Evaluating the Aristotelian Argument for God’s Existence: JH Sobel, Sustaining Causes, and Pure Actuality

None of the stuff in this post is meant to be ridiculing Feser or the Aristotelian argument. I just really want to understand the argument better, and I hope Feser is able to reply to the concerns raised! Without further ado, let’s get into it!


The following passage is from Philosopher Jordan Howard Sobel’s “Logic and Theism”.

Aquinas writes, “In the world of sensible things we find there is an order of efficient causes” (emphasis added). “In other words,” according to Copleston, “in our experience of things and of their relations to one another we are aware of efficient causality” (Copleston 1955, p. 111). And this is so – we do find an order of efficient causes, of which one could hardly fail to be aware of it – if what is meant is that we find sensible things generating and producing other sensible things. We are aware of chickens laying eggs and eggs becoming chickens, of persons having children, who in turn have children, and so on. There certainly are generating or producing efficient causes of many things. It is evident that there are ‘agents,’ broadly understood, that from time to time bring things into existence by making them (sculptors), are responsible for things coming into existence (parents), or out of which things come into existence (eggs and seeds). There certainly are efficient causes of these sorts. We are aware of temporal orders of efficient generating causes.

Sustaining efficient causes, however, make another case that argues against their being the causes that Aquinas had in mind when he said that we find in the world of sensible things an order of efficient causes. This is in part because it is not obvious how such causes are to be understood, how they would be related to their effects, and how they might be seen to be at work.

We have an inkling of what sustaining causes would be like. Whatever else a sustaining cause of a thing would be, it would be something whose ‘action’ at a time was necessary for the thing’s existence at this time and perhaps for its ‘activity’ of sustaining something in turn. A present sustaining cause of X would be something Y upon the present existence and action of which the present existence of X and perhaps action depended, something without which it would not be, let alone act. Similarly for the past and future sustaining causes of a thing.

Y would be a sustaining cause for X at a time if and only if the being, and perhaps certain causal activities of X at this time are dependent on causal activity, and thus the being, of Y at this time. With this partial idea to go, we may wonder whether sensible things, any of them, have sustaining efficient causes. Consider me and my existence at this moment. Do I have a sustaining efficient cause? Is there any ‘thing’ that is no part of me (for nothing can be prior to itself, so nothing can be a sustaining cause of itself) without which ‘thing’ I could not now exist and act?

I doubt it, and I am not bragging. I doubt that there is anything separate from you the present existence of which is necessary for your present existence, or that there is anything separate from any sensible thing that is necessary for its existence. “But we and everything depend every moment on God, the ground of all being!!” I doubt it, though what is more to the point are, (i) this dependence is certainly not evident in the manner required for the factual basis of a demonstration quia from effects better known than the nature of the cause, and (ii) this dependence is not available as a premise for a ‘proof’ of the existence of God or an argument that might reasonably persuade someone who needed to be persuaded.

William Rowe, for a sense of the causality in question, suggests that the activities of “oxygen, heat, etc.” (Rowe 1975, p. 30) are necessary for my present existence. Copleston implies that I am “dependent here and now on…the activity of the air, and the life-preserving activity of the air is itself dependent here and now on other factors, and they in turn on other factors . . . [that] the activity of the pen tracing these words on this page is here and now dependent on the activity of my hand, which in turn is here and now dependent on other factors [the activity of my arm?]” (Copleston 1955, p. 118). Aquinas implies something along the first line when he writes of a particular man’s depending “on an elementary body [heat?], and [this] on the sun, and so on [but not] to infinity” (St I q46,a3 p. 455). But I am not for my present existence or activity dependent on oxygen, heat, or air. I am dependent on these things only eventually for my future existence. I am dependent on them after a short time for my persistence, for my continuing existence. Take away oxygen and I am dead, not now, however, but only shortly. Take away heat from my environment, plunge it to absolute zero, and I am gone more quickly, but again not immediately. Take away the sun, and the heat, most of it hereabouts continues for eight minutes or so, so the sun is no part of its efficient sustaining cause. Oxygen and the like are at best not sustaining, but perpetuating, and so not necessarily concurrent efficient causes of people. The activity of a pen in my grasp is concurrent with the activity of my hand with which I am moving the pen, but, while suggestive, this causality is not any kind of ‘efficient’ causality: My hand is nothing to the existence of the pen.

Suppose, however, that my present existence did depend on oxygen now. Suppose, indeed, that this was certain and evident to our senses. Is there something similar that can be said with any plausibility to be similarly related to the existence here and now of this oxygen? Even supposing that it were obvious that I am presently sustained by oxygen, though there would be clear evidence that a sensible thing had a sustaining cause, it would not yet be evident to our senses that there was “an order of [sustaining] efficient causes” (loc. cit.; emphasis added) that just might, as envisioned in the Second Way, need to go on, or better ‘down,’ to infinity unless it gets to a ground extraordinaire that while sustaining is not itself sustained by anything. Certainly, dropping all pretence, we do not find such an order of sustaining causes, nor is one by any stretch “evident to our senses.” It is not obvious that sensible things have sustaining efficient causes. It is not obvious that any sensible thing has such a cause. As far as I know, no uncontentious examples of such causes are anywhere to be ‘found in the literature’.

