’s the combination of the two that makes it what it is. Likewise, the matter and form of the cat are composite. Its existence is its substantial form combined with a body. And we, as rational beings, can apprehend and comprehend its existence; the very nature of its being, whose substantial form is at once everywhere “in” the cat–and no place in particular. Like the clay pot.

If it is correct, then, to say that we can abstract the essence of the cat–its substantial form–and hold it in our minds, what a superpower we are endowed with! It means that we are akin to God in our rational faculty, our intellect. We can reach to the depths of things–to the very ground of their being–and name them accurately. And when a human apprehends the essence of a thing, the form of that thing is now located in two places–in the thing itself and in the mind that contemplates it. How wild a thought is that? Perhaps there’s something to the intuition that photography achieves a kind of soul catching.

But for Aquinas, there’s an exception to existence as matter combined with substantial form that doesn’t necessarily hold for Aristotle. For Aristotle, when your matter and form break up, that’s the end of you. As a compounded being, your matter and form are what you are, and you don’t reside anywhere outside of your matter and form. But for Aquinas, that’s not always the case. Here’s Feser: “Anything compounded of form and matter is also compounded of act and potency, but there are compounds of act and potency that have no matter” (13). Feser is referring to angels here. For Aquinas, angels have existence and potencies to act, but their existence is non-corporeal, non-material. Like God, they lack bodies, yet still exist. And humans, being just a little beneath the angels in the hierarchy of being, can go on, unlike animals, after death. They retain the form of their intellects and wills at death, where they go to God and await the time when their essential forms–their souls–are finally reunited with their bodies (at the resurrection of the dead and Final Judgment). From the Final Judgment forward, each individual will go on existing in his or her resurrected body-soul (matter with form) everlastingly, enjoying heaven–or burning in hell. Aristotle probably wouldn’t have accepted this narrative, but Aquinas does.

Final causation. If things generally change because being itself manifests as composites of matter and form, act and potency, substance (essence) and accident, what causes movement to get going in the first place? In answer to this, Aquinas follows (once again) Aristotle in identifying four causes for existence, movement, and changes in quality, quantity, and substance. As can be surmised from all that’s been written above, causation is extraordinarily important to A-T metaphysics, and three of Aristotle’s four causes have already been touched upon. Those three are the following:

  • efficient causes (the immediate or proximate cause for an event happening, as when one domino topples into another, enacting the second domino’s potential for falling)
  • material causes (a domino made of iron exists in a very different state, and possesses some very different potencies, from a domino made of balsa wood. Among them, the ability–or not–to put out an eye if thrown, and the ability–or not–to float. The matter of which a thing consists is part of what causes the thing to be what it is)
  • formal causes (the substantal form of a thing, as when we say a domino is a three dimensional object that is small, oblong, and possesses between one and twelve dots on one of its sides. You don’t have a domino if it doesn’t possess this substantial form; the substantial form is what causes the domino to be a domino, and not something else)

The three causes above are fascinating to contemplate, but so is Aristotle’s fourth cause–his notion that things have final causes–ends, purposes, goals to which they are inclined to be drawn by their hylemorphic (matter-form) natures.

A pen, for example, consists of matter and form that, if pushed by a hand across a page in a certain way, is inclined, should it possess ink and not otherwise be broken, to make marks on paper. It’s the end to which it inclines because it is of the matter and form that it is. It’s not conscious of this end, of course, but being of the matter and form that it is–being what it most essentially is–it’s going to tend toward this end should a hand initiate its potential.

Thus if an alien ever came to Earth and encountered a pen, it could probably work out what the pen is for without any human instruction. It could just start playing with the pen until its matter and form revealed its best, most efficient, and most natural use: to make marks on paper laid on a hard and flat surface. In no time at all, the alien could also work out what the matter and form of desks and chairs are most efficiently and naturally used for as well.

It’s important to emphasize that it’s the matter and substantial form of a thing that tells you its end; it doesn’t have to be conscious, nor does it need to have been designed by a conscious being to have an end. Things incline to certain ends according to their hylemorphic natures–their substantial forms combined with particular types of matter. Thus, if you go out of doors, you can identify what an acorn’s chief end tends toward (making oak trees), and if you open a body, you can see what the heart’s chief end tends toward (pumping blood). A thing tells you, depending on the context it has been put in, what it will tend to move toward–which needn’t necessarily be its chief end. Put an acorn in the ground, and it will be inclined to make a tree–its chief end–but put it in a fire–not its preferred environment–and it will be inclined to crackle, darken, and ultimately experience a substantial change, turning into pure carbon.

So matter combined with a substantial form expresses itself in different contexts. Put a person–an animal with rational faculties–in a monastery with no books other than religious ones, and he or she will tend toward the contemplation of God. There is something in the nature of humans that inclines them toward God contemplation as opposed to, say, making a nest of the monastery’s available paper (as a bird might do). Put that same person in a disco, and he or she might tend toward bobbing the head and dancing, while a bird might seek escape out a window. The end and true nature of a thing–and its properties and potencies–are revealed, and sometimes concealed, by context. But with just the right conditions, you stand a good chance of finding out exactly what a thing’s ultimate end most truly inclines toward. In the right conditions of soil and light, for example, a great and mighty oak is the acorn’s ultimate end.

Thus the regular inclinations and therefore predictability of matter-forms suggests that what science is actually up to is discovering real essences inclining toward ends dictated by their natures. And so Feser writes the following (49):

[Science is] in the business of uncovering the hidden natures or powers of things. Actual experimental practice indicates that what physicists are really looking for are the inherent powers a thing will naturally manifest when interfering conditions are removed, and the fact that a few experiments, or even a single controlled experiment, are taken to establish the results in question indicates that these powers are taken to reflect a nature that is universal to things of that type.

