Well, no offense to Schmid – who seems like a nice enough guy, and an intelligent one – but I’m afraid I can’t spend the rest of the summer, or even the rest of this week, reading and responding to this mountain of material. And if I’m going to choose something of his to read, I have to say that a rambling and largely off-topic 40,000-word blog post banged out over two days doesn’t seem the most promising candidate. So, it seemed to me that a workable compromise would be to press on with what I had thought to do before he posted his reply, which is to read and comment on the other of Schmid’s two published academic articles, Since the notion of existential inertia seems to be at the core of our disagreement, and since I take it to be a reasonable assumption that this article contains Schmid’s most rigorous presentation of his views on that topic (and that his latest blog post presupposes the article in any event), I take that to be a reasonable way to conclude our exchange for now. Fair enough?
EIT versus EET
Schmid starts out his paper by distinguishing the “Existential Inertia Thesis” (EIT) from what he labels the “Existential Expiration Thesis” (EET). According to EIT, objects of the kind that make up the world of our experience will persist in existence unless something acts positively to destroy them. According to the rival EET, such objects will cease to exist unless something positively acts to sustain them in being. Hence, consider an example like the water in a certain glass at time t. According to EIT, as long as nothing acts to destroy the water, it will continue to exist at t + 1. Nothing has to do anything in order to make the water continue to exist. All that is necessary is that nothing does something to knock it out of existence. But according to EET, unless something acts to make the water continue to exist, it will not exist at t + 1. It’s not enough that nothing does anything to destroy it. The fact that nothing acts positively to sustain it will suffice for its going out of existence.
Arguments for God’s existence like the Aristotelian proof I defend in chapter 1 of Now, Schmid writes as if the falsity of EIT and truth of EET are presuppositions of such arguments. That is not correct. Rather, a critique of EIT and defense of EET are parts of such arguments, not undefended background assumptions of such arguments. For example, in the course of developing the Aristotelian proof, I point out that a substance like the water in question is composite in nature, i.e. it is made up of parts. There are different ways you could conceive of these parts – for example, in terms of substantial form and prime matter (if you are an Aristotelian hylemorphist), or in terms of essence and existence (if you are a Thomist metaphysician), or in terms of fundamental particles (if you are a metaphysical naturalist). It doesn’t matter for the specific purposes of the argument. What matters is only that the parts, considered just qua parts of that kind at t, are only potentially water at t, and that some additional factor is therefore needed in order to explain why this potential is actualized at t. That they made up water at t – 1 is irrelevant, because what matters is why they continue to make up water at t, and again, nothing about the parts considered by themselves can account for that. Hence we need to appeal to some additional factor. (and which was discussed in my previous post on Schmid) are concerned in part to show that EIT is false and EET is true.
You may or may not agree with this argument. (In my previous post on Schmid, I defend it against an objection he raises against it.) But it is precisely an argument against EIT and for EET. For it entails that the water will not continue to exist from t – 1 to t unless something acts to keep it in existence. Hence Schmid is wrong to say that the Aristotelian proof (of which this argument is a component part) merely assumes EET. (Moreover, the whole point of my ACPQ article is to show that, properly understood, Aquinas’s Five Ways – the first of which is a version of the Aristotelian proof – are arguments against EIT. Schmid cites this article in his own paper, which makes it is especially odd for him to write as if my arguments simply assume the falsity of EIT.)
Schmid also claims that the rejection of EIT does not entail accepting EET. Consider again the example of the water. If we reject EIT, Schmid thinks, all that follows is that the water will not of necessity continue to exist without a sustaining cause. But it doesn’t follow that it will of necessity go out of existence without one. It might simply happen to carry on without one.
This too is not correct. If the water continues to exist from t – 1 to t, then something must account for this fact, and it will have to be something either intrinsic to the water or extrinsic to it. Now, if EIT is false, then it is not something intrinsic to the water; and if there is no sustaining cause, then it will not be something extrinsic to it either. But then there will be nothing to account for its continuing to exist from t – 1 to t, in which case it will not continue to exist. Which is precisely what EET claims. So, if we reject EIT, then we must indeed affirm EET.
