Friday, March 19, 2010

Oderberg on the First Way

David Oderberg has just updated his website with several important papers, including his excellent new essay “’Whatever is Changing is Being Changed by Something Else’: A Reappraisal of Premise One of the First Way,” which appears in J. Cottingham and P. Hacker, eds., Mind, Method, and Morality: Essays in Honour of Anthony Kenny. Kenny is a fine philosopher and has written many valuable works on Aquinas, but his critique of the Five Ways in his book on the subject is (so some of us would argue) far less powerful than it is often given credit for. I explain some of what is wrong with it in my book Aquinas, and Oderberg responds to Kenny’s attack on the First Way in this new paper.


  1. Excellent I just started reading it before you posted. It rocks.

  2. What's up with his "Why I Am a Relativist" essay at the bottom of the page? This seems to be at odds with Thomism in general.

  3. "Whatever is changing is being changed by another" is empirically false. It's probably not a good idea to start an argument with an empirically false premise.

  4. It even sounds ridiculous.

  5. Oderberg needs to look up 'spontaneous' in a dictionary.

    Then he needs to get a job doing something productive.

  6. Empirically false? Amuse us there with this "insight" of yours. And what is so special about "spontaneous" that you think it challenges the principle of causality.

    As I understand it:
    Nothing comes from nothing, therefore fluctuating quantum vacuua are not nothing. Quantum vacuua are universal systems with laws. For example, the amplitude of quantum fluctuations is controlled by the amplitude of Planck's constant. The quantum vacuua microstructure continually forms and dissolves particles which borrow energy from the vacuum for their brief existence.

    The spontaneous appearance of particles in a vacuum is still actualized by something else than the particles themselves. The actualization of particles in a quantum vacuum requires a number of physically necessary conditions that must exist for such an event to occur, however these conditions are not necessarily sufficient to guarantee the occurrence of the event. It is precisely because of the many physically necessary conditions needed (even though not 100% deterministic) for the spontaneous appearance of particles in a vacuum that it cannot be said that the events are uncaused.
    In terms of essence and existence, the essence of quantum vacuua is that they are universal systems with laws that spontaneously generate particles. Even if it was proven tomorrow that quantum vacuua do not exist, it is still possible to grasp its essence. In a sense, quantum vacuua can be seen as what Aristotle described as “prime matter”. It is mere potentiality and thus does not exist in reality on its own unless it is actualized, and it is indeed actualized by various necessary conditions. There would be no way to make sense of prime matter if it was not actualized into substances (hylemorphic composites of matter and form) we experience everyday since we are also composites of matter and form.

    To put it differently, prime matter exists only in reality together with its substantial form that is able to actualize it, even though it has the potential to undergo limitless as well as spontaneous change. Prime matter or quantum vacuua thus exists as the real principle of change, however exists only in reality as actualized in some determinate substances such as elementary particles.

    In terms of the four causes, it is described as follows:
    “What is it?” relates to the formal cause of what kind of form it has. A typical answer would be that it prime matter or quantum vacuua has the form of "spontaneity" and “limitless potential” as opposed to “predictability” and “actualized potential”.
    “What is it made of?” relates to its material cause and the kind of “stuff” it is made of. A typical answer would be that it is prime matter with limitless potentiality.
    “Where does it come from?” relates to its efficient cause and what brought the substance into existence. Prime matter is pure potentiality (not a substance) and pure potentiality cannot exist in reality without being actualized into some substance by a substantial form. Quantum vacuua are thus not brought into existence but merely exists and thus does not have an efficient cause.
    “What is it for?” relates to its final cause which is its end, or purpose or goal of a thing. Prime matter or quantum vacuua can be described to be the principle of individuation.

  7. Anon @ 6:50:

    He's the opposite of a relativist, as all Thomists are. Read the article -- it is meant tongue in cheek.

    Anon @ 7:08:

    You should try reading what you criticize before you criticize it, since Oderberg makes it clear why the apparently "obvious" counterexamples are nothing of the kind when one properly understands what Aquinas means by "change" (viz. the transition from potentiality to actuality).

  8. When anonymous asserts that this metaphysical position is "empirically false", he of course cannot and will not explain what he means in any detail. I'm quite sure, however, that he could rise to the task of spewing out some superficial quantum mechanics references which sound really impressive and intimidating to people who know even less about philosophy than he does.