In other words (to echo Hillary Clinton), you can’t know how far a frog will jump until you poke it–revealing its potential. And once you remove the confounding variables for why the frog jumps one distance the first time, and another distance the second time, you close in on the nature of the frog’s jumping powers, and what those powers are directed toward–what Feser calls those “states of affairs beyond themselves” (50).

But why do combinations of matter and substantial form naturally orient and incline to “states of affairs beyond themselves”? It sounds mysterious. Spooky. What is it about the magic of putting matter/form together that, like striking a match, it thereby breathes fire into matter/form’s existence, inclining it toward one set of regularities, but not another?

And think of our thoughts. Even though they have physical correlates in our neuronal processes, they are not experienced as being physical, but mental states. Nevertheless, they have the same characteristic of physical matter/forms insofar as they orient to “states of affairs beyond themselves.” Isn’t it strange that this is so? From the most lowly rock to the human mind, there appears to be no escaping existence as inclinations, regularities, and ends. When you’re conscious, you’re always conscious of something. Your awareness moves out and toward. As Feser observes (50-51):

When you think about the Eiffel Tower, say, your thought is ‘directed towards’ [inclined towards] something beyond itself in a way analogous to the manner in which a match is, on the Aristotelian analysis, ‘directed towards’ the generation of flame and heat as a final cause. Similarly, when you reason through an argument, your thought process is ‘directed towards’ the conclusion as the end towards which the premises point. 

In other words, we appear, in our mental activity, to be mirroring what matter-form does in the physical world: arrange itself toward this or that end, or revealing a particular, regular, and predictable potency in response to being acted upon. And so Feser writes (51):

From human thought and action to the world of biological phenomena in general to inorganic natural cycles to the basic laws of physics, final causality or teleology thus seems as real and objective a feature of the natural world as Aristotle and Aquinas took it to be.

No rest for the existent.

What this means for God. The questions of God’s existence, and how we ought to live if God exists, are not subjects that the second chapter of Feser’s book explores (these questions are addressed in the book’s subsequent chapters), but given the A-T metaphysics outlined above, it’s not hard to sketch from here the subsequent argumentative moves of Aquinas:

  • Nothing can come of nothing, so being is primary.
  • No being moves of itself, yet all things we observe are in motion, contingent and transitory.
  • To start and sustain all this contingent and transitory motion, there must be a necessary being, an unmoved mover.
  • This unmoved mover must be being itself, without limit, not composed of actuality and potential like all other beings, but pure actuality, pure existence. No being can be more wholly existent than this first being, and we call this being God.
  • This being’s existence is good–for to exist is good–and it is supremely good, for it is most supremely existent.
  • The substantial forms of things directed to their most perfect fullness of being must be good, for they seek to instantiate the creator’s highest ideal for them.
  • Evil is the absence of perfect existence, perfect being. It is a failure of being to reach fullness of being. So evil is absence of perfection or completion in whatever exists imperfectly or incompletely (an eye that is blind, for example, is unable to fulfill its end; a club foot is the absence of an ideal foot).
  • You can look at the matter and form of a thing and infer its essential purpose–the purpose the designer shaped it for. All things created by God have essential purposes, and we can discern them. The form of the penis, for instance, tells you that its essential usage is for reproduction with a vagina. That’s what God made it for. You aren’t to use it in the ass or mouth–and no jerking off! These are its “accidental” (non-essential) usages. Thus Feser states elsewhere (in his book, The Last Superstition) that homosexual inclination, if genetic, is a defect of desire akin to being born with a club foot.
  • Humans, as rational animals, are in the image of God, who is rational. Therefore, the highest end to which humans can incline is toward God.

You get the idea. Tidy. Very near to mathematics. The conclusions, like clothes from a flipped laundry basket, tumble out naturally from their premises, all doubts supposedly giving way to metaphysical demonstration. Who needs telescopes? And that’s Aquinas in a nutshell.

One atheist’s pushback. Jean Paul Sartre’s famous three-word retort to the Thomistic essentialism outlined above is the following: “Existence precedes essence.” In other words, human imagination, cunning, openness, variety, and freedom precede any essentialist definition that one might impose upon a thing in advance. Sartre says that if God is dead or not speaking, we can work freely with a thing, if we wish, and make what the original designer supposedly considered marginal about it, central (or make the central marginal).

Fashioning and definition can be democratized and taken from God and the theologians.

So if we’re free–if our existence as free beings precedes essences–we can use the penis for pleasure (for example). We needn’t let the inertia of a thing’s supposed essence foreclose in advance our options. You can use a thing differently from that to which it is usually inclined. In each moment, you can make something new. That’s Sartre. That’s existentialism. That’s post-World War II pushback against hylemorphic and authoritarian essentialism. And after the Holocaust, it certainly appeared to Sartre and other intellectuals that the God thesis (God exists and is a being who is attentive to us, and all good and powerful) was done–or ought to be done.

And once God is considered dead, or to have gone silent and thereby given the clay its freedom, asking “What’s the clay for?” loses its force. Humans become the measure of all things. Our existence precedes essence. We decide what to make important about a thing; what we will call a thing. Like Adam in the Garden, we assert our prerogative to name the animals for ourselves.

Sartre rather nicely accords with evolution, whereas Aquinas is in a decidedly awkward relation to it. Though Aquinas is almost certainly correct that things display identifiable inclinations based on their unique combinations of matter and form, evolution doesn’t recognize essential species categories; it works with variety along a continuum, making things new. What, for example, is an individual human from the vantage of evolution, but a variation cast into the next round of dicing selection? Time waits for no definition of man–not even Aquinas’s.

