A First Mover Exists (Agency part 4)

This is the fourth part in a series trying to establish agency.

The following is the first of Thomas Aquinas’ five ways of
establishing the existence of God. For our purposes, we are merely trying to establish
a beginning of causes. That the first cause is known as God, or how or to what
extent we have defined God, is secondary to our immediate discussion. For now,
we are merely interested in establishing a beginning.

Aquinas’ first way, from the Summa Theologica, is as follows:

It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world
some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by
another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that
towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act.
For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to
actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by
something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire,
makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and
changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in
actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects.
For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is
simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same
respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that
it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion
by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then
this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again.
But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover,
and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only
inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only
because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at
a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be
God. (ST, 1.2.3)

Now many introductory philosophy texts have ridiculed the
sentence which says “ But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would
be no first mover.” The accusation is that Aquinas assumes a first mover
without proving there to be one. But this criticism misunderstands Thomas’
meaning of movement, for his context is that of ongoing causation of movement. Assume you are in your car, and pull up to a railroad crossing, and you see a series of
boxcars rolling past. It would be absurd to say “The boxcars need no engine,
for there could be an infinite series of boxcars.” This is absurd, for boxcars
can only be moved, and cannot generate movement. If there is movement in the
boxcars, there has to be something pulling the boxcars that is much different
than a boxcar, something that can cause movement while itself is not being
moved by something else. So a series of things being moved cannot go on to
infinity, for there would be nothing causing the movement in the whole chain. Perhaps
to the modern ear Thomas’ statement should read “But this cannot go on to
infinity, because there would be nothing causing the movement.”

Thomas is speaking of motion as continuous and present, as
in the example of the hand moving the staff. To Thomas, if there is motion, it
is immediate and continuous through the entire chain. Increasing the length of
the chain of objects being moved does nothing to eliminate the conclusion that
something is moving the chain of objects. Increasing the length of the chain of
objects to infinity merely increases the need for a cause of the entire set of
objects. If there is movement, something must be currently causing the
movement, while itself is not being moved by another. Posing the boxcars as being in a large circle still does not solve the problem, for boxcars can still not generate movement.

Further, actual infinites are impossible. We can have a
theoretical infinite that we can plug into a math formula* but we cannot have
an actual infinite. Any attempt to create an infinite number of actual objects
merely ends up being an ever increasing finite, which is not an infinite, for it is always finite and growing. No actual infinite has ever been observed or proven to be possible. We can have theoretical or conceptual infinites, but not actual infinites. Further, by
definition one cannot reach the end of an infinite, yet we have reached the end
of all the moments prior to now. Therefore we cannot have an infinite number of
moments prior to now, and a beginning of time is proven.

Thomas goes on to show the existence of a first being
through four other arguments, not the least of which is the argument from
efficient causality, namely:

“There is no case known (neither is it, indeed,
possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so
it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is
not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in
order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate
is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several,
or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore,
if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate,
nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on
to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an
ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly

Therefore a first being is established. But further explanation is given when we take up act
and potency. As we established in part 3, nothing can come into being except
that potency be moved to act, and potency cannot be actualized except by
something already in act. Then, as Thomas explains, “For although in any single
thing that passes from potentiality to actuality, the potentiality is prior in
time to the actuality; nevertheless, absolutely speaking, actuality is prior to
potentiality; for whatever is in potentiality can be reduced into actuality
only by some being in actuality. Now it has been already proved that God is the
First Being. It is therefore impossible that in God there should be any
potentiality.” (ST, 1.3.1)

The first being must therefore be pure act, with no mixture
of potency, for all composed beings could only have been composed by something
already in act. And if all composed beings are in such a state, there would be
no actualized being to cause the entire set of composed beings. Therefore there
must be a first being of pure act with no mixture of potency.  This we call God.

Those who deny that God is pure act and a first being must

1) how composed beings can come to exist
2) the origination of movement
3) how composed beings can actualize potency without the existence of pure act

Only by demonstrating a first mover of pure act can we explain the existence of
composed beings. This establishes a first being, an unmoved mover, and the existence of a being of pure act, without any admixture of potency.

Next we will use the above demonstrations to
refute the argument from circular movement.


(*Some mathmaticians disagree it is possible to even have a true mathematical infinite.)


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A First Mover Exists (Agency part 4)

  1. roblewis92 says:

    I feel the argument that the First Mover is Pure Act is a dubious one. Could not the First Mover act upon a part that was potential within itself? The First Mover could have act prior to potency but still have potency within itself that it could actualize.

    • humblesmith says:

      Any being that has potential is composed of act and potency, and is therefore a composed being. Composed beings require some prior cause to compose them, which would mean they are not first. Further, potential is a limiting factor, since a being is always limited by its potential. Limited beings are finite. Therefore a being composed of act and potential would be a finite, created being, and not capable of being a first mover.

      We humans are composed of act and potency, and can actualize our potential since we are agents. We can do so only because we have a prior cause, the First Mover, which we call God.

  2. chikeson2013 says:

    There was never a beginning and there will never be an end, only a cycle of existence. I am the only person that espouses this theory. It is simple and can be understood biologically and environmentally.

  3. Mike says:

    Humblesmith – I have a few questions. And please don’t feel that I’m picking on you, I do this on many other blogs.

    I have a few questions about the existence of infinities.

    1. Is the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference, known as Pi, and actual infinity or a potential infinity?

    2. Was the “singularity” which composed our entire universe in an infinitesimally small space which was said to have infinite energy and density, an actual infinity or a potential infinity?

    3. Isn’t god an actual infinity? Or is god in every possible measure finite?

    • humblesmith says:

      1. Pi is a concept. We can have conceptual infinites, such as can be plugged into a math formula or talked about as a conceptual infinite. But if we were to try to take a conceptual infinite and try to actually do anything with it, it would at best be an ever-increasing finite. For example, if we were to try to write it out, or calculate it to infinity, we would never finish and would not have an actual infinite. It’s like the old story about getting a 12-inch ruler and taking half, then half again, and half again, etc. Theoretically it would lead to an infinite, but in actuality to try to do so would be an ever-increasing finite series of measures, not an infinite. (I add to this that I am not a mathematician and do claim no expertise in math, but I have had discussions with a few that claim mathematical expertise who tell me there is disagreement amongst math theorists about whether a mathematical infinite can truly exist. I will gladly stand corrected on this point to anyone who claims knowledge. This does not affect my point.)

      2. I am unaware whether current scholarship would claim that the Big Bang singularity is infinite or not. Personally, I do not see how anyone could tell. What would appear to be the point relevant to the beginning of the universe is a collapsing of physical space. Off hand, I can’t see how that would be relevant to infinites.

      3. God is infinite, but is spirit, not physical. Anything physical requires a body with a limit, and is therefore finite. God has no body, no “edges” if you will. Actually, another argument for God shows that an infinite must exist, but not not one that is part of the universe. An infinite being must exist if finite beings exist. I dealt with this here: https://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/the-infinity-of-god-and-the-finiteness-of-creatures/

      Good questions.

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