Existential inertia is not enjoyable for me to talk about publicly, mainly because (i) the questions it raises are so complex and thus lend very easily to misunderstandings on all sides, (ii) there are a variety of different inertial theses, many of which are immune to criticisms that others face, (iii) there are many different metaphysical accounts of inertial persistence, many of which are immune to the criticisms that others face, and (iv) my views have significantly changed since I originally wrote my first paper on it (my paper was written about 15 months ago, and you can imagine how much reflection over 15 months can change one’s views). For what it’s worth, I try to disentangle all these various aspects of the debate in papers I’ve recently finished and submitted to journals for review. (Don’t get your hopes up yet, since the review process takes many many months.)
Also for what it’s worth, I also have a big (scholarly) project that involves existential inertia. I plan to announce the project within the next couple of months. (Though, my patrons already know what the project is.) For those interested, I’ve also done lots of clarifications, precisifications, and defenses of it publicly:
- “Existential inertia and the Aristotelian proof“, IJPR.
- A User’s Guide to Existential inertia
- Response to Intellectual Conservatism (Part 1 and Part 2)
- Response to Nemes
- Response to RM and HoH
- Quick discussion with Graham Oppy on it near the end of this video
- Covered in some sections of this post.
Okay, preliminaries are out of the way.
For this post, I’m responding to a video from Thomistic Disputations (henceforth, ‘TD’) wherein he claims to “refute” existential inertia and “expose” its flaws. He has done no such thing. I’ll be using the fact-checking structure I used in my response to Nemes.
Claim: TD first quotes my definition of the inertial thesis from the paper:
IJPR-Paper EIT: Necessarily, concrete objects (i) persist in existence (once in existence) without requiring a continuously concurrent sustaining cause of their existence and (ii) cease to exist only if caused to do so.”
Now, younger-Joe was close to characterizing it well, but he missed the mark. Here’s how present Joe defines the inertial thesis.
Present-Joe distinguishes between an endurantist EIT and a perdurantist EIT.
Endurantist EIT: For each member O of a (proper or improper) subset of temporal concrete objects, and for each time t such that O exists at some time t* earlier than t, (i) at t, O does not ontologically depend on the concurrent existence or activity of some object O*, where O* is not a (proper or improper) part of O, and (ii) if O is not positively destroyed within the temporal interval [t*, t], then O exists at t.
And, where ‘O’s t-temporal part’ is O’s temporal part existing at time t:
Perdurantist EIT: For each member O of a (proper or improper) subset of temporal concrete objects, and for each time t such that O has some t*-temporal part earlier than t, (i) O’s t-temporal part does not ontologically depend on the concurrent existence or activity of some object (or temporal part of an object) O*, where O* is not a (proper or improper) part of O’s t-temporal part, and (ii) if none of O’s temporal parts within the interval [t*, t] are positively destroyed, then O’s t-temporal part exists.
In essence, the above Perdurantist EIT states that an object perdures at non-first times of O’s temporally extended life without concurrent ontological dependence so long as nothing positively destroys O’s temporal parts (in the sense of actively preventing O from having later temporal parts).
 Just as persistence must be understood differently under eternalism than under presentism, so too must ‘positive destruction’. As I understand it, to positively destroy a t-temporal part of O is, in effect, to actively prevent this t-temporal part from existing (such that the t-temporal part would have existed had the active prevention not occurred). In this context, then, to destroy a t-temporal part is not to act on some existing t-temporal part; instead, it is to actively prevent the existence of the t-temporal part. So: to destroy a t-temporal part of O is to act on one or more temporal parts of O in some interval [t’, t), where t’ < t, so as to actively prevent the existence of O’s t-temporal part.
Now, this is more like it. Younger-Joe, take notes.
But back TD’s first criticism.
TD claims that my IJPR-Paper EIT faces counter-examples. And not only that, he claims that there are “obvious” counter-examples. He first claims that participation relations provide counter-examples. He gives the example of a towel’s being wet, such that the towel (which isn’t wet of itself) participates in the wetness of the water.