Who assumes the power of meaning maker? So if God exists, you can argue, as Aquinas does, that God should cut the card deck of meaning, purpose, narrative, and definition. But if God doesn’t exist or isn’t talking, we cut the deck. Whoever has the authority to cut the deck (or shape the clay, or name the animals) is in the role of the designer, the fashioner, the definer, the meaning maker. Matter and form can have inclinations, but to possess ultimate meanings, there must be a meaning maker. And if the ultimate meaning maker, the unmoved mover, doesn’t exist–or doesn’t exist in the manner we imagine (all good, conscious, attends to human beings, etc.)–then we make our own meaning, and define what’s important.

So does existence precede our essence, as Sartre claims? Or is Aquinas right that essence precedes existence? Which side are you on?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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17 Responses to Thomas Aquinas for Beginners

  1. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know much about Buddhism, but I am interested in the Buddhist idea of “nothing”.

    The way you expressed the Buddhist concept of “nothing” it seems more it is part of a system. Flux is what I think you called it.

    The concept of “nothing” that Parmenides was thinking of was not that concept. To Parmenides the concept of “nothing” was literally inconceivable, because if one could conceive of it, then it was actually something (an idea at least) and then it would not be “nothing”. If I can conceive of emptiness (or nothingness) potentially springing into being, then what I thought was nothingness is actually “something”. So all candidates for nothing are wrong. An empty shoebox in empty outer space, or empty outer space itself, or the idea of empty outer space, or even the potential of the idea of empty outer space, all share the same characteristic. They are not nothing.

    “Nothing comes from nothing” was Parmenides take on this understanding of nothing.

    Is there an alternate from a Buddhist perspective or even any other philosophical perspective?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Strictly speaking, you are certainly correct. When physicists posit a universe from nothing, they’re not including the laws of physics and the void, which seem to be somehow there–they’re not nothing. And as Hawking once asked, what breathes fire into the equations?

      After writing this post, I’m pretty impressed with Scholastic metaphysics–I think it’s probably right that some sort of an unmoved mover has to have always been there to ground all subsequent moves. I don’t know what this unmoved mover is, but it seems logically prior to nothing. Nevertheless, it’s still a mystery as to why there would be anything existing that is eternal, grounding everything else, but the only alternative is that things started out of nothing, and that seems impossible as well (as you’ve rightly noted).

      The ontological mystery (why is there anything at all?) remains a mystery–at least to me.

      The Buddhist doctrine of emptiness (sunyata) works only after you’ve got some sort of void with phenomena experienced. You can then posit a non-dual cosmos where nothing can really be separated from anything else, and where everything experienced is a mutually interdependent and unstable arising together in each moment.

      To my mind, what Thomists identify as “essences” are general and local structures that a Buddhist would basically say cannot truly be isolated from the cosmos as a whole. A flower encountered is what the whole cosmos is manifesting from the vantage of your consciousness in that moment. No flower in the flower. If something has an essence, it’s the cosmos itself, but that essence then changes in the next moment because its structure is unstable (for whatever reason).

      Thomists, of course, attribute change to things being composite, not empty, and therefore consisting of act and potency. Also, Thomists posit a ground of being that is more in agreement with Hinduism than Buddhism.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “The ontological mystery (why is there anything at all?) remains a mystery–at least to me.”

    I guess if there were nothing, then no one would ponder this question. But there is something, so what do we make of that?

    Parmenides concluded that since nothing comes from nothing and since there is something (the universe) then nothing can cause that something to change. Since nothing can cause the universe to change, then obviously there can be no change in the universe. You may think things are changing, but you are wrong.

    Zeno had a number of paradoxes to prove his point. You should look them up, they’re not that easy to disprove.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      My question for you would be: how does dividing being into actuality and potency really answer Parmenides or solve Zeno’s paradox? In other words, isn’t it the case that all you’re doing by positing a division in being is restating the problem? Yes, being must move from actuality toward some other state to which it inclines, but how, exactly, does it do so? If the potency is somethow “inherent” to, or “in” the structure of a being’s matter and form, it still doesn’t solve how that structure moves from one state to another (even if it is inclined in that way should an external source push it in that direction).

      Put another way, attributing powers and potentialities to a being by virtue of its matter/form is verging on a tautology. It’s a counter-assertion to Parmendides and Zeno (nothing really changes) and Heraclitus (everything is change), and it has power as a competing language to Parmenides, Zeno, and Heraclitus, but it doesn’t refute them. It simply offers another way for thinking about the world without really explaining how that world works in the nitty-gritty.

      Thus Zeno, Parmenides, and Heraclitus are hardly dead to physics (in reflecting on efficient causes). Indeed, Zeno’s thought experiments seem poignant. The quantum realm is very difficult to say definitive things about, and some physicists posit a block universe.

      Here, however, is how I can see Thomism’s act-potency being helpful. I think Thomists are right insofar that you can identify matter-form structures and attribute to them inclinations (things they will move toward if poked). “Garbage in, garbage out” really is true because the structure of garbage inclines it toward making more garbage. Likewise, anti-anxiety medication changes the structure of the brain in subtle ways that will incline it toward generating calmer behavior in the person taking it. Structures incline toward things. They express potencies (inclination in direction) by the way their matter and substantial forms are arranged. There’s no doubt about it. That goes for intellectual language systems as well (Thomism in, Thomism out).

      But to what do they incline? There’s the rub. For now the Buddhists hop in and say, “They incline in the directions that they do in response to the system as a whole. They don’t possess potencies apart from the whole. Think non-dual. All structures are in relation to the larger structure. Water is experienced as water by us in the familiar fashion, but it would behave differently and be experienced differently if H2O was located in a cosmos with different cosmological constants or if it was presented to beings with radically different brains from our own.” In other words, mind and potencies aren’t “in here”–in the structure qua structure of individual things alone–but “out there,” dispersed in the structure’s relation to the system–which is the cosmos.

