Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Beguiled by scientism

Over at his own blog, UnBeguiled (occasional commenter at this blog) criticizes the argument from motion as presented in The Last Superstition. Unfortunately, he fundamentally misunderstands it. He claims that by “motion” I mean ”acceleration”; in fact, “motion” in the context of the argument means the actualization of a potential, and applies to all kinds of change, having nothing necessarily to do with local motion in particular. He assumes that the idea of a per se or essentially ordered causal series has fundamentally to do with a simultaneity of causes and effects; in fact it has to do with the instrumental character of (all but one of) such a series’ causes, their having (apart from the first member) no independent causal power. (Examples of simultaneous causes and effects are useful for illustrating the idea, and such a series is bound to trace eventually to a first cause operating here and now; but simultaneity per se is not what is doing the philosophical work.) In general he assumes that the argument has to do with physics; in fact it has to do with metaphysics (or, more precisely from a Neo-Scholastic point of view, with philosophy of nature, but the label “metaphysics” will do given the way that term tends to be used in contemporary philosophy).

Since I make all of this clear in the book, I don’t know why he so badly misreads the argument, unless it is because (to paraphrase Wittgenstein) a picture is holding him captive. That picture is scientism, the thesis that the questions and methods of empirical science are the only real questions and methods there are. Since scientism itself is not an empirical hypothesis, not something the truth or falsity of which can be established by empirical scientific means, it is (when not so qualified as to be no longer interesting) self-undermining. Somehow that never seems to weaken its grip over those beguiled by it, despite their oft-purported superior rationality. Having once hit upon the idea – usually as a reaction against some body of religious doctrine they’ve become disillusioned with – they fall absolutely head over heels in love with it and become insensitive to criticism. Scientism just can’t be wrong, you see, because when they first became aware that there was something called “reason” as opposed to “faith,” that reason appeared to them in scientistic form, and to abandon the scientism would seem to them to be to abandon reason too. This is tosh, but tosh that is all the more powerful to the extent that those who buy into it think themselves for that reason uniquely immune to tosh. It is no wonder, then, that despite the fact that I explain all of this too in the book, UnBeguiled remains UnUnBeguiled.

Anyway, be all that as it may: What UnBeguiled’s (apparent) scientism keeps him from seeing is that Aristotelian-Thomistic arguments for God’s existence do not take as their starting points premises to which empirical science as that field of study is understood today is relevant. They begin instead from premises that any such science must take for granted. (That is not to say that “physics” in some sense of the word is not relevant to an argument from motion, since the boundaries between science and philosophy are not carved up in Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy the way they are by other traditions in philosophy. The point is just that the sort of premises that an argument from motion starts from would, the way things tend to be carved up by most scientists and philosophers today, better be thought of as claims in metaphysics or philosophy of nature rather than physics per se.)

In the case at hand, what is relevant is the actuality/potentiality (or act/potency) distinction. As those familiar with the history of ancient philosophy (and TLS readers) know, the origin of this distinction lies in Aristotle’s response to Parmenides. Parmenides attempted to demonstrate a priori that change is impossible. Aristotle responded, in part, that we can understand how change is possible when we see that there is, in addition to being and non-being (the notions Parmenides makes use of), the third category of what exists potentially – that which is not actual and may never be actualized, but which is not nothing either. Hence it is not enough to say of a rubber ball (to make use of an example from TLS) that it is actually solid and spherical but not actually melted and not actually the number 23. For it is melted in potency or potentially, but it is not the number 23 even potentially. Once we see this, we can see why change is possible: the ball can melt because in doing so it is not going from sheer non-being to being (which Parmenides argued was incoherent) but rather from being in potency to being in actuality.