Explanation: It’s strange how this could count as an “obvious” counter-example when this example is irrelevant to the IJPR-Paper EIT. The IJPR-Paper EIT is explicitly concerned only with the persistence in existence of concrete objects. This says absolutely nothing about various properties that some concrete objects might have by way of participation. TD has failed to provide an example of a concrete object that persists in existence only due to external, concurrent, efficient causal sustenance. But this is precisely what he would need to provide in order to provide a counter-example. Hence, his alleged counter-example fails. A towel’s wetness is not the persistence in existence of a concrete object.[Fn] [Fn] A concrete object is an ‘individual’ or ‘thing’ or ‘substance’ as opposed to other kinds of ontological items (events, states of affairs, states, properties, etc.) This usage is fraught in contemporary analytic philosophy. This is how basically everyone in the literature uses the term.[Aside, which is not targeting anything that TD says, but which is important: Even supposing that the towel required an external concurrent sustaining efficient cause, this wouldn’t threaten the IJPR-Paper EIT, since I added a footnote that said the thesis could equally well quantify merely over some subset of temporal concrete objects (I give the example, in the paper, of the fundamental constituents of physical reality, whatever they be. Whether such entities exist is beside the point; the point is that *if* they exist, the inertialist can maintain her position–in spite of granting (arguendo) that non-fundamental temporal things require sustenance–by holding that these items inertially persist.)]
Claim: TD says that another counter-example to the IJPR-Paper EIT is distinguishing features, e.g. humans’ rationality. Humans depend, here and now, on their rationality as a sustaining relationship.
Explanation: Socrates’ rationality is not an external concurrent efficient sustaining cause of Socrates. It’s just an essential property. Yes, things would not exist if their essential properties didn’t exist. But this isn’t an external efficient sustaining cause of them. The IJPR-Paper EIT is perfectly compatible with things’ having essential properties, since the IJPR-Paper EIT doesn’t deny the ‘dependence’ of things on their essential properties. Hence, TD’s claim to a counter-example is false.
Moreover, under certain Aristotelian views about the nature of substances, whole substances are ontologically prior to their parts. But rationality is a part of a human. And hence it is not ontologically prior to the whole human. But efficient sustaining causes of being are ontologically prior to their effects. Hence, there is no efficient sustaining causal relation between rationality and Socrates. Hence, TD’s claim to a counter-example is false for yet another reason. [At least if we accept–or, indeed, even find *rationally defensible*–this plausible Aristotelian view that Thomists–being Aristotelians–almost always accept.]
Claim: TD says that another counter-example to the IJPR-Paper EIT is part-whole relationships.
Explanation: This is not a counter-example for many reasons. First, parts are intrinsic to their wholes, and hence this is not a case of an external efficient sustaining cause.[Fn] But this is precisely the kind of cause with which the IJPR-Paper EIT concerns itself, since it is explicitly cast in the context of the Aristotelian proof and divine conservation, both of which require external sustaining causes. [Yes, I don’t mention ‘external’ explicitly in the definition of the IJPR-Paper EIT. But it should be quite clear from the context of the paper that this is the relevant kind of cause under consideration.] [Fn] By ‘external’, I mean extrinsic to (i.e. outside of or disjoint from) the entity/concrete object/substance in question. And God–the cause that is in question in my IJPR paper–is obviously external. For if God were intrinsic to something, then God would be a positive ontological item intrinsic to but distinct from something. And this would mean that God is a part of something [cf. the references in here]. And that’s absurd; classical theists are explicit that God isn’t a proper part of creation or a proper part of objects. This is explicit in the literature.
Moreover, I’ve already addressed this alleged counter-example in the paper. In the paper, I write:
“First, it is plausible that parts of substances are only intelligible with reference to the substances they compose. Thus, the identities of the parts are determinate and intelligible only in light of the identity of the whole substance. Their existence qua the things they are, then, presupposes the (ontologically) prior existence of the substance and hence cannot causally explain its existence. Indeed, arguably a part of a substance efficiently causing the existence of the substance amounts to self-causation, since if x causes y to exist, x causes the parts of y to exist qua parts of y. Hence, if a part causes its substance to exist, then it causes itself to exist qua part of the substance, which is absurd.
Second, Feser actually agrees that parts of substances do not exist actually (and hence only exist potentially): “the hydrogen and oxygen are in the water only virtually rather than actually. This is evident from the way water behaves… Something similar can be said of the other chemical elements, and of quarks and other particles present in inorganic and organic substances” (Feser 2014, p. 197). Indeed, Feser reasons, such parts cannot be present in actuality since their essential properties are not present when they are part of the substance. But since (per one of Feser’s premises) only actual things can actualize something’s potential for existence, it follows that the parts Feser adduces cannot causally actualize the existence of the substances they compose.Some Goofball, 2020
Now, TD quotes my response here. He then says that there’s still a dependency here.
Yes, there’s still a dependency. So what? The IJPR-Paper EIT doesn’t say that temporal concrete objects depend on absolutely nothing. Instead, the IJPR-Paper EIT only says that they don’t depend on external continuously concurrent efficient sustaining causes.