A critic might respond that this presupposes the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). Well, since I think PSR is true and have defended it at length in several places, I hardly think that is a problem. But in fact the argument does not presuppose PSR – or to be more precise, it doesn’t presuppose PSR any more than any other explanation does. Homicide detectives, insurance investigators, and forensic engineers never take seriously the suggestion “Maybe it just happened for no reason!” when considering the phenomena they are trying to understand, and that is so whether or not they are committed to the principle that absolutely everything has an explanation. Similarly, we needn’t appeal to such a principle in order to judge that the rejection of EIT should lead us to embrace EET. (Not that we shouldn’t embrace such a principle. And as everyone knows, few people seriously quibble about PSR until they start to worry that it might force them into accepting theism.)
A third claim Schmid makes about EIT and EET is that neither has a presumption in its favor, so that we ought initially to be agnostic about which is correct. A priori, they are evenly matched. This too, I would argue, is mistaken. To take an example I have often used, suppose you explain, to someone who has never heard of them before (a young child, say), the nature or essence of a lion, of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and of a unicorn. Then you tell him that, of these three animals, one exists, one used to exist but has gone extinct, and the other never existed and is fictional. You ask him to tell you, based on his new knowledge of the essences of each, which is which. Naturally, he couldn’t tell you. For there is nothing in the essence or nature of these things that could, by itself, tell you whether or not it exists. Existence is something additional to the essence of a contingent thing. It doesn’t follow from such a thing’s essence.
This is, of course, an argument Aquinas gives for the Thomistic doctrine of the real distinction between essence and existence (which I develop and defend in chapter 4 of Five Proofs). The point for the moment is this. If nothing about the essence or nature of a thing entails that it exists at all in the first place, then it is hard to see how anything about its essence or nature could entail that will persist in existence once it does exist. In short, the very nature of a contingent thing qua contingent makes it implausible to attribute to it a feature like existential inertia. In which case, EET is, contra Schmid, a priori more plausible than EIT.
In summary, then, in the first, stage-setting part of his paper, Schmid makes three dubious claims: that the falsity of EIT and truth of EET are simply taken for granted by the Aristotelian proof (not true); that the falsity of EIT does not give us reason to believe EET (not true); and that EIT and EET are equally plausible a priori (not true). So unpromising a beginning does not portend well for the rest of the paper, and indeed further serious problems with it arise immediately.
The metaphysics of existential inertia
Schmid next considers two possible ways of spelling out EIT. The first account goes like this: Consider the water in our earlier example. Its existence at some time t is sufficiently explained by (a) the state and existence of the water at an immediately preceding time t – 1 together with (b) the absence of anything acting to destroy the water.
Now, an objection that might be raised against existential inertia thus understood (and one I have raised in my exchanges with Graham Oppy and in my previous reply to Schmid) is that it is viciously circular. Existential inertia would be a property or power of the water. So, the water’s persistence from t – 1 to t would, on this account, depend on this property or power. But properties and powers depend for their reality on the substances that possess them. So, we seem to have a situation where the water’s persistence depends on that of a property or power which in turn depends on the persistence of the water.
Schmid considers something like this “circularity” objection (though his exposition of it seems to me to be quite murky, so it is possible that he has something else in mind). In response to it, he says that if the objection had any force, it would have force against any account of the persistence of the water, including an account that attributes its persistence to God. For if we suppose that God causes the water to persist from t – 1 to t, then we will be presupposing that it is possible for it to persist from t – 1 to t, and thus won’t be giving a non-circular explanation of how it is possible for it to do so. And if the theist replies that God gives the water the ability to persist, then this will only push the problem back a stage insofar as it will presuppose that God has the ability to do so.
I find this to be a very odd response, and I confess that I’m not sure I even understand what Schmid is going on about. The circularity objection has nothing do with presupposing that it is possible for something to persist, or with presupposing that things have abilities, or anything like whatever Schmid is talking about. Rather, it has to do with the fact that properties and powers are ontologically dependent on substances, so that substances cannot without circularity be said to be ontologically dependent on properties or powers.
Again, perhaps that is not the objection Schmid is talking about. But if it isn’t, then I’m not sure what he is talking about. Certainly he doesn’t seem to be talking about (a) an objection that any critic of EIT has actually given, or (b) an objection that is interesting.