There are other reasons why we must recognize an act/potency distinction. For example (and for reasons I spell out in TLS and have alluded to in previous posts), we have to recognize in all efficient causes something like final causality or directedness toward an end if we are to make causation intelligible at all. But to recognize this is to recognize the existence of potency as distinct from act, since a cause that is directed toward the generation of some effect even when it hasn’t yet actually generated it is in potency relative to such generation. The point, though, is that this whole discussion takes place at a deeper level than empirical science. Empirical science studies particular changes and causes; metaphysics or philosophy of nature studies the preconditions of there being any changes or causes at all. Empirical science reveals to us the specific mechanisms by which the reduction of potency to act (to put it the way the Scholastics would) occurs in this or that specific domain within the natural world; metaphysics or philosophy of nature reveals to us that such a reduction must underlie whatever those mechanisms turn out to be.

For Aristotle and the tradition he inaugurated, the most important instances of reduction of potency to act involved essentially ordered series in which some causes were instrumental relative to others (and of which simultaneous causes and effects are the most obvious examples). UnBeguiled insinuates that the notion of a per se or essentially ordered causal series is something trumped up for the purposes of religious apologetics. In fact it is nothing of the kind, unless you think Aristotle and other pagans were frantically concerned to prepare the way, millennia in advance, for Josh McDowell.

The sort of example that in TLS I follow Aquinas in using, viz. a hand’s using a stick to move a stone, is (as I note in the book) just an illustration to generate the key concepts; strictly speaking, a hand isn’t a first mover. And strictly speaking, quibbles over whether the movement of the stick occurs at exactly one and the same instant of time as the movement of the stone are not to the point either. As I emphasize in the book – and this is something UnBeguiled omits to mention – ultimately the stone, stick, and hand all depend for their very existence at any moment (forget about their movements through space) on the actualization of various potentials. For the muscles to exist here and now the potentiality of their constituent cells to constitute muscles must be actualized here and now; for the cells to be actualized in that potential, the potential of the molecules making up the cells to constitute cells must itself be actualized here and now; and so forth. This does imply simultaneity, but notice that (a) the point has nothing to do with acceleration, change of spatial location, etc., and (b) the point isn’t so much that the members of the series are simultaneous (though they are) but that they are essentially ordered: no molecules, no cells, no muscles.

The length of the series is irrelevant. As other Thomists have noted, even if an essentially ordered causal series could per impossibile go back infinitely far, since none of the causes in it have any intrinsic causal power there would have to be some purely actual unmoved mover outside it which keeps it operative. And by the same token, if there were even a single actualization of a potency, that too would suffice to lead us to a purely actual unmoved mover. Look around you; or don’t look around, just contemplate your own thoughts. Is there any actualization of a potential at all? Why, yes there is – and Boom, you’ve got your unmoved mover, whether immediately or at the end of a series. (Supposing the argument from motion is free of other problems, that is – here I’m just addressing the claims UnBeguiled makes.)

And lest UnBeguiled seek to quibble now over physiology, I should emphasize that the specific empirical details here are irrelevant as well. Whatever the details of the physics, chemistry, or physiology turn out to be, they are all going to involve the reduction of potency to act in essentially ordered causal series, because any material world at all is going to involve that. And that is all that matters for the argument. This is not “imaginary physics,” but the metaphysical precondition of there being any non-imaginary physical world at all. To refute the argument, then, it will not do simply to shout “Science!” What is needed is a serious philosophical evaluation; more Thomas Aquinas, less Thomas Dolby.


  1. I shall ignore your attempt to divert attention, and stick with the matter at hand.

    "And strictly speaking, quibbles over whether the movement of the stick occurs at exactly one and the same instant of time as the movement of the stone are not to the point either."


    Page 92:

    "This brings us to a crucial distinction Aquinas and other medieval philosophers made between two kinds of series of causes and effects, namely 'accidentally ordered' and 'essentially ordered' series."

    And this crucial distinction, you go on to say, is that with an essentially ordered series the cause and effect are simultaneous. You use the word "simultaneous" six or seven times over the next 3 pages, emphasizing the importance of simultaneity.