Moreover, allowing mere parts to fulfill the role of sustaining cause does far more harm than good to the Aristotelian proof, as I point out in another paper (under review) responding to McNabb and DeVito on the Aristotelian proof. Here’s what I say there:
The second problem with their response is that appealing to microstructure as a ‘cause’ upon which a chair depends simply undermines the Aristotelian proof’s inference to an unsustained sustainer of the existence of everything apart from itself. For the microstructure of the chair is a component of the chair, and only ‘actualizes’ the chair in the sense that something ‘depends’ (insome sense) on its components. But upon tracing this causal chain of ‘dependence’ down to a first member, all we’re entitled to infer about such a member is that it is an uncomposed component, not an unactualized actualizer of the very being or existence of the things in question. Feser, McNabb, and DeVito have not pointed to something outside the composite object as an actualizer of its very being; instead, they’ve merely sent us off on a regress of more fundamental component parts of something on which that thing ‘depends’ (in the sense of whole-to-part dependence). Their response, then, ends up doing more harm than good for the Aristotelian proof.Some Zoomer
Claim: TD says that the hydrogen and oxygen in water don’t actually exist, but nevertheless exist in some sense. So, they are not actual as hydrogen and oxygen. But since they do exist in a sense, they are actual in a sense.
Explanation: So, I’m not sure what ‘existing in some sense’ means, but we can set this aside. The reason why I’ve given this claim a rating of ‘irrelevant’ is that it is simply irrelevant to the criticism that I raised in the paper (concerning the virtuality and hence non-actuality) of parts. The causal principle Feser adduces doesn’t say that ‘what reduces from potency to act is actualized by something in a state of actuality-in-a-sense-but-potency-in-another-sense’; rather, Feser’s causal principle says that what reduces from potency to act is actualized by something in a state of actuality. Simpliciter, full-stop. I then quoted him saying that parts are not in a state of actuality but rather potentiality. And this–in conjunction with the causal principle–is incompatible with holding that parts efficiently cause their wholes. Now, TD could deny Feser’s causal principle, or Feser’s claim that parts exist in potency, or he could modify either of them. But then he is talking about something other than my paper, since my paper was a response to Feser and what Feser says. This is, fundamentally, why I give the rating of ‘irrelevant’.
Claim: TD says the following: “If one were to object to the Thomistic account that things are sustained in existence by something present at the same time by saying that something in the past could immediately affect things currently existing, this is based on an underlying misunderstanding of the Thomistic concept of presence. For a past event to affect something currently existing immediately is, by the Thomistic definition of presence, simply for it to exist now.”
Rating: Misses the mark
Explanation: I say ‘misses the mark’ deliberately, since it’s not quite right to say that what TD said is false, and it’s also not quite right to say that it’s irrelevant. Here’s why I say it misses the mark: the portion of the paper that he is referencing (namely, my spelling out of certain metaphysical accounts of the IJPR-Paper EIT) is not an attempt to object to the Thomistic account. I agree that if I were trying to object to the Thomistic account, then my criticism would be based on an underlying misunderstanding. But I wasn’t trying to object to the Thomistic account. Instead, I was merely sketching some prima facie rationally defensible and plausible accounts that pinpoint that in virtue of which inertial persistence obtains. According to this particular account we are considering, inertial persistence obtains in virtue of transtemporal or crosstemporal explanatory relations (whether causal or otherwise) obtaining between the successive states of the life of an object (in conjunction, of course, with the absence of sufficiently destructive causal factors operative).
Claim: TD proffers the following argument:
Explanation: I don’t find this argument convincing. For by ‘immediate’, TD recognizes that he cannot mean ‘simultaneous’, since he takes God to be an immediate cause which isn’t simultaneous with the effect. The only indication of what he means is ‘not mediated’ or ‘not transmitted through a medium’. This isn’t very helpful, though, since we’re left in the dark as to what a ‘medium’ is and what it takes for something to cause something ‘through a medium’. As far as I can see, the conclusion, (4), is perfectly compatible with transtemporal causal relations. For the transtemporal relations need not be transmitted through some ‘medium’; they can simply obtain (directly) between the single cause and single effect without any intermediaries. At the very least, nothing TD says rules this out. In short, we’ve been given no reason to think that (say) an event, E, which is immediately temporally prior to an event, E*, cannot immediately cause E*. Why must E act through some medium? What is a medium? And why is it necessary that there be one here? TD’s argument doesn’t justify the claim the transtemporal explanatory relations couldn’t be immediate, and yet justifying such a claim is precisely what he would need to do for his argument to have any bite against my transtemporal account of existential inertia. [It should also be noted that the argument he develops in this section of the video seems to rest on a Thomistic definition of ‘presence’ as ‘ability to immediately causally interact with’; but it seems to me that one could be well within their epistemic rights in simply rejecting this understanding.]