Anyway, Schmid goes on to discuss a further possible objection to this first way of spelling out EIT, one grounded in a presentist theory of time. The objection would be that what happens at t – 1 cannot explain what happens at the present moment t, because (according to presentism) past moments like t – 1 no longer exist, and what does not exist cannot be the explanation of anything. Schmid responds to this possible objection by setting out several arguments in defense of the claim that past events can play a role in explaining present ones.
Schmid does not attribute this objection to anyone, and as he rightly notes, presentists in fact do not in general claim in the first place that past events play no role in explaining the present. So what is the point of devoting several pages to an argument no presentist has given or is likely to give? I’m not sure, and I don’t myself have anything to add to what Schmid says in response to it. Certainly the fact that the past is relevant to explaining the present gives (contrary to what Schmid seems to think) no support to EIT. For what is at issue in the debate over EIT and EET is not whether what happens at t – 1 is part of the explanation of what is true of the water at t, but rather whether it is by itself sufficient to explain what is true of it at t.
(I have to say that I wonder what kind of rhetorical effect this kind of stuff has on Schmid’s readers, some of whom – judging from my combox – seem very impressed by it. Schmid’s discussion of this first interpretation of EIT occupies almost five pages of analysis, with the standard bells and whistles that we analytic philosophers pick up in grad school and from reading academic journal articles – semi-formal formulations, the entertaining of various hypotheticals, and so on. Other things Schmid has written, such as the article addressed in my previous post on Schmid, have a similar character. Untutored readers, especially those whose knowledge of philosophy is largely drawn from blog posts, Reddit discussions, and the like, are bound to think: “Wow, this is so technical and rigorous!” Yet in fact the analysis is sometimes not terribly clear, and in this case it is devoted to criticizing claims that no critic of EIT has actually made or is likely to make in the first place! So it seems to me that some of the rigor is specious.)
Schmid considers a second possible account of EIT, according to which existential inertia is simply a basic or primitive feature of reality. He suggests that one way of reading this claim, in turn, is that it is a necessary feature of reality that things have existential inertia.
But there are two obvious problems with this. The first is that there is no reason to believe it. (I’ll come back to that.) The second is that there is positive reason to disbelieve it. Again, with lions, Tyrannosauruses, water, etc., there is simply nothing about their natures or essences that entails that they exist at all. So how could it be just a basic and necessary feature of a world comprised of such things that they persist in existence?
Schmid also suggests that the thesis that it is a necessary feature of reality that lions, water, etc. have existential inertia is no less plausible a terminus of explanation than the thesis that God, qua pure actuality, exists of necessity. Both theses, he claims, posit something “primitive,” but EIT is more parsimonious.
But this is quite absurd. As I argue in Five Proofs and in my article on existential inertia (both of which Schmid purports to be responding to in the present article), the reason contingent things are contingent is that they are composed of parts, and in particular that they have potentialities as well as actualities. So, when we say that God is absolutely simple rather than composite and that he is pure actuality devoid of potentiality, we have given an explanation of his lacking contingency – that is, of his existing of necessity. By contrast, Schmid’s proposal is that the world is made up of things that are contingent, composite, and have potentialities as well as actualities – and yet for all that it is still somehow just a necessary fact about the world that these things have existential inertia!
This is not a case of being presented with a choice between two alternative possible ultimate explanations, the Thomist’s and Schmid’s. Rather, it is a case of being presented with a choice between an explanation and an unexplained and indeed counterintuitive brute fact.
This naturally brings us to Schmid’s claim that EIT enjoys several “theoretical virtues” (i.e. virtues of a kind that a good theory ought to possess). He starts his discussion in this section of the paper by suggesting that the reason things exist at all may be that it is metaphysically necessary that something or other exists. And in the same way, he suggests, the reason things persist in existence may be that it is simply metaphysically necessary that they do so. EIT thus provides an explanation of a familiar fact of our experience, viz. that things persist.
To see what is wrong with this, consider the following dialogue:
Bob: Why did Ed start to drink that martini?
Fred: Hmm, maybe it was metaphysically necessary that he do so?
Bob: Wow, that’s an interesting explanation! And why do you think he kept drinking it once he started?
Fred: I’ve got it – maybe that was metaphysically necessary too!
Bob: Brilliant! You should write a paper.