    But now you acknowledge that in the example you provide, events which you claimed were simultaneous, are in fact not simultaneous, as my analysis reveals.

    So, for your example of an essentially ordered series, you actually provide an accidentally ordered series.


    If there is such a thing as an essentially ordered series, then you should provide an example of just that, not an example of the kind of series you are trying to distinguish it from.

    You attempt to show how an A is crucially different from a B. But as your example of an A, you give us B.

    But B is a B, not an A.

    If this distinction is crucial for your argument, then it is crucial that such a thing exist, and crucial that you provide an example.

    (The bulk of your post is a red herring, and irrelevant to my critique.)

  2. It would seem that, in fact, where there is existence, as defined by form, potential is everything; to be is to change, to change is to move; therefore, an unmoved mover cannot be said to exist, either actually or potentially, except in the sense that the ball exist-ed as hard and spherical, prior to existing as melted, having now exhausted its potential for hard-sphericalness.

  3. UnBeguiled,

    I'm confused. First, you say that Ed acknowledges that the example he provides does not have the causes simultaneous with the effects. Ed's post here said that the simultaneity is not what's important, but their being essentially ordered, and that these two concepts are distinct - but he also says that simultaneity is implied in the example, and that they are in fact simultaneous. So I don't see where you're turning up this concession.

    Second, Ed also gave an additional response - he expanded on what he meant by essential ordering. "For the muscles to exist here and now the potentiality of their constituent cells to constitute muscles must be actualized here and now; for the cells to be actualized in that potential, the potential of the molecules making up the cells to constitute cells must itself be actualized here and now; and so forth. This does imply simultaneity, but notice that (a) the point has nothing to do with acceleration, change of spatial location, etc., and (b) the point isn’t so much that the members of the series are simultaneous (though they are) but that they are essentially ordered: no molecules, no cells, no muscles."

    I'd like to hear a reply to that. I doubt you're saying that the hand (along with the muscles, the cells, the molecules, the atoms, the particles, etc) "comes into existence temporally".

  4. Crude,

    If you have the book, on page 94, a number of events he says are simultaneous. But that is incorrect.


    This horse is dead. I have made the point I wanted to.

  5. I have the same book you have. But that's it? You argue the example given doesn't involve simultaneous causation. Ed's response that A) what the example was meant to illustrate isn't what you took from it, B) he explained that in the book, C) there's simultaneity at work in his example, and D) his argument involves metaphysics, not physics as you construe it.

    I don't think you came here just to complain he didn't make his example clear enough for your taste, and it seems like Ed's offering quite a response to your criticism.

    If you're out, you're out, and that's disappointing. But I was hoping there was going to be more to this.

  6. I don't know if this will continue here or there, so I'm commenting both places:

    "So if A moves B, and B moves C, and C moves D, then the motion of A occurs prior to the motion of B and so on."

    I tried this out with a pencil moving a paper clip, and the paper clip moved only so long as I pushed it with the pencil. I think you are confused by the concept of instantaneous motion, which is a mathematical abstraction used to model or estimate real world motion. It is defined as the limit of a series, but like the end point of an open set, it is not actually a member of the series. This is the whole "problem of first and last moments." In fact, events in the real world are generally not instantaneous, rather they occur over intervals of time. The best tense for expressing this is the progressive tense: the stick "is moving" the stone in the same time frame as the hand "is moving" the stick, and so on. And that is merely the physics of it. The rest of it ought to be pretty obvious.

    "Regardless, Feser's Unmoved Mover rests on imaginary physics."

    As I understand it, it rests on metaphysics.

    "So what does all this make-believe physics have to do with God? We all see stuff move, and something must have started it all, right? He calls that first mover God."

    That was not the argument. First of all, Aristotle was not interested in proving God. Secondly,you are confusing "motion" in the Aristotelian sense, which is a change from being potentially something to being actually something, with the more restricted concept of motion in the sense of the physics, which is a change of place.