    And I'm sure looking up "spontaneous" in a dictionary is going to settle a whole lot.

  9. I'm pretty sure Anonymous 7:08 is not interested in your responses. If you don't respond, he'll say that you can't respond to his charge, and if you do respond, he'll just wait until you write another post and forward a similarly vacuous criticism of it. Rinse and repeat.

  10. I haven't read Professor Oderberg's paper, but given that his other papers are excellent, I think it probably will be so too..

    Professor Feser I have a question about inertia and Aquinas' argument.

    In TLS, you wrote that inertia is an irrelevant objection to Unmmoved Mover argument, because that argument refers to change in general, not to local motion in particular.

    I understand the point.

    But there is something that I don't understand. You wrote: "So, even if we were to grant that that local motion of an object needn't be accounted for by reference to something outside it, there would still be other kinds of motion to which Aquinas' argument would apply" (p. 102)

    But I think that if we "grant" that, we're accepting that Aquinas's argument doesn't apply in every case.

    If local motion of an object needn't be accounted for by an external cause, it counts as a counterexample to Aquinas' argument, because Aquinas' argument is valid to "whatever is moved (=changed)" and a fortiori to local motion too (which is a species of change).

    You argue that the acquisition or loss of momentum would require an expalantion, and it's true and consistent with Aquinas's argument.

    But it doesn't refute that the continuous local motion of an object (if assumed for the argument's sake that it's not caused by anything external) is a counterexample to Aquinas' argument.

    In other words, in a sillogistic mode:

    -Whatever is changed is changed by something else.

    -Local motion is a kind of change

    -Therefore, local motion is changed by something else.

    But if we grant or assume (or discover, let's say) that local motion is not accounted for in terms of other external object (i.e. it is not changed by something else), then the above conclusion is false, and the it refutes the first premise of the argument.

    This is why I think we cannot grant that local motion be accounted for something different than an external cause.

    Even if Aquinas' argument applies to other or most cases of change, the existence of local and continuous motion uncaused by something outside it would count as a counterexample.

  11. I read Oderberg's paper, but I have not read Kenny's book on the five ways.

    As I finished reading I reflected that it was very difficult for me to be sure about the outcome of this kind of high level technical argument, unless I was to devote a great deal of time to it - and even then maybe it would go above my head.

    Does this mean that lay persons must leave it to philosophers to decide whether or not God exists?

    Well, this would obviously be a very bad idea (especially with the kind of people who make up most professional philosophers nowadays).

    If I had any confidence that the style of analytic philosophy led more reliably to the truth than ordinary language discourse, then I would perhaps make the effort to become more competent - but it doesn't look that way from the outside. One person's technical breakthrough is another person's egregious error.

    By analogy with science, I think this is likely to be due to the inevitable simplifications involved in analytic formalization - and the likelihood or consequent incompleteness and distortions. For example, in my judgment the increased use of statistics in medical research has had a substantially harmful effect, because the omissions and distortions involved in translating medical knowledge into numbers are often very considerable, yet the precision of statistics diverts attention from this core problem. Researchers wrangle over statistical minutiae and statistical errors are regarded as mortal; while at the same time truly staggering errors in the basic set up and assumptions of statistical medical research pass by without notice, or even with approval.

    Back to philosophy. I would hazard that Aquinas's arguments were not intended to be pulled apart and chopped up in this way. Oderberg likely agrees, but once a prestigious philosopher such as Kenny has pronounced that Aquinas's arguments are technically unsound, then it needs even more analytic philosophy from someone like Oderberg to refute the charge. Oderberg’s work would probably attract refutation at an even higher level of analytic complexity and so on. I suppose the process is inevitable; but I do not think there is any tendency for it to reach the truth.

    In fact, the charge that Aquinas's arguments are technically unsound is refuted by the history of philosophy.

    The medieval universities leading up to and following Aquinas were vastly more sophisticated and thorough and motivated philosophical institutions than anything since or nowadays; and more than capable of weeding out technical errors of the kind that mattered.