Now, TD does try to rule out the possibility of a past thing immediately acting on a present thing: “past things cannot act on things in an immediate manner, because then they would be present to the effect.”
But this seems circular to me. Recall that TD defines ‘presence to O’ as immediate to O (or immediate to a medium that is itself immediate to O). Thus, TD’s claim above amounts to saying that past things cannot act on things in an immediate manner, because then they would act on them in an immediate manner.” But this seems circular. We are still left wondering why past things *must* act through a medium. [And if we simply want to stipulate that anything immediate to O is present to O, then so be it; but then our definition of presence may very well include past things (i.e. things that existed earlier than now) if past things can act without a medium. And so the earlier account of existential inertia will just be cast in terms of past things [i.e. things that existed earlier than now] being present to currently existing things. An this wouldn’t be a problem, since recall that we defined presence in terms of immediacy, not in terms of temporal simultaneity.] [Aside: It should be noted that I’ve since developed 5 or 6 accounts beyond the 2 or 3 found in my IJPR paper.]
Claim: TD argues: “Whatever exists must have that by which it is distinguished from nothing, in itself or in another. Now if things in the past no longer exist, then they cannot distinguish something from nothing, since they *are* nothing.”
Explanation: I don’t find this convincing. For while past things no longer exist [assuming presentism], they did exist. They used to exist. And so there can be something that distinguishes present things from nothing: the present fact about them that they were/are caused (or otherwise explained) by something immediately temporally prior. This clearly differentiates them from utter non-being or nothingness, since it is clearly false to say that it is a present fact about utter non-being/nothingness that it was/is caused (or otherwise explained) by something immediately temporally prior.
 It seems, moreover, that we can further distinguish present things from nothing without referencing causes or explanations at all. Present things have properties, whereas ‘nothing/non-being’ cannot have properties. There is, of course, the further question of why present things have properties. But this demand is separate from the demand for what distinguishes present things from nothing. And this latter demand is satisfied by pinpointing some relevant difference between them. And this is precisely what we can do without appeal to any causes or explanations by, say, citing properties.
Yet another response is to simply deny this principle of sufficient reason and instead accept the principle of sufficient reason that Pruss (2006; 2009) defends (to wit, every contingent fact has an explanation). For here we have contingent facts about the present existence of entities explained by further facts (viz. facts reporting their causes or explanations, albeit transtemporal ones).
Claim: TD then goes on to consider my second account of existential inertia proffered in the paper, according to which existential inertia is a basic, primitive, foundational feature or truth about reality.
Present-Joe puts this much more precisely. We might call this the ‘Primitive Necessity Account (PNA)’:
PNA: lnertially-persistent temporal concrete objects continue in existence (once in existence) in the absence of both external sustenance and (sufficient) destruction in virtue of this being metaphysically necessary.
TD’s response to PNA simply references things TD has said earlier; but I have already responded to these things. Hence, TD’s response to PNA doesn’t succeed.
TD also mentions the argument from motion and composition. I have responded the former in a paper under review. And I respond to the latter, mutatis mutandis, starting at this time stamp in my latest video. I’ve also addressed it in this video. I also have a 10k word paper under review on the argument from composition.
Claim: TD says: “Simply asserting that existential inertia is metaphysically necessary does nothing to address any of the Thomistic positions, but merely ignores them.”
Explanation: I was explicitly proffering the PNA as a metaphysical account of EIT, i.e. a proposed story or account on which (i) inertial persistence obtains and (ii) inertial persistence is not brute/inexplicable. It was not proffered as a response to a Thomistic position or argument, and nor was it addressing their arguments. It’s not ‘merely asserting’ it’s metaphysically necessary, nor is it attempting to address a Thomistic argument. It is flatly uncharitable, then, to criticize it by saying that it merely asserts metaphysical necessity and fails to address a Thomistic argument.