    "If this argument works, then why all the non-sense about causally related simultaneous movement?"

    What little I know about essential ordering is that a causal chain A->B->C is essentially ordered iff the ability of B to cause C depends upon the present action of A. It is not that "first A happens, then B happens, then..." because no cause or effect happens instantaneously. Essentially-ordered series are causally simultaneous even if there is a trivial temporal lag in the "beginning to be" aspect of the change due to material causation. That is, causation is not the same thing as "beginning to change." It's an open set, not a closed one. It's really more topology than physics. The apple ripens because of the sunshine and will not ripen in the absence of sunshine; and this is true even if first the sunshine "begins to" bathe the apple and then the apple "begins to" ripen.

    Actually, if you took your positivism seriously you would have to deny causation itself, like Hume did. Then you don't have to worry whether causes are essentially or accidentally ordered, because there aren't any of either sort.

  7. Crude,

    He can now declare that a "crucial distinction" is now a "quibble" if he wishes.

    Also, he can declare that facts don't matter:

    "I should emphasize that the specific empirical details here are irrelevant as well. Whatever the details of the physics, chemistry, or physiology turn out to be, they are all going to involve the reduction of potency to act in essentially ordered causal series, because any material world at all is going to involve that."

    For me, facts do matter. For Dr. Feser, facts are just irrelevant details. Unimportant quibbles.

  8. If one truly wanted a Newtonian essentially ordered series, one could look to action-reaction pairs, which are indeed simultaneous in the instantaneous sense.

  9. UnBeguiled, I'm sure you're familiar with the principle of charity in debate. Ed isn't saying that facts do not matter - he's saying that those particularities are irrelevant to what he's talking about.

    The "crucial distinction" Ed referred to was between accidentally ordered series, and essentially ordered series. He maintains that in this post, and explains why he views you as wrong. Mike Flynn also helped illustrate the issue here, as he sees it.

    Ah well. If that's it from you, then I guess that's it.

  10. Unbeguiled, it seems to me that another error you're making (in addition to the ones already pointed out by Ed, Crude and Mike) is that you're looking at the changes in the example from the movement of the hand to the movement of the stone, while the example considers the change from the movement of the stone to the movement of the hand. You're going, "hand, stick, stone," i.e. starting your analysis from a point at which no member of the series is yet in motion and proceeding to the point at which the entire series is in motion, while the example goes, "stone, stick, hand," i.e. begins its analysis from the point at which the whole series is already in motion.

    In other words, when you look at the essentially ordered causal series from the motion of the stone (i.e. while the stone *is* in fact in motion) back to the motion of the hand, the motion is simultaneous: the stone *is moving now* because the stick *is moving now* because the hand *is moving now* etc. If any one of the members were not moving at that moment, the later members in the series wouldn't be moving. (And, of course, the motion referred to here must be understood as the actualization of potentialities.) If you look at it, as you did, from the motion of the hand to the motion of the stone, you of course get the time lag you referred to; however, when viewed from the motion of the stone back to the hand (which is how I read Ed's analysis of this example in TLS), the motion (again, the actualization of the relevant potentialities) is simultaneous. And, this can of course be contrasted with an accidentally ordered series, such as that of a father begetting a son. If you look at it from the existence of the son (i.e. the later mover in the series, analogous to the stone in the previous example), you don't need the simultaneous existence (action, motion, etc.) of the father.

    (To defend my reading of the example in the TLS, I refer you to page 92: "Or, once again to make use of a stock example, if we think of a hand which is pushing a stone by means of a stick, ***the motion of the stone occurs only insofar as the stick is moving it, and the stick is moving it only insofar as it is being used by the hand to do so. At every moment in which *the last part of the series, viz. the motion of the stone* exists, the earlier parts (the motion of the hand and of the stick) exist as well. The stone, and the stick itself for that matter, only move because, and insofar as, the hand moves them; and, strictly speaking it is the hand alone which is doing the moving of the stone, and the stick is a mere instrument by means of which it accomplishes this." Again, see page 94, which you referred to: "The stone, as I have said, moves only insofar as the stick moves, and the stick moves only insofar as the hand moves." N.B. the analysis goes from the motion of the stone to the motion of the hand. Considered from the point in time in which the entire series is in motion, the motion is simultaneous; considered from the point in time in which the first mover in the series begins to move, there is a lag in time.)