    My understanding is that Aquinas's arguments cannot legitimately be refuted by analytic philosophy, but (since they are metaphysical arguments) they could legitimately be ignored - if there were strong reasons for doing so – if by ignoring them something better than Thomism could be constructed.


  12. [Continued]

    In the famous Russell-Copeleston debate

    Russell is either unable or unwilling to refute the metaphysical argument on Contingency – attributed to Leibnitz. Russell simply says it makes no sense to him and that even to ask about the cause of the world is an illegitimate question.

    I think Russell was being honest here. He could – in a public debate – have launched into all manner of accusations of analytic incoherence in the argument – which would have seemed convincing to many people; but he refrained from doing so and went back to an even simpler and more fundamental level of whether it makes sense to ask certain kinds of question.

    In other words, it seems to me that the level of discussion in the Russell-Copleston debate is probably the proper one for establishing the validity of arguments such as those Aquinas. By contrast, although the Kenny-Oderberg level may have value as a way of philosophers sharpening their tools, and may indeed be necessary due to the bad influence of Kenny’s arguments; but I am not sure whether even this is true in the context of modern philosophy. Analysis is not really the right way to set about things; or not what we need now; or, at least, analysis has a strong tendency to go off down the wrong path (into inappropriately technical professionalization of fundamental matters) and do more harm than good.

    So that if Oderberg was successful in ‘refuting’ Kenny in the context of academic philosophy (which in a sense I certainly hope he is!), the likely outcome would only be to escalate the analytic technicality of the discussion and lead to a spate of publications on the ‘problem’ – rather than to bring people face to face with the argument’s relevance in their lives.

    I am reminded of Isaiah Berlin's memoir of the great enjoyment he had in discussing Oxford-style linguistic philosophy with Austin and others in the early 1950s (from memory) - how delightful it was to be young, clever, trendy etc. Yet this was a almost-wholly harmful direction for philosophy, which pretty much destroyed the subject in the UK.

    When prestige in philosophy attaches to technical analysis as such (rather than subordinated as a means to a larger end) then trouble looms. Oderberg does, indeed, use analysis in this correct way - as a means to an end - nonetheless the context in which Oderberg works is likely to subvert his technical achievements, and use them against the 'end' he sincerely desires...

  13. bgc

    You sound like a wise person.

  14. This same subject arose on an earlier post on this blog (Dr. Feser's post on St. Thomas's feast in the New Rite calendar).

    There it was noted that Fr. George Hayward Joyce, S.J., has offered an extensive and unanswerable response to the objection from Newtonian inertia (the conclusion of which states):

    "Common facts of everyday experience, such as the continued flight of a stone after it has left the hand, seemed incompatible with the principle Quidquid movetur at alio movetur, however weighty the metaphysical reasons which were urged on its behalf. We have seen that this is not so: and the full force of the reasoning must be admitted. Does the agent whose existence we have established require to be moved from potency to act? If so, we must suppose a higher cause to effect this. But the series of such agents must, as we saw, be limited. We are driven back upon a first agent, whose activity is uncaused -- the primus motor immobilis." (

    I suggest reading the whole of his treatment, available for free at the above-noted link.

    But the thesis, which I certainly hold myself, having written an M.A. thesis on this very subject, is that the first way (and obviously the first premise) is certainly and unquestionably sound and unassailable, is rooted in first, unalterable metaphysical principles, and is thus not subject to revision or invalidation by any amount of quantum mechanical grandstanding (or any other purported scientific "progress").

    Unfortunately, because Fr. Joyce's work was written around 87 years ago, most contemporary philosophers are unaware of its existence, and are thus prone to ignorance of the fact that intelligent Thomists of yesteryear long ago demolished their purportedly "original" objections.

    For a very good treatment of the relation between Thomistic metaphysics and quantum mechanical theories in general, I also recommend Dr. Wolfgang Smith's "The Quantum Enigma."

  15. I have found the quote from Berlin. It is from the end of the essay on J.L Austin in Personal Impressions.

    Berlin was the guru of British philosophy in the sixties and seventies - and President of the British Academy (the premier learned society outside of the sciences) - as was Kenny. Yet Berlin's view of philosophy is grossly inadequate.

    His description of the small group Oxford discussions - presided over by Austin and AJ Ayer, reveal a shallowness, conceit and triviality which is quite shocking.

