Comments on Feser on Oppy on Thomistic Cosmological Arguments

In this post, I’ll comment on Feser’s recent Religious Studies article responding to Graham Oppy. Whether Oppy’s criticisms succeed does not matter to me; what matters to me is whether Feser says anything that might salvage the Aristotelian proof (and, potentially, other Thomistic cosmological arguments) from the various criticisms I’ve leveled towards them.

I will not, of course, fault Feser for not taking into account my various criticisms, as Feser is only responding to Oppy. Instead, I will simply evaluate whether the Aristotelian proof survives the criticisms I’ve leveled towards it in light of what Feser says in his article. (On occasion, though, I’ll also be commenting on Feser’s responses to Oppy. So my purposes in this post are multifaceted.)

For those curious, here’s the chapter on the Aristotelian proof from my unpublished-but-in-talks-with-academic-presses book. Here’s my systematic and comprehensive investigation into existential inertia and the various objections to it (including all of Feser’s) in the literature. And here are my two responses (one, two) to Feser’s engagement with my published articles criticizing the Aristotelian proof.

So let’s dig in!

The Principle of Causality

I think Feser is right that, if Oppy wants to reject premise (4), then Oppy needs to engage Feser’s arguments for premise (4) — something Oppy doesn’t do. So Feser is right here. It should be noted, though, that none of my criticisms of the Aristotelian proof deny premise (4). In fact, I have argued that premise (4) actually entails existential inertia and thereby renders the Aristotelian proof self-defeating. I develop this in Section 6.2 of my comprehensive post on existential inertia. (To find it, just command F search “6.2”.)

Feser also raises worries about Oppy’s usage of ‘potential to remain unchanged’ and argues that what Oppy says with respect to such higher-ordered potentials actually ends up supporting  Feser’s fourth premise. Once more, I agree with Feser here. And once more, I note that none of my criticisms rest on Oppy’s usage of ‘potential to remain unchanged’.

Feser does note, at one point, that “Oppy does not challenge” the “Aristotelian analysis of change as entailing the actualization of a potential”. This is true. I, however, have challenged this. In particular, the analysis requires pluralism about being, and there are reasons to reject pluralism. See Section 4.2 of this post as well as my video with Dr. Trenton Merricks.

Feser notes that “Oppy ignores an argument [Feser] gave for why the sheer existence of a thing at a time requires an actualizing cause at that time.” Once more, I agree with Feser here. (As a personal anecdote, one of the reasons I felt so compelled to write my articles responding to the Aristotelian proof is because I was not impressed by Oppy’s response to it. I thought there were tons of better, more powerful critiques. This is partly why I agree with practically everything Feser has said in the first four pages of his article.)

But, once more, I myself have addressed head-on the reasons Feser gives for why the sheer existence of a thing purportedly requires an actualizing cause. See, for instance, Section 7.8 of this post, as well as these two posts (one, two), as well as my chapter here. His reasons don’t work.

Feser then writes, on p. 5:

But I have already addressed this exact argument at length. It does not justify the need for a sustaining cause. See especially Section 3, “Premise Seven”, of my chapter here as well as Section 7.8 of this post.

Feser concludes this section with the following:

There are two things wrong with this.

First, Feser is here asking for a contrastive explanation for the relevant fact(s). But I have shown in my recent IJPR paper that classical theism cannot provide such a contrastive explanation, since the link between God and any of his effects is indeterministic, and hence there is no explanation of why God produces one effect rather than another.

Second, and more fundamentally, all I would grant is that there needs to be some explanation of why the power is C, or why the law is L, or why the parts constitute water at t. But an explanation of such facts need not adduce a sustaining efficient cause of existence. There are whole swathes of existential-inertialist-friendly explanations along these lines. See Section 5 of my comprehensive post on EIT.

Existential Inertia

Feser writes:

I think this is true. There must be an explanation additional to what is true of protons etc. qua protons etc. that explains why the water exists at t. But existential inertia is perfectly compatible