      So I’m dubious when Feser writes the following in his book, Scholastic Metaphysics (p. 33): “The infinite number of smaller distances in the interval between two points A and B are indeed there, but only potentially rather than actually. Hence there is no actually infinitely large number of distances the runner must traverse, and Zeno’s purported reductio fails.” In my view, this is just a counter-assertion on Feser’s part. He’s not really solving Zeno’s paradox. Zeno would say that the runner really and truly has to pass through those moments in time–not potentially, but actually. But what Feser is saying, in essence, is that Zeno can be disposed of by talking differently about essence. Feser is saying, Let’s talk about being as divided into two parts (act and potency), and let’s build a whole system around it that is self consistent. Then we don’t have to think of the cosmos in the languages of Parmenides, Zeno, or Heraclitus.

      But redescription is not final explanation. Aristotle, Thomas, Zeno, Parmenides, and Heraclitus all offer generalizations about being that, from the vantage of their premises, can be made consistent with the facts and resolve the paradoxes that arrive in the contemplation of being. But this is why Gilson’s observation in God and Philosophy (Yale 1941, p. 130) is apt here when he writes that scientists “prefer a complete absence of intelligibility to the presence of a nonscientific intelligibility.” I love that. That really sizes up the problem (in my view) with metaphysical intelligibility. However tidy and plausible you pitch it, and however well you batten down all the hatches, you still don’t really know. It’s a substitute–a placeholder–for knowing what’s really going on.

      The fact that quantum physics runs into perplexities and conundrums at the the limits of the tiny and the nature of time suggests that Feser in his armchair has not dispatched of Zeno with a tidy sentence.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “It simply offers another way for thinking about the world without really explaining how that world works in the nitty-gritty.”

    Aristotle was called the common sense philosopher. He started from premises that we can all observe and agree on. He saw it was true that “nothing comes from nothing” but to draw the conclusion therefore that nothing changed would fly in the face of what we observe. Similarly, if there were no permanence per Heraclitus, then things like your memories of childhood would be impossible.

    Aristotle does more than “offer another way for thinking about the world” he offered a comprehensive solution to the problems arising from the alternative philosophies. Plato and Aristotle set the system for Western philosophy and what we today call science. If the A-T philosophy can be refuted, then so be it. Let’s see a better alternative that avoids contradictions, and provides a more comprehensive explanation for reality including resolution of all the problems with modern philosophies. I think Feser’s point is that he has searched for a that and never found one.

    But observation and reason can only get you so far and that is the end of philosophy. Man is just a part of nature, so we can’t possibly know everything. If we are to know anything outside of our human boundaries we will have to be given the answers.

    “He’s not really solving Zeno’s paradox. Zeno would say that the runner really and truly has to pass through those moments in time–not potentially, but actually.”

    Yet we have world records set for the 100 meter dash (much less that an infinite time I may add).
    Zeno’s solution can’t be right even if he proposed a difficult problem. I guess there are people who say they believe all sorts of things, but anyone who actually believed this and lived like they believed it, would be in an institution in our society.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hi Anonymous:

      You started your response with some praise for common sense, but common sense is what we come up against when contemplating the ontological mystery.

      Feser is fond of the phrase “metaphysical demonstration” (as if metaphysics can achieve the certainty of math), and you said that Aristotle “started from premises that we can all observe and agree on.”

      But Aristotle didn’t. He didn’t provide a “metaphysical demonstration” or “common sense” refutation of Zeno, Parmenides, or Heraclitus, but simply posed a contrary thesis that arrives with its own set of perplexities.

      Put another way: we should think of Aristotle as countering the Presocratics with an IF, not with refuting them. Aristotle started with a different IF-starting point from the Presocratics.

      Let me give you an example: IF mind is prior to matter, that would, in a natural and common sense fashion, explain why there is order in the cosmos (as well as other minds in it).

      But does that provide a refutation of materialism? No. Of course not. It simply provides a counter-thesis to matter being prior to mind. It’s not a refutation because the thesis that mind precedes matter is attended by a set of problems of its own that materialism would seem capable of explaining in a more natural and common sense fashion as well.

      It just depends on what set of paradoxes and perplexities you’re prepared to leave open, and which you want to think of as “solved” in a natural way.

      For example, IF we propose the thesis that matter precedes mind, that would explain why minds are never observed to be unaccompanied by matter. It is because they do not exist independent of matter, but emerged from matter. And IF we posit a multiverse, then the order we observe, however improbable it might seem, is in fact explainable apart from mind.


      But in neither case–the mind-prior-to-matter thesis; the matter-prior-to-mind thesis–is there a metaphysical demonstration refuting the other. There are only two theses that solve in a natural way some of the problems inherent to the other (and generate problems of their own).

      The only way you would know which one is true is via some sort of empirical help (or God speaking)–and neither, alas, appear to be forthcoming at this time.

      At some point, one or the other thesis may die from disuse (people no longer find it plausible or useful to talk that way anymore). But since BOTH theses are attended by their own paradoxes and problems, there’s always the chance that, should the competing thesis die, someone will want to revive it out of dissatisfaction for the results of the dominant thesis.

      Thus (for example), there are physicists who (in essence) revive Parmenides by positing the block universe and the end of time. (See Julian Barbour below for an example of someone positing essentially a neo-Parmenidean thesis concerning our experience of change.)

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hi Anonymous:

      So the mind vs. matter example above is parallel to Aristotle vs. the Presocratics surrounding the issue of change and being vs. nothingness. The Presocratics said that, if nothing can come of nothing, then being must not really change (for it would have to shift through states of nothingness to reach a different state of existence), and so our experience of time passing must be an illusion.