I take it you agree with me that Fred’s explanation is not in fact that brilliant. For why on earth would anyone think it even prima facie plausible that it is necessary that I start to drink a martini? True, my nightly routine might for a moment make you wonder, but after a moment’s reflection you’d realize that there are many factors that would prevent it from being necessary – I could run out of gin, or the kids could hide the bottles, or I could opt for a Scotch instead, or whatever. And if it is not prima facie plausibly necessary that I start drinking, it is hardly any more prima facie plausible that I will of necessity keep doing so.
But the existence and persistence of everyday objects (lions, water, etc.) are in the same boat. Again, there is nothing in the essence of any of these things that entails that they exist; they are composed of parts, and thus depend for their existence on these parts being combined; they have potentialities which need to be actualized in order for them to exist; and so on. That is why they are contingent. So, if there is nothing more to reality than things of that sort, how could it be metaphysically necessary that there be things of that sort? And if it is not prima facie plausibly metaphysically necessary that things of this sort exist at all, how could it be any more prima facie plausibly metaphysically necessary that they must persist in existence?
Of course, that doesn’t entail that there is nothing of which it could be said that it is metaphysically necessary that it exists and persists in existence. Certainly, this could plausibly be said of something that is absolutely simple and devoid of potentiality (precisely since to be something of that sort is to lack the features that make a thing contingent). But of course, that’s precisely the sort of thing Schmid wants to avoid positing.
So, Schmid’s proposed “explanation” is really no more interesting than Fred’s. If we ask “Why does God have existential inertia?” the theist can offer a response: “Because he is non-composite and devoid of potentiality, and thus lacks the features that entail contingency or possible non-existence.” But if we ask “Why do ordinary contingent things like lions, water, etc. have existential inertia?” all Schmid can say in response is: “I don’t know, but maybe it’s just a necessary fact about them that they have it – wouldn’t that give us a cool explanation of why they persist?” (Talk about your proverbial “dormitive virtue” explanation!)
Now suppose someone said: “Hey, let’s not be too quick to dismiss Fred’s explanation. Consider its theoretical virtues, such as parsimony…” Would you stick around to listen? Probably not. There’s no point in considering such theoretical virtues if the “explanation” is already independently known to be a non-starter. That’s true of Fred’s explanation, and (for all he has shown) it is, for the reasons I’ve given, true of Schmid’s as well.
There are other problems with Schmid’s discussion in this section of his paper. For instance, commenting on my example in Five Proofs of the existence of the water in a cup of coffee being explained in terms of the existence of its parts, he notes that it could plausibly be said instead that the parts in fact depend for their existence of the whole. Indeed, as he notes, that is what I myself have said elsewhere. He insinuates that there is, accordingly, an incoherence in my position.
But there is no such incoherence, and Schmid ignores what should be clear from the context of that discussion in Five Proofs, viz. that I am speaking there in a “for the sake of argument” way. As I said in the book and in my previous post on Schmid, there are several possible ways one could spell out the metaphysics of the water as it exists at a time t: (a) in terms of substantial form and prime matter, after the fashion of Aristotelian hylemorphism, (b) in terms of essence and existence, as a Thomist would, (c) as an aggregate of particles, as a reductive naturalist might, or (d) in yet some other way. It doesn’t matter for the specific purposes of the argument, and for the sake of ease of exposition and the naturalistic scruples of many readers, I went with (c) even though my own predilection is for (a) and (b).
Schmid’s discussion ignores this, and makes it sound like I am contradicting myself. Once again, the untutored reader who has read his article (but not Five Proofs) might think he’s raised some devastating criticism, when in fact he has simply failed to read what I wrote carefully.
Schmid suggests that another virtue of EIT over the thesis that God sustains things in being is that it better accounts for how physical objects maintain their identity over time. Indeed, he says that “it is unclear that [the latter thesis] can even account for diachronic identity in the first place,” and he goes on to devote two and half pages to developing this theme.
But who on earth ever suggested in the first place that the thesis that God sustains things in being explains the identity of things over time? Not me, and not anyone else as far as I know. That’s simply not a question that the thesis is trying to address. You might as well object “But the thesis that God sustains things in being doesn’t account for Feser’s martini habit!” Who said it did?
So, why would Schmid think to raise this issue? The reason is apparent from this passage:
On Feser’s account, God does not act on a previously existent concrete object to conserve it in existence, preserving its original constituents. Instead, God wholly reconstitutes concrete objects from utter non-being at each and every moment.