Sustaining-cause versions of the Second Way are ‘nonstarters’ for what Aquinas had in mind when he set out this Way. And this notwithstanding advantages they will be observed to have over generating-cause constructions, advantages at points other than their starting points. Understood in so far as we can manage that, as about sustaining causes, this premise is, I have argued, false, and the argument is over, unless (1) can be saved by the argument’s conclusion, in which case the argument is lost as a ‘proof’ of that conclusion.

And it seems that a similar argument could be given for a concurrent actualizer of existence. This seems almost synonymous with a “sustaining cause of existence,” which, as JH Sobel points out, is certainly not a manifest feature of reality.

What’s more, Feser’s argument requires the claim that any substance that is an admixture of potency and act is right here, right now being reduced from potentially existent to actually existent. But it seems that no justification is provided for such a supposition, and it is certainly not evident to the senses that things are right here, right now transitioning from potency to act with respect to their very existence.

Moreover, consider the law of inertia, which essentially states that objects with a constant velocity will maintain their rectilinear velocity unless some net force acts upon them. It seems entirely legitimate to use this as a model for metaphysical or existential inertia, whereby the continuation of a thing’s existence need not be explained in terms of a current sustaining cause of it existence, or a concurrent actualization of its potential for existence. Without any reason to prefer the existential expiration hypothesis over the existential inertia hypothesis, it seems that one ought to suspend judgement on the matter. And if that’s the case, one ought to suspend judgement on the aristotelian proof.

Nevertheless, I think Feser would still want to argue that it is always legitimate to ask about any composite object: “Why aren’t its components arranged differently from the way they are now?” But if existential inertia is true, it simply must be the case that things’ components continue to be arranged the way they are unless and until some positively destructive force comes along to causally separate the parts. To merely presuppose that the parts cannot so persist together, then, is merely to beg the very question at issue.

There also seems to be a flaw in one of Feser’s illustrations. Feser argued that coffee is kept in existence by its constituent molecules, which in turn are maintained in existence by atoms, which are held together by subatomic particles. But this is not a hierarchical causal chain because the subatomic particles are not distinct from the coffee: rather, they comprise the coffee. There is yet to be identified anything distinct from the coffee that causes, sustains, or actualizes its current existence. The same can be said of particles, such as electrons — or anything else, as JH Sobel pointed out.

To paraphrase Edward Feser:

Because the chain is hierarchical, the First Cause of things’ existence must be one which can actualize the potential for things to exist, without having to have its own existence actualized by anything. This Cause doesn’t have any potential for existence that needs to be actualized in the first place: it is always actual. You might say that it doesn’t have actuality, but that it is Pure Actuality. Such a First Cause could not have had a cause of its own. Being devoid of potentiality, there is nothing in it that could have needed actualizing. Such a cause is an Unmoved Mover, Uncaused Cause or Unactualized Actualizer: a purely actual Actualizer of the existence of things.

All Feser has shown, though, is that there must be an actualizer whose power to actualize does not need to be actualized at the present moment by anything else. That and nothing more. Feser has not shown that this actualizer is utterly devoid of any and all potentiality; all he has shown is that even if it has some unactualized potentialities, it doesn’t need to have such potencies actualized at the present moment during which it actualizes other things. So, for Feser to describe this Unactualized Actualizer as Pure Actuality is an unwarranted logical leap — a non-sequitur.

What’s more, Feser overlooks the possibility that the unactualized actualizer may have parts, some of which stand in relations of actualization to one another. For all Feser has shown, the unactualized actualizer possesses potentiality P1 that is actualized by the exercise of some other active power P2 that it possesses, where the latter can operate autonomously, without the need to be actualized by the exercise of any other power. So even within the unactualized actualizer, there may still be potentialities; all we can justifiably say is that not all of its active powers can be like that. At least some of its active powers are not actualized by the exercise of any other power.

Of course, one may argue that this being has no parts and thus there is not a part that can actualize another part. However, in this dialectical context, such a rejoinder is circular. For the very conclusion that this being is simple (no parts) derives from the fact that this being is purely actual — which is the very claim at hand.

Feser writes (paraphrased):

A defect in a thing is a privation: a failure to realize a potential that is built into the nature of that thing. Hence the First Cause, being purely actual, cannot be defective. Something is perfect to the extent that its potentials are actualized. Hence a purely actual Cause must possess maximal perfection.

But what does he mean “maximal perfection”? Does it mean: (a) possession of perfect attributes only (with no defects), or (b) possession (in some way or other) of all perfections? Feser seems to want to say (b), but he has only argued for (a).

One might also point out that not possessing a perfection is different from having a privation, or lacking a perfection you should possess. Having four legs is a perfection for a sheep, but not for a snake. While a three-legged sheep lacks a leg, it would be utterly wrong to say that a snake lacks legs (that it “ought” to have given its nature). So, we can easily conceive of a First Cause #1, possessing powers P1, P2 and P3, and a First Cause #2, possessing powers P4, P5 and P6, where First Cause #1 is the kind of being for whom P4, P5 and P6 are not a perfection, while First Cause #2 is the kind of being for whom P1, P2 and P3 are not a perfection. Hence, although each First Cause would not possess certain powers that the other First Cause possessed, it would lack none (that it ought to have given its nature), and would therefore be totally devoid of privation and hence purely actual. On this scenario, there could easily be two purely actual beings.

Author: Joe

Email: NaturalisticallyInclined@gmail.com

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