    For example, after Berlin has described some instances where Austin graciously assented to a couple of commonplace observations (in contrast to his usual habit of picking them apart with actually-arbitrary but pseudo-objective linguistic analysis); Berlin states that "Austin understood the nature of philosophy, even if he was over-pedantic and over-cautious, and insisted on making over-sure of his defenses before plunging into the arena - understood, better than most, what philosophy was."

    This quotations only makes me sure that Berlin himself did not know 'what philosophy was'.

    Berlin closes the essay with a description of the group meetings (in the 1930s, not the 1950s as I stated above) which describes the group as existing in a state of "happy delusion' and that this state 'satisfied us completely, too completely".

    His sign off is: "we did think that no one outside the magic circle - in our case Oxford, Cambridge, Vienna - had much to teach us. This was vain and foolish and, I have no doubt' irritating to others. But I suspect that those who have never been under the spell of this kind of illusion, even for a short while, have not known true intellectual happiness."

    So there we have it from the guru of British philosophy: to be in a state of delusion; to be vain, foolish and irritatingly snobbish - is actually true intellectual happiness...

  16. "So there we have it ...: to be in a state of delusion; to be vain, foolish and irritatingly snobbish - is actually true intellectual happiness..."

    I think this is what most people think of philosophy and philosophers.

    As much as philosophy interests me, the more I communicate with philosophers, the less I think of them as adding value to life.

  17. It may or may not be noting that many scholastics in the middle ages rejected the principle "Everything that is moved is moved by another," because they thought that it conflicted with the freedom of the will. The will reduces itself from potency to act if it is truly free.

    Just a note of caution, since these were guys who also thought you could prove the existence of God and weren't using physics to quibble--they just thought that other and more rigorous proofs were possible than Aquinas' five "ways".

  18. bgc,

    I think you are hitting upon a crucial issue with regard to modern analytic philosophy; or at least with regard to a certain over-confidence in the analytic approach. It does seem that no matter what philosophical "problem" one considers; there are mountains of technical analytic responses to that "problem" - often defending different conclusions. Many philosophical historians have argued that the analytical approach was born out of frustration with the seemingly endless and inconclusive large-scale philosophic systems born within the European continent – thus, the massive methodological gap that still exists between Anglo-American and European continental philosophy today.

    Keep the problems tight and close to the ground – work them to death with logic so as to achieve philosophical closure on one issue at a time – NEVER attempt to construct a unified vision of reality or speak to broad questions of perennial human concern. Something like that seems to be the mantra of a lot of analytic philosophers. But one can now ask, how many isolated philosophical “problems” have actually achieved “philosophic closure” using the analytic method? Like you, I am beginning to wonder if there is not a sort of illusive analytic nirvana that will always remain “just beyond” reach for any given problem with which analytic philosophers are engaged. One rarely encounters a philosophical “slam dunk”.

    Many decry the confusions resulting from "ordinary language" - thus the penchant for symbolic logic; but every symbol is set up to represent words or thoughts that pre-exist in some “ordinary” form. It seems to me that translation from a word-based premise to a symbol, involves a subjective, interpretive process on the part of the translator. The translator can, of course, try to get all his readers to consent to a common "understanding" of the meaning of his words prior to their symbolic incarnation - but this is where trouble lies – because it is a consent built upon ordinary language terms. Sure, if we simply work with pure symbols, without regard to their "meaning"; logical relations and "proofs" can be established. But read twenty analytical arguments set in symbolic logic and then read their rebuttals - hardly anyone disagrees about how the logic is supposed to work - but there is an interminable effort to jump up out of the symbolic playing field and argue about what the symbols "mean".

    There is something intuitively perplexing about the claim that symbolic logic, or linguistic analysis, are remedies to all of the inherent confusions which belie "ordinary language" philosophy. When one considers that every professor who trumpets the inadequacy of “ordinary language” must use "ordinary language" to first initiate his new acolytes into his "more rigorous" philosophical religion (after which initiation, his acolytes will in turn deprecate the “ordinary” means by which they were converted to the new faith – and the cycle goes on). I mean, if "ordinary language" philosophy is so bankrupt; how is it capable of rigorously establishing the need for symbolic logic and "non-ordinary" language in the first place? The old saying: "don't cut off the branch you are standing on" always comes to mind when I think about these issues.