    Now, I'm new to A-T metaphysical thinking, so I may have this all wrong. However, that is how I understood the example you were referring to, Unbeguiled, and it seems to me that you fundamentally misunderstood the sense in which the motion in this example is to be analyzed.

  11. Eric:
    That may be why UnBG is so focused on "first and last moments" rather than on the motion of the stone. He does not regard the flexing and compressing of the stone [assuming they are real] as being part and parcel of the motion of the stone. Of course, this opens up all the peculiarities of first moments in a continuum that Heytesbury and others explored. There is no first moment of movement, which is why it is expressed as a mathematical limit, an abstraction. UnBG is on the verge of unwittingly replicating Zeno's Paradox and denying motion altogether!

  12. UnBeguiled,

    I didn't say simultaneity didn't matter at all. I said that it isn't what's doing the philosophical work -- instrumentality is. Hence, whether a cause and its effect exist at _exactly the same instant_, where "instants" are carved up as finely as possible, is not to the point. What is to the point is rather whether the cause and its effect are related in this instrumental way, as in an essentially ordered causal series. That's why I focused here on the actualization of the cells' potential to constitue muscles etc., in the passage Crude quotes -- the aim was to get you to address the heart of the issue rather than to keep going on about strobe lights and the like.

    Instead you've declared you're just going to ignore the heart of the issue. Worse, you're now resorting to cheap and obvious distortions of what I said. No honest person reading what I wrote would think that I claimed that "facts don't matter." If you give a physics lesson to someone who asks you the time of day, he might respond: "That's all well and good, and very important stuff; those facts sure do matter. But they don't matter to the specific question I asked you, which was about what time it is." Similarly, of course physics, chemistry, etc. are importnat, but they have nothing to do with the specific question at hand. You know that that is what I was saying, so cut the crap.

    And speaking of time, I'm finding it harder and harder to see why I'm not wasting mine in trying to have a serious exchange with you. It would be nice if you said somethng to show otherwise.

  13. By the way, UnBeguiled, I can quote me too: "The series is 'essentially ordered' because the later members of the series, having no independent power of motion on their own, derive the fact of their motion and their ability to move other things from the first member, in this case the hand." (TLS, p. 93)

    In other words, when defining what makes something an essentially ordered series, I explicitly appealed to instrumentality, not simultaneity. Yes, the example involves simultaneity, but that's not the salient characteristic. (Note also that I refer here to the hand as "the first member" even though later on I say that it is not _strictly_ speaking the first member -- the point of the example was to introduce the concepts, which it does adequately even if it is stated loosely.)

  14. I think Ben, Mike, and Eric are quite right that even on its own terms the argument is a bit odd. The framework for the argument seems to be Newtonian; but what corresponds to actual causation in Newtonian physics is application of force to a body. As there is no component for a time delay in the laws of motion, the third law effectively guarantees that all application of force is simultaneous with a reaction, to which it is exactly proportionate. The argument seems to build entirely on the fact that real-world examples involve imperfectly rigid bodies and resisting forces; this complicates the matter, but it's hard to see how it would change the underlying situation, since genuine use of Newtonian principles would mean that the full causal explanation of the effect could only be the entire interaction of forces for the duration of the effect. There seems to be an odd sleight of hand in the argument.

    It actually all reminds me of William Whewell in the nineteenth century (in The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences); he already showed that you can derive the basic principles of Newtonian physics from standard metaphysical causal principles plus some empirically verifiable (or falsifiable) assumptions about movement itself (e.g., about the role time and space play in motion).

