In considering arguments for the existence of God, we sometimes encounter the argument of the first mover, now often referred to as the first cause. This first cause argument comes into play when we try to speak of human agency, or the human ability to have free will. First we must give a bit of background to set up the discussion.
Briefly, the first mover argument says that everything in the universe is caused to exist by another, yet this chain of causing cannot go back infinitely, for then every event in the chain is an effect. Aquinas used this in the first and second ways of his five ways. Aquinas was speaking of current, ongoing causation, as demonstrated by his analogy of a stone being moved by a stick, which in turn is moved by the hand. The motion would be ongoing and current, or the stone would not move. Since the stone cannot move itself, there must be something stationary causing the chain of movement, for an infinite series of sticks have no power in themselves to move anything. William Lane Craig uses the first mover in explaining the Kalam Cosmological Argument, going backward in a logical series, and giving several arguments of why an infinite series of causes cannot exist. One of his reasons is that an infinite cannot be crossed, therefore there cannot be an infinite series of causes prior to now. An ever-increasing finite is not an infinite. The original first mover argument is found in Aristotle.
But when considering the nature of chains of events and the possibilities of infinites, it is sometimes argued something like the following:
- If the first mover argument is true, and since effects must have a cause, humans cannot generate thoughts or actions without the actions being previously caused by another.
- If humans, on their own, can generate thoughts or actions without any previous cause, then we have a counter-example to the first mover argument. Arguments for God will fail, including those from Aquinas and Craig.
- If humans, on their own, cannot generate thoughts or actions without any previous cause, then there is no free will, no moral accountability, and the world is determined. At best, God then becomes irrelevant; at worse, arguments for God from contingency or morality will ultimately fail.
Such reasoning then gives skeptics a tool to have fun running in conversational circles with theists, which they seem to do with glee. One suspects they really are looking for excuses, or they would not argue from such a position, for their arguments fail.
The simple answer is that as humans, we have been given the capacity to have free will acts and generate movement and thoughts. Human movement and thoughts are not generated with no prior cause, but from the human agent, who was caused to have the capacity to generate actions. Actions are when a potential moves to an actual, and humans have the ability to move potential thoughts to actual thoughts, and potential movement to actual movement. We were caused to have this ability from the first, uncaused cause, which we call God. So human actions do not come from nothing, and the human capacity to generate thoughts and actions does not come from nothing. All things are caused but not determined, for humans were caused to have the capacity to make free-will thoughts and actions.
I completed a lengthy series on the justification for human agency, the first of which you can read here.
To this we add the words of Aristotle. The following section is from Aristotle’s De Anima, in a section where he is describing how humans move. He writes quite a bit about the various aspects of the human soul having the capacity to generate, mentioning movement quite a bit:
It is because of the movement started by the object of desire that the thinking produces its movement . . . There is really one thing that produces movement, the object of desire. . . in fact it is not clear that the intellect produces movement without desire. . . the movement produces by reasoning being invariably accompanied by that produced by wishing, while desire even in the face of reasoning produces movement . . .
We have shown, then, that it is the sort of capacity of the soul that is called desire that produces movement. (De Anima, III.10, 433a)
We are not concerned here with Aristotle’s conclusions about what parts of the soul cause what type of action, but rather the pervasiveness of his mentioning that the human soul does indeed cause action, and does so of its own accord, with no direct, efficient cause of the action other than the human soul having the capacity to do so. Aristotle’s main thrust is explaining just exactly how he thinks the soul operates, and does not question whether the soul is able to do so. Aristotle seems to not even consider whether a soul would not have the capacity to generate thoughts and actions of itself. The idea seems so obvious as to not need discussion.
Aquinas’ writings are similar. In the Summa Theologia, he speaks at length about human abilities, frequently mentioning agency. But he brings in the idea of agency as if it was a settled fact, which is amazing considering the length and depth of the Summa, where he questions more things than we ever thought it possible to question. That Aquinas would not question agency is telling.
We can therefore conclude that at least Aristotle and Aquinas held it obvious and not contradictory in the slightest to both hold to an argument of a first mover and full human agency. Humans have the capacity to cause thoughts and actions, which is sufficient to do so. It was given to them by their creator God.