  19. Monk

    I think any Rorytian would agree.

  20. "we did think that no one outside the magic circle - in our case Oxford, Cambridge, Vienna - had much to teach us. This was vain and foolish and, I have no doubt' irritating to others. But I suspect that those who have never been under the spell of this kind of illusion, even for a short while, have not known true intellectual happiness."

    Substitute "professors from the Leiter top 50 departments" for "Oxford, Cambridge and Vienna" and you have a dead summation of contemporary analytic philosophy. And I say this as a card carrying analytic philosopher.

  21. This Isn't related to this post but I found this Criticism of you at this Website.

    Its about your Article on Scientism. He Doesn't make any real points against you, just strawmen and Insults, but I thought you may be interested.

  22. Rust belt blogger does more than just name-calling (which I've bolded), actually, though what he does isn't very good. Here's what he wrote:

    "Quoth Edward Feser in one of the most philosophically banal articles I've read in a good while, 'the culture at large seems beholden to an inchoate scientism—"faith" is often pitted against "science" (even by those friendly to the former) as if "science" were synonymous with "reason."' His argument is a disproof of scientism ('the [rarely-held] view that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge') so you can sorta kinda see why he might have wanted to make such a disproof relevant, but this is an out-and-out moronic thing to say. He knows full well that 'the culture at large,' and especially the skeptical part thereof, doesn't act 'as if "science" were synonymous with "reason."' The best-publicized conflict between religion and science is that the findings of the latter contradict the predictions fo the former, and it's fantastically dishonest of him to pretend otherwise (especially because he's smart enough to know better)."

    Feser says that the culture at large is beholden to an inchoate scientism. This is quite different from saying that the culture at large acts as if science were synonymous with reason. To be beholden to something is to be under obligation to it, it is not to act as if it were true. One of Feser's evidences for the claim that the culture at large is beholden to scientism is the fact--and it is a fact--that most people take faith to be at odds with reason. A similar amount of people take faith to be at odds with science. (Hence you have debates entitled "faith vs. reason" or "faith vs. science", and so on.) In other words, people seem to think they're supposed to think that faith and reason are opposed.

    BTW, this doesn't mean that they're adherents of scientism; what it means is that they're committed to a view that commits them to scientism in its beginning form, or, if you will, an inchoate form of scientism.

    Anyway, all of the above is obvious, and it's fantastically dishonest for Rustbelt philosopher to pretend otherwise (especially because he seems to be smart enough to know better).

  23. "Philosophically banal?" Sounds like a case of accidental self-reference to me.

    Does any one else see the irony here? The guy squeals about how intellectually dishonest Feser is, because we all know that the skeptics out there aren't beholden to naive scientism. Then he goes and writes this:

    "The best-publicized conflict between religion and science is that the findings of the latter contradict the predictions of the former..."

    I had no idea that religion was in the empirical prediction business. Perhaps Rusty could enlighten us by describing some of the "predictive hypotheses" made by "religion?"

    So Rusty complains about Feser's dishonesty, then he turns right around and dishonestly pretends that religion is nothing but a bad empirical model of the universe.

    In essence, then, he is contrasting some vaguely-defined body of "religious claims" with the predictive success of science, and treats all of this nonsense as if it were just obvious.

    And these comments simply confirm the charge of inchoate scientism.

    Skeptics are always tossing out these facile "Science says!" "Religion says!" comments without thinking about what they are even saying. They are almost always written on autopilot, having been repeated so many times that have become embedded in their cognitive muscle memory.

  24. Dr. Feser,
    Have you heard of Yuri Bezmenov?

    If so, what are your thoughts on him?

  25. I read the file and I think there are some problems. First of all, we have "happiness" as a mundane mover. I don't think his answer worked at all. He says that the universal can be changing, but obviously the essence of happiness doesn't. In that case, simply the essence of happiness is the mundane mover of the will. Secondly, with the example of a boulder being moved by gravity, we can then take gravity as an unmoved mover. We can, in fact, take any nature as an unmoved mover. Natures do not change or move. Also, he admits that his understanding of physics isn't all that good, and it seems quite possible that physics could present us with a counterexample of which I'm not aware.