  15. Not to presume to improve on Dr. Feser's astute reply here, yet I would like to add some words from St. Thomas d'Aquino on this very topic followed by a brief gloss.

    From Summa contra gentiles I, xiii:

    "In an ordered series of movers and things moved (this is a series in which one is moved by another according to an order) [In moventibus et motis ordinatis, quorum scilicet unum per ordinem ab alio movetur], it is necessarily the fact that, when the first mover is removed or ceases to move, no other mover will move or be moved. For the first mover is the cause of motion for all the others. But, if there are movers and things moved following an order to infinity, there will be no first mover, but all would be as intermediate movers. Therefore, none of the others will be able to be moved, and thus nothing in the world will be moved."


    Ordinal motion does not exactly mean 'serial' or 'step by step' motion. Rather, it refers to the idea of, let us say, distributed simultaneous efficiency. The efficient causation in an ordered causal system is distributed simultaneously throughout the elements involved at every moment of change. For example, when a boy splashes water by hitting the surface of a creek with a stick, his hand, the stick, and the disrupted water are all, so to speak, causally concurrent. There is a proper order, a determinate structure, of this event, which cannot happen without all the elements being in the right place at the right––namely, the same––time. Moreover, we must realize that the boy's hand simultaneously depends on its attachment to his body, his body on its attachment to the earth, the earth on its place in the solar system, and so on. Everything in the cosmos must occur in an exact causal, albeit not temporal, order for the water to splash as it does. This is more or less what St. Thomas means by what happens in motis ordinatis.

    I have been and will keep on posting chapter-by-chapter of SCG at my blog, for those who would like to read it serially (over the course of a couple years!).

  16. Mike, I suspect that Unbeguiled's physics is even a bit off here. After all, he limits his physical analysis to what we would observe with the naked eye, given the necessary photographic resources. However, shouldn't his analysis commence on the subatomic level? After all, his conclusions with respect to simultaneity given the resources of the naked eye don't entail similar conclusions on the subatomic level. In other words, he has a lot more work to do before he even makes an interesting point with respect to physics. It seems to me that in his zeal to defend physics against metaphysics, he demonstrated a lack of understanding of the very physics he was so ardently attempting to defend.

  17. I would also to suggest that it is metaphysically illegitimate to dissect actions in the way unBe tries to, simply because an action is, at some level, an integral whole. When I say "the arrow hit the bull's eye," I specify an integral set of sub-motions which are only part of the larger action. I bring this up for two reasons.

    First, it is unfair to dissect an action in question into its sub-motions as an attempt to disprove the actuality of that action as an integral whole, because as soon as you shift the attention to the sub-motions you are no longer engaging the actual action in question.

    Second, even the sub-motions presuppose an integral actuality. For every unBe who denies the coherence of an essentially ordered series by citing the micro-movements within it, there is a radical Xeno who denies even those micro-movements actually happen, since they are just made of sub-micro-movements, ad infinitum. unBe is trying to have his reductionist cake and eat it too, but it's simply a matter of taste for him to stop at the micro-level. Those micro-movements are still subject to the arguments about act/potency, since, in each micro-case, as in the larger action itself, whatever it is that is actually happening is happening in an essentially ordered series. If the potency of the sub-sub-motions were "greater than" the activity of the sub-motions, and in turn the motion itself, then there would be no actual sub-motions and no larger motion. Seeing, however, as each element in the ordered series is subject to potency in se, what accounts for their activation? Cue the First Mover argument.

    Unwittingly, to be sure, unBe's metaphysical gallivanting buttresses the whole point of the act/potency distinction. While an action might potentially stop at, or collapse into, any one of its components and sub-motions (as things seem to do in unBe's mind), in actuality it occurs as a formal whole ordered toward some end. The potency of the components are formally ordered toward the finality that is the completed action.