      Aristotle’s counter to this is the following: IF we posit that being possesses two aspects–actuality and potential, and that nothing can be moved except by another being, then the problem goes away. The nothingness of space and slices of time that would have to be moved through for something to change is only potential, not actual. Being moves being.

      But wait. Aristotle’s solution creates another problem for common sense, for if it seems to contradict experience and common sense that nothing can come of nothing, it also contradicts experience and common sense to say that a thing should ever be the father of itself–and yet this is what Aristotle’s thesis posits. Aristotle needs to posit a causa sui (something that causes itself). This non-common sense idea is required in order to get the sequences of causation going among beings in the first place. There must be (on Aristotle) an unmoved mover; a being prior to nothingness that has always existed and has no cause beyond itself. This contradicts everything we know from experience, exactly like something coming from nothing.

      So to say that Aristotle is the epitome of common sense, or metaphysically demonstrates the existence of an unmoved mover, is to play a shell game with the ontological mystery. Aristotle solves the Presocratic “change and time are illusions” problem with a problem of his own. The ontological mystery remains a mystery. We have to swallow a perplexity contrary to common sense to tame it (however we decide to tame it). We are posing contrary theses against a mystery for which rules for solving it are not given.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “Put another way: we should think of Aristotle as countering the Presocratics with an IF, not with refuting them. Aristotle started with a different IF-starting point from the Presocratics.”

    Aristotle provided an explanation that resolved the paradoxes that resulted as a consequence of the opposing Presocratic views while keeping the parts that cannot be reasonably denied. This type of thing is done in science routinely which is why we don’t argue today about why people don’t fly off the globe if it was truly spinning. We have a better explanation now.

    I’m not sure why you brought up materialism since your topic was the background metaphysics of A-T philosophy.

    Please re-read the other chapters of Aquinas a little more closely. It seems that you have somewhat of a grasp regarding the theory of act and potency, but not quite where that leads as shown in this remark:

    “it also contradicts experience and common sense to say that a thing should ever be the father of itself–and yet this is what Aristotle’s thesis posits. Aristotle needs to posit a causa sui (something that causes itself).”

    This is not the A-T definition of the “Unmoved Mover”. In fact it is considered impossible.

    Summa Contra Gentiles I.22.6
    “If, then, something were its own cause of being, it would be understood to be before it had being – which is impossible…”

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Well, what I should have said is that the ontological mystery isn’t resolved by Aristotle-Aquinas, but shifts to TWO other incomprehensible things contrary to common sense: Either there is a “thing” which fathered itself or that “thing” just has always existed.

      Thomas, aiming for God as eternal and maximal existence, posits the latter as opposed to the former–but it’s not at all obvious why one is any more or less jaw dropping a starting point as the other.

      Something from nothing, something that is the parent of itself, or something that has always existed. In terms of origins, one of these must be true, but they are all beyond common sense and human experience.

      So I’m skeptical of the God conclusion because, if God exists, you would think God would talk. But what we get is crickets. And that raises the question of why.

      The “existence has always existed” thesis, if it leads to the further claim that what has always existed is the mind of a creator God with the traditional monotheistic attributes (personhood; being all good, all knowing, all powerful, etc.), runs up against the data of reality. In our experimental test of the thesis, we look around and find no evidence of God’s goodness, coherence of purpose, communicative power, etc. The silence, the hiddenness, appears to be as confounding as the ontological mystery itself.

      So if something has always existed, it might just as well be as cold and impersonal as the Chinese Tao or the laws of physics. And positing a cold eternal “thing” at least matches our subsequent experience and observation in a natural way: we experience suffering (such as the Holocaust) and the silence of God for the straightforward reason that the Ground of Being is no more personal than a laptop.

      On the other hand, whence the order? Is it really just an artifact of infinite vastness? The needle in the haystack of general chaos? That doesn’t seem to make sense either. And mind and matter both seem to be active and effective in the cosmos. It seems that tracing every thought to a correlated movement of atoms doesn’t tell one why the pencil really moved across the page. You moved it. I moved it. But how can this be? You can also give a complete physical explanation for the movement of the pencil. Are there two wholly sufficient causal chains for every event? A mental and a physical explanation? Or are these two sides of the same coin? How, exactly, are they interacting? Can spooks move matter? Can matter touch a spook?

  5. Anonymous says:

    “Either there is a “thing” which fathered itself or that “thing” just has always existed.”

    Something from nothing is similar to something causing itself. Did it not exist before it caused itself? If it did not exist, then that is the something from nothing which we both agree is not possible. If it did exist, then it had always existed and could not cause itself to exist since it was already in existence. So the fathering itself idea fails for the same reason as something from nothing (and others).

    It was actually Aristotle (not a Jew or Christian) that reasoned that the only rational conclusion is an Unmoved Mover. No one was “aiming for God as eternal and maximal existence,” any more than one is “rooting for” 3 and -3 to be the square root of 9. The goal was/is for the most reasonable solution.

    “if it leads to the further claim that what has always existed is the mind of a creator God”

    I think you did a good job with this post in explaining in your own words the chapter that you were interested in….the basic Metaphysics of the A-T tradition. By doing so you inspected the philosophy from the inside and withheld judgment during the inspection as you examined it leading to a more or less fair and accurate description. This in turn allows for a fair judgment of the position. The statement quoted above seems to me to indicate that you have not done the same analysis on the later chapters, or you would know the A-T position that God has always existed and is radically simple, and therefore “mind of a creator” has no meaning since that would seem to mean that God has parts.