This makes it sound like my view is that things are annihilated and recreated at every moment. But I have never said such a thing, and it is not my view. Conserving things in being is not the same thing as recreating them after they have been annihilated. Indeed, the whole point is that God keeps them from being annihilated. And Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysicians don’t explain diachronic identity in terms of divine conservation, but rather in terms of factors intrinsic to substances, such as substantial form and designated matter. (Cf. my discussion of that issue in , Oderberg’s in , etc.)
Here too Schmid trots out the standard analytic philosopher’s hoo-hah – semi-formal exposition, oddball thought experiments, etc. – developed in the service of a gigantic red herring. The unwary reader thinks he’s being treated to a really rigorous critique of my arguments, when in fact he’s being led on a wild goose chase.
Note that I am not accusing Schmid of deliberate misrepresentation, and I am not decrying the use of such analytic methods when appropriate (I was, after all, trained as an analytic philosopher myself). My point is that in several cases they give a false appearance of rigor to Schmid’s criticisms, which I suspect accounts for some readers’ being (judging from by combox) overly impressed by them.
Now, Schmid does consider the possibility that I might reply by saying that the previous state of an object at t – 1 together with divine action is what accounts for its existence and state at t. But he objects that “it’s unclear that there is any independent motivation for this move apart from a prior acceptance that things require sustaining causes of their existence.”
Well, of course that’s the motivation, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Again, Schmid’s discussion here falsely supposes that divine conservation is intended to be an explanation of diachronic identity. And in that light, one might think it a good objection to ask why, if factors intrinsic to a substance explain diachronic identity, we need to bring in divine conservation.
But again, divine conservation is not in the first place being brought in to explain diachronic identity. That application is a figment of Schmid’s imagination. There are two issues here: what accounts for a thing’s identity over time, and what accounts for its persistence in being. Divine conservation is intended to deal with the second issue; again, the first issue is dealt with instead in terms of factors like substantial form, designated matter, etc. (True, God conserves those in being too, like he does everything else. But the point is that divine conservation is not brought in to explain diachronic identity per se.)
An argument against EIT
Finally, Schmid addresses an argument against EIT that I gave in the ACPQ article referred to above. It goes like this:
1. A cause cannot give what it does not have to give.
2. A material substance is a composite of prime matter and substantial form.
3. Something has existential inertia if and only if it has of itself a tendency to persist in existence once it exists.
4. But prime matter by itself and apart from substantial form is pure potency, and thus has of itself no tendency to persist in existence.
5. And substantial form by itself and apart from prime matter is a mere abstraction, and thus of itself also has no tendency to persist in existence.
6. So neither prime matter as the material cause of a material substance, nor substantial form as its formal cause, can impart to the material substance they compose a tendency to persist in existence.
7. But there are no other internal principles from which such a substance might derive such a tendency.
8. So no material substance has a tendency of itself to persist in existence once it exists.
9. So no material substance has existential inertia.
Schmid raises four objections against this argument. First, he suggests that the defender of EIT could simply reject hylemorphism on the grounds that, if my argument is correct, hylemorphism would conflict with EIT. Which is true, but not terribly interesting if I have independent arguments for hylemorphism – . But it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect Schmid to present a general critique of those arguments in a journal article devoted to another topic, so for present purposes we can put this issue to one side.
Second, Schmid notes that the Principle of Proportionate Causality (of which premise 1 above is one formulation) allows that there are several ways in which what is in an effect may preexist in its cause. And he suggests that a tendency to persist in existence may preexist in a material thing’s metaphysical constituents in a more subtle way than I consider. In particular, he suggests that even if neither prime matter nor substantial form by themselves have a tendency to persist in existence, maybe in combination they will produce something that does have such a tendency – just as two colorless chemical constituents might be combined in a way that generates something that is red.
One problem with this is that, just left at that, it doesn’t really amount to much of an objection. For in the case of the chemical constituents, there are chemical facts we can point to that explain exactly why they will together generate something red. But Schmid does not tell us exactly what it is about prime matter and substantial form that would (or indeed could), when they are combined, generate a tendency to persist in existence.