Moreover, even if (contrary to what is in fact the case) it were proffered as a response to Thomistic arguments, TD is simply wrong to say it doesn’t address them. For starters, one need not ‘simply assert’ the metaphysical necessity of existential inertia. Instead, one merely has to raise it as an undercutting defeater–that is, as an epistemic possibility that the argument would need to rule out in order to succeed but doesn’t rule out. Recall that the onus of justification in such a dialectical context is on the one proffering an argument for God’s existence, and hence the burden is not on the inertialist to positively justify the claim to the metaphysical necessity of inertial persistence. Rather, the inertialist need only (i) raise the epistemic possibility thereof, and (ii) show that one of the premises in the argument (for God’s existence) in question presupposes or otherwise rests on the falsehood of existential inertia (or else the metaphysical necessity thereof). This is all the inertialist needs to do. Now, whether this strategy is available depends on the particular argument in question. Some arguments for God’s existence will not have a premise that relies on or rests on or presupposes or requires the falsity of existential inertia. That’s fine and dandy, since I’m not concerned with those here. Rather, I’m concerned with those that do. [Like 4/5 of Feser’s arguments.] [Also note, moreover, that I have not claimed here that all Thomistic arguments have such a premise. In my paper, I only focus on the Aristotelian proof. And it’s clearly true that such a proof has such a premise, as Feser himself explicitly says.]
TD also says: “EI isn’t really a response to the proofs for God’s existence, but a misunderstanding of them.”
Refer to the above to see why this is mistaken. It’s also odd, by my lights, that TD makes this claim. In the article TD is responding to, I’m only targeting the Aristotelian proof. And hence to say or suggest that EI is used as a response to some *other* proofs is uncharitable. My paper solely concerns the Aristotelian proof. And as Feser himself recognizes, existential inertia directly challenges a premise of this proof. And it doesn’t misunderstand the premise or proof at all. I don’t know how TD is able to get away with these kinds of claims.
TD also says: “Joe isn’t aware of the Thomistic principle of sufficient reason.”
TD then criticizes the dialogue, in my paper, between Smith and Jones. TD says: “It is true that we cannot ultimately provide more fundamental principles that make it the case that the first principle is true, but that doesn’t mean we just assert that something is metaphysically necessary.”
This would be a good criticism of what I said if I actually said it. But I didn’t. Nowhere did I say that the classical theist or defender of the Aristotelian proof just asserts that something is metaphysically necessary. If we actually have a look at what I was explicitly saying in the paper, we see the following:
“arguably a primitive element in the ultimate explanatory terminus of persistence is unavoidable.”
“As the above dialogue suggests, ultimately we seem to hit a primitive metaphysical necessity under any account, including divine sustenance, with respect to persistence in existence.”
Here, I am NOT saying that the divine conservationist ‘just asserts’ that soemthing is metaphysically necessary. Rather, I’m doing a theory comparison: both theories (EI and DC) hit a primitive [i.e. not-further-explained], metaphysically necessary bedrock. And hence both theories hit primitives. This was my point. My point was that both theories have primitivity [i.e. no-further-explanation-hood], and hence it wouldn’t be a theoretical advantage to one or the other that it avoids this kind of primitivity. And then I talked about stopping points for the regress of explanation. The point to notice, though, is that TD is once again uncharitable in his characterization of what I’m arguing. Nowhere was I saying that the DCist “just assert[s] that something is metaphysically necessary”.
TD then goes on to say stuff about why we *believe* God is metaphysically necessary. That’s fine and all, but the relevant point under consideration from my paper is not concerned with epistemic justification but rather with ontological primitives and theory comparison in terms of the theory’s primitive entities or facts.
TD: “Existential inertia is just an arbitrary assertion.”
I’ve adduced many reasons in favor of EI in many of the things I’ve linked above, and I also present a whole host of arguments for it in my [unpublished but to-be-published] scholarly project (mentioned at the beginning of this post). To say EI is just an arbitrary assertion is simply to fail to intellectually empathize with me and to (mistakenly) suppose that TD has access to the full breadth and depth of justification one might have for believing (or even merely defending the coherence of) EI. It should be noted, moreover, that arguments against classical theism are ipso facto arguments for EI, since EI simply denies timeless sustenance of temporal things, while classical theism is one of the only [though admittedly not the only] plausible views of timeless sustenance. And I have provided (and published on) many such arguments. To say that it’s just an arbitrary assertion is just… dare I say an arbitrary assertion? Well, I won’t say it, since I recognize the person-based nature of justification [cf. this or this or this], and hence I recognize that TD occupies a unique position on the epistemic landscape [with access to experiences and insights to which I and others lack access] that may very well provide him with justification for making such a claim.
Note: If TD responds, it’s quite likely that I won’t engage further (beyond this post). The primary reason is how busy I am. [The school semester just started, and I’m a full-time student on top of my scholarly research etc.]
I emphasize, though, that I deeply value TD’s engagement with my work. More importantly, I value TD himself. He’s a human being with dignity, uniqueness, beauty, and intelligence. Despite our disagreements, we are fundamentally unified together behind a mutual love and search for truth. And I *thank* TD for his engagements with me in this pursuit. We are traveling together.