    A question. Why not post your take on the following chapters of Feser’s book?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      It’s a matter of time at this point; a new semester starts soon, and I’ve got kids, been cleaning out the garage, etc. I’d love to study Feser’s ideas with more intensity–I find his defenses of theism the best I’ve ever encountered. As I get the hang of basic Thomistic/Aristotelian metaphysics, I find it more and more difficult to quarrel with. Emotionally, I’ve still got a soft spot for Rorty, Camus, Nietzsche, Adorno, etc., and I’m deeply suspicious of Feser’s confidence posturing, but I think it’s fair to say that the unmoved mover is a better explanation than the other two. I’m going to have to go back and read the Buddhist Nagarjuna again for potential counter-reflections, but I think Hinduism and traditional Catholicism are probably right that there is some sort of eternal and unchanging Being, not nothingness or emptiness, grounding reality. This doesn’t tame the ontological mystery, but it at least points to its existence. I agree with you at that level. What I struggle with is the baggage that comes after that point (assigning the traditional monotheistic attributes to God and buying into a particular religious tradition, East or West).

      I might make more of an effort with the second half of Feser’s Aquinas book down the road. I’m also reading Feser’s new metaphysics book. I’m always thinking, just not always writing.

      I find David Bentley Hart’s most recent book quite good, by the way (The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Yale 2013). Maybe I will argue with something in that in a post down the road. I tend to argue with those books or ideas for which I find the strongest arguments, not because I want to harm those arguments or just engage in gratuitous debate, but because I want to push them to a limit and see if they still hold up for me. I’m a strong believer in writing to learn.

      The Holocaust, for example, strikes me as a limit that theism comes up against. What does the Holocaust have to do with God’s goodness, wisdom, bliss, and beauty? Original sin strikes me as an absurd explanation, and nothing else seems adequate either, and this brings me back to Adorno’s powerful critiques of essentialism after the Holocaust. Until the Unmoved Mover breaks into time and space and speaks, it’s hard to know what to do beyond living like the heroic doctor in Camus’ The Plague–or Sir Winton, who saved over 600 Prague children from The Holocaust.

      I think it makes more sense to lay a flower at Sir Winton’s feet before making a similar gesture toward the ontological mystery–the Unmoved Mover. Before I would do the latter, I’d want to know whether or not the ground of being is conscious, communicative, and moral in any manner recognizable to humans. Otherwise, it’s like approaching the Wizard of Oz or genuflecting to Zardoz (perhaps you know that movie as well). Before any religious gesturing, I’d want to know whether there’s any conscious entity behind the curtain.

      Divine simplicity itself would seem to suggest something that doesn’t think or shift from one state of mind to another. Like good scotch, it never varies. It’s smooth. But I wouldn’t genuflect to a bottle of scotch either. I get it, God is outside of time. But what does this mean for us?

      It seems to me that all human pretending that God is speaking–via holy prophets, holy books, mystical experiences, the beauty and complexity of nature–is just our way of filling up the silence. When will Oz speak? When will Oz break into history in a manner that says, “Here I am, and no mistake”?

      If a conscious, loving, all powerful and eternal being really and truly exists, why isn’t God more like Sir Winton?

  6. Anonymous says:

    “If a conscious, loving, all powerful and eternal being really and truly exists, why isn’t God more like Sir Winton?”

    Sir Winton was/is held in existence from moment to moment by God’s loving and willing action per Aquinas. As are all of us.

    I live on a planet a just-so distance from a firey body of death but not so far to be an ice cube. The planet has a thin layer of atmosphere that could disappear tomorrow. I don’t make myself breathe as far as I’m consciously aware, yet I do.

    I suppose I could fret about all of these things. Instead when I think about these things, I’m in awe.
    Why do I even deserve to even be here and how do I exist from moment to moment?

    But that’s just me.

    I know from life experience that different people have all sorts of talents, sensitivities, awareness, abilities etc that differ from mine. I don’t have mystical experiences, but I’m not about to dogmatically proclaim others don’t.

    How about you?

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Look at all the attributes you place on the Unmoved Mover: love, will, grace, design.

      But let’s look at the real world and see how your thesis holds up in relation to experience. In other words, data is available here. The thesis is not just something to bring to the arbitration of metaphysics.

      The same Unmoved Mover that supports Sir Winton in existence supported Hitler in existence. The same Unmoved Mover that put Earth in a Goldilocks Zone also let it pass through half a dozen mass extinctions. And the intricate machine proteins of life created by this Being live on the consumption of other protein machines (also presumably made by the same Being). The tiger and the child that the tiger eats are both supported in their brief existences by the same divine and supernatural Unmoved Mover that exists outside of time (on your thesis).

      So there just seems to be no rhyme or reason at work. The Unmoved Mover, even if one insists metaphysically that it must exist, appears to be unconscious or indifferent to what it is that it actually supports in existence.

      Think, for example, of the sheer number of childhood and infant deaths throughout human history. Demographers tell us that, over the past 50,000 years, 100 billion human beings have lived, half of whom died before the age of five.


      And think of the degree of empty space to matter in our big bang cosmos. There is just one proton (on average) for every cubic meter of space. And in that same cubic meter of space are a billion (again, on average) photons producing radiation, with the matter and anti-matter in it cancelling each other out. In other words, it’s only because there is a very tiny blip of non-cancellation (1 in a billion per cubic meter) in the radiation of space that matter exists at all.

      So if a conscious and supernatural Unmoved Mover exists, it (she, he) certainly takes the long and slow way around to getting anything in particular done. There’s an enormous waste of space to get just a little matter. You would almost be drawn to the conclusion that quantum probability is determining whether anything material exists at all, not the Unmoved Mover.

      Perhaps the Unmoved Mover simply leaves quantum probability to determine what will exist. Maybe the Unmoved Mover doesn’t care all that much what matter does (or even if it exists to any great degree, which it obviously doesn’t).

      And the same goes for mind. Insofar as we know, creatures with minds like our own have only been in the cosmos for a brief fraction of time (if you concentrate the life of the big bang cosmos into a single calendar year, Plato and Aristotle arrived in the last 5 seconds of the last day–December 31, 11:59:55 PM). It certainly seems that making minds like our own is not central or urgent to the Unmoved Mover’s agenda, and raises the suspicion that minds simply don’t exist apart from matter (apart from brains). There’s certainly no evidence that any minds exist apart from brains. If the Unmoved Mover possesses mind and will, that mind appears to have been quite alone until very, very recently.

      And think of how the background radiation of the big bang cosmos went from 3000 degrees to just 3 degrees today (the current radiation in space is very cold; once it was quite hot).

      The cosmos, in other words, is almost wholly unfriendly to the life of conscious beings like ourselves. We hardly seem a big agenda item for the Unmoved Mover. Even on this speck we call the Earth, where there is a lot of gravity-concentrated matter to work with, there are actually very few places on it conducive to human thriving–or even existence. For human habitation, most places on the planet are too cold or hot, too steep, too salty, too buggy, lacking in oxygen (such as at the bottom of the sea), etc.

      So when you ask me about my estimation of mystical experiences, my response is this: how does it relate to experience, period? How, in other words, does the person who has a mystical experience coherently connect it up with non-mystical experience? Put another way, mystical experience has the same problem as metaphysical reasoning: how does it link in a plausible way to experience?

      Example: if you come down from a mountaintop saying, “I experienced God’s PRESENCE looking out at the vista,” my question becomes this: “What do you say to the person in 1942, gazing into the gates of Auschwitz, who experienced God’s ABSENCE?”

      I don’t think that the ecstatic mystic can say anything. I think it’s very near to indecent and obscene to even make the attempt. Words fail. I think it’s (in part) why Thomas himself went silent at the end of his life. He either began to privately doubt God’s existence (like Mother Theresa) or recognized that reasoning cannot really apprehend the Unmoved Mover (if you attribute to the Unmoved Mover mind, will, goodness, etc.).

      Maybe the Hindus have it right: it’s all the dream of the Unmoved Mover. Maybe at death we’ll wake up from the nightmare of history and go, “Oh, it’s just the insubstantial dream of the Atman. Phew!–and far out!”

      Maybe, as the Zennies say, it’s neither flag nor wind that moves, but mind.

      But I think, Anon, that you should think about duality: what it means to break off the Unmoved Mover from beings (as if they could ever really be separated). If the Unmoved Mover grounds beings, maybe beings also ground the Unmoved Mover. Maybe you can’t have one without the other. Maybe the street is not moving in just one direction. Maybe the Unmoved Mover should be grateful for us sustaining It in existence as well. You can’t have up without down, and likewise it’s not really meaningful to say that an Unmoved Mover exists apart from moving things that It contrasts with.

  7. Anonymous says:

    “Look at all the attributes you place on the Unmoved Mover: love, will, grace, design.”

    Remember the starting point of the conversation. “From nothing, nothing comes.”
    Where did all of the beauty and wonder come from? Couldn’t have come from nothing.
    Do you think that people who have died young or at the hands of the Nazi’s never had any joy?

    The universe is vast and people die. We agree that’s reality. You and I will die too. Do you wish you had never been born? If not, why do you assume others who did not die of old age would feel cheated.

    Also, why complain that 99% of the universe is hostile to life as we know it. My point is just that! Why should we have this privilege? Sorry if it offends you to consider that we may have a privileged spot in all of this, but I wonder why you consider it an argument against God.

    “How, in other words, does the person who has a mystical experience coherently connect it up with non-mystical experience? Put another way, mystical experience has the same problem as metaphysical reasoning: how does it link in a plausible way to experience?”

    Regarding mystical experiences, I guess you are different than me. I am willing to consider that others can perceive things in different ways than me and I’m willing to listen to their point of view. As I said, I’m not a mystic but I don’t know everything either, and I’ve found that other folks have had insights that I didn’t.

    But I guess if a person is locked into a certain way of seeing things, then no one can convince him something bad is not happening.

    “A pessimist is a man who thinks everybody is as nasty as himself, and hates them for it.”
    George Bernard Shaw

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      If I’m understanding your position, you’re attributing to the Unmoved Mover absolute beauty and joy, and that we experience these in only a partial manner because our existence is partial. The non-beauty and non-joy we experience is from the fact that we do not exist as completely as the Unmoved Mover. If we did, we would dwell in total bliss. Evil is an absence of good, which is unlimited existence, and if we focus on orienting to this unlimited existence–the Unmoved Mover–we can escape, at least mentally, the slings and arrows of our (at the present) outrageous and partial fortune. We can hope to return to the Unmoved Mover at death, who is our heaven, our home.

      I lift a wine glass to you if you can believe this without being shadowed by doubts: “Salud.” It’s a theory. It’s what Thomas believed, and it appears to be what you believe.

      The Hindus, of course, have a different theory. The Unmoved Mover is dreaming, exploring, dancing. Like the play of images on a movie screen, we shouldn’t take all this cosmic action too seriously. They say that the Unmoved Mover (the Atman) did not really create us with individual souls that are partial and separate from the Atman, but that we are under the spell of the images on Atman’s screen, getting too attached to the roles we’re playing in the drama, attributing reality and essence to them. We identify ourselves with our present circumstances and inclinations when the truth is that the Unmoved Mover is, at bottom, the Big Self behind our little selves. If we identify with the Big Self within–our True Self–then we can get through this life without too much disappointment and pain.

      Again, it’s a theory.

      The problem is that the Big Self, the Unmoved Mover, the Atman–call it what you will–ain’t talking.

      And so we’ve got the same problem that UFO theorists have: they’re certain aliens are here, but have great difficulty explaining why they remain hidden or only appear (obliquely) to the chosen, leaving no direct evidence of their presence. The UFO theorist, like the theistic theorist, has to guess at what a mind–or minds–greater than our own is up to.

      It’s hardly surprising, then, that UFOs, the Unmoved Mover, and the Atman are met with skepticism. I wouldn’t call this pessimism, but healthy doubt. (So “Salud” to me as well.)

  8. Santi Tafarella says:


    As to some of the other issues you raise, such as being privileged with the amount of existence we enjoy in comparison with, say, a non-conscious and lonely neutron star, I like the gratitude you bring to this. If you are reasoning from the idea that the Unmoved Mover exists to a greater degree than all other things, the extent to which this Unmoved Mover confers existence on another really is a measure of grace and privilege, to be sure.

    And yet, what about hell? If the Unmoved Mover has made a hell for the insufficiently grateful, doesn’t that make existence a largely damnable thing–since most conscious human beings are presumably going to hell to be forever tortured? If it is true that “to whom much is given, much is required,” wouldn’t it be best to die as a baby and be assured a place in heaven rather than risk damnation in the process of living from year-to-year? Each new year constitutes a risk to the soul.

    And if hell exists, wouldn’t this make ongoing existence in heaven intolerable? It would be like enjoying tea at a street cafe in Berlin when you know that Jews are being tortured and gassed at Auschwitz. Who could stand this sort of “paradise”? Who could worship a Being who would set things up in so monstrous a fashion?

    Is God Dick Cheney?

    And I agree with you that our sense of beauty and wonder has an origin story we can tell about it, but I would start with evolution, and not rush to derive these from the nature of the Unmoved Mover itself. Our experiences of ugliness and boredom also have an evolutionary origin not necessarily derivable from the ultimate nature of the Unmoved Mover. We can tell, as I’m sure you would agree, an evolutionary story surrounding our emotions of disgust and fright. Why not with beauty and the sublime? It just seems to me like you’re cherry picking the traits you’ll trace back to the Unmoved Mover. I get it that you do this from your notion that evil doesn’t actually exist–it’s an absence of good–but this seems a bit arbitrary to me. The Unmoved Mover strikes me as much less tamable than this, and substantially more edgy.

    I hope, like you, that underlying our material, transitory, and partial existence is a wholly existent and singular mind–an Unmoved Mover–and that this Being is a jolly Santa bringing all those who have been nice (and not naughty) into total bliss. It’s a theory worth keeping in play, but I don’t think it’s a theory lacking in serious difficulties–most obviously in its generation of the problem of evil.

    And then you’ve got the problem of religion as a sociological phenomenon. Maybe the Unmoved Mover is not especially concerned with us, has little desire to be prayed to, and doesn’t care if we (for example) masturbate. One can see why human religion might be concerned with such things (sexual regulation and the narcissistic hope that we’ll live forever in a heavenly community), but it’s harder to see how the sociology of religion can be given the imprimatur of metaphysical arguments without smelling something fishy at work.

    For example, isn’t it obvious that this is a sociologically driven claim designed to control and frighten a person: If you don’t make the Unmoved Mover the highest goal of your personal existence, you can expect to be tortured in hell for eternity. Likewise, if you do make the Unmoved Mover your highest aim, you’ll be with this Being for all eternity.

    Such a claim is metaphysical, but it sets people up with a psychological Stockholm Syndrome (where one is getting love and threat from the same source). This form of emotional blackmail cannot be proven wrong, but it arouses suspicion as to why the argument is made in the first place (if not to manipulate people).

    Also, there seems to be a pretty plausible psychological explanation for why we would reach for ideas like the doctrine of the eternal soul and of real essences, metaphysical certainty, the Unmoved Mover, the Atman, kindly and hyper-intelligent UFOs, and the veneration of mystics and super-intellectuals like Thomas Aquinas. All of these have one thing in common: they function as transference objects for making transience, suffering, uncertainty, and death less important. If we are not wholly real, lasting, certain, and in-the-know, we nevertheless rest in the assurance that there are things that are–and that at least some of those things are conscious like us, and love us. “Our Father (or alien UFO), which art in heaven…” It’s a way for us to break the loneliness and terror; to not gaze too directly into the toilet; to not face our material and animal nature, which is a being toward death, soon to be the meat of worms, and to make our way through the guts of a beggar (to echo Hamlet).

    And then, of course, there is negative transference: all those things we push away or demonize (the Other, the doubter, those who died at Auschwitz as not metaphysically important, gays who are resented and feared as “disordered,” anger at those who question our immortality projects and intellectual systems, etc.).

    I’m not saying the Atman/Unmoved Mover doesn’t exist, but that there are a lot of eye-brow raising add-ons–a lot of faith and guessing–as to what that might mean for us.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I don’t remember that Aquinas made any claims that one could, purely from reason, come to know about heaven or hell, or Dick Cheney for that matter.

    Since this post was about basic A-T metaphysics, they wouldn’t be found in the chapter of Aquinas you were discussing here. So I certainly didn’t intend to bring up anything that couldn’t be discussed from general observation and logic. It seems you want to jump into revelation, which of course means that one has to be open to obtaining knowledge in a different way.

    In keeping with the spirit of post, I wanted to point out that there just as there is reason to wonder why there is evil in the world, there is also reason to wonder why there is good. You seem to want to consider only one side of the coin. Why should there be good? Or another question: Why do I even notice that there is good or evil, if things are just the way they are? Doesn’t seem to drive animals to suicide.

    Finally: Seriously? After all the work you put into this post, concluding that there has to be an Unmoved Mover who is necessarily the ground of Existence, you put Existence in the same category as UFO’s?

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