Another problem is that even if substantial form and prime matter would together yield something with existential inertia, that would just leave us with another version of the circularity problem discussed above. Existential inertia, as a power or property of the whole substance, would depend for its existence at any moment on the parts of the substance (prime matter and substantial form) being combined; and the parts of the substance being combined at any moment would depend on its power or property of existential inertia. (As I have said before, there really is no way around this sort of problem for anything that is composed of parts. Only an absolutely simple or non-composite thing can have existential inertia.)
Now, toward the end of his paper, Schmid does say something that might seem to provide a solution to this circularity problem. He says that it is the parts of a substance at time t – 1 that explain the whole’s existence at t. But there would be vicious circularity only if it were the parts at time t that were claimed to explain the whole’s existence at t.
But this simply ignores the sub-argument of the Aristotelian proof, referred to above, which claims that even considered at time t, the parts of the water (or of any other physical substance) considered just qua parts of the kind they are (particles, prime matter and substantial form, essence and existence, or whatever) are merely potentially water, so that some additional factor active at t must be brought in to account for why they are actualized as water at t. What happened at an earlier time t – 1 is not sufficient to account for that. But if the additional factor is some other part of the water itself, then we will be back with the circularity problem.
Schmid’s third objection to my argument is directed at step 7. He says that, for all I have shown, existential inertia itself might be a further internal principle of a substance. Hence, he claims, the premise begs the question.
To see the problem with this objection, consider an EIT-rejecting reductive naturalist who argues as follows:
The physical world consists of nothing more than fermions and bosons and the laws that govern them. But there is nothing in the nature of fermions and bosons or the laws that govern them that entails that they have existential inertia. Hence, there is no such feature in the physical world.
Whatever you think of such an argument, would it beg the question? Not if the speaker has independent grounds for being a reductive naturalist. Hence, in response to such a reductive naturalist, a defender of EIT would either have to give some argument against reductive naturalism, or show that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. It would not be enough merely to accuse the speaker of begging the question. But by the same token, my argument does not beg the question if I have independent grounds for being a hylemorphist, which I do. Hence, even if Schmid had other good reasons to reject the argument, accusing step 7 of begging the question is not a good one.
Schmid’s fourth objection to my argument claims that if it succeeded, it would take down EET as well as EIT. For why would a material substance’s substantial form and prime matter give it a tendency to expire any more than they give it a tendency to persist? But Schmid’s objection misunderstands the position of those who reject EIT and endorse EET. Their claim is not that material substances have an intrinsic tendency to go out of existence. It’s rather merely that they lack any intrinsic tendency to continue in existence.
Schmid considers this response, and says in reply that it presupposes that the falsity of EIT gives us reason to believe EET, which, he claims, it does not. But I have already explained above why he is wrong about that. The falsity of EIT does in fact give us reason to endorse EET. Schmid also suggests that if I agree that things do not have a positive intrinsic tendency to go out of existence, then that would be enough to vindicate EIT. But that doesn’t follow at all. Again, the lack of a tendency to persist in existence is by itself sufficient to undermine EIT.
(Compare: If there is nothing intrinsic to me that allows me to see as far as a mile, then I am simply not going to see as far as a mile, unless some additional factor – such as a telescope – is brought into the picture. The mere absence of some factor that prevents me from seeing that far – such as a barrier – is not going to suffice for me to see that far. Similarly, the mere absence of a positively self-destructive tendency is not going to suffice to ensure that I continue in existence. If there is nothing intrinsic to me that positively ensures that I do continue in existence, then I am simply not going to continue in existence, unless some additional factor – an external sustaining cause – is brought into the picture.)
Well, I’m approaching 6,000 words this time, and I think that’s enough. I’m afraid I have no time or inclination to read all the other stuff Schmid has written, or to view his YouTube videos, etc. But since readers have been asking me to comment, I have tried to be fair to him by taking on his arguments in their strongest form, focusing as I have on what he has said in his two academic articles (which are presumably where the arguments have been given their most careful formulation). Yet as we have now seen in two detailed posts, those arguments are seriously problematic – being sometimes unclear in their formulation, begging the question, and, in some cases, beholden to straw men and red herrings. But as I have said, Schmid is an intelligent fellow and he certainly tries to engage his opponents’ arguments in a serious and civil way, and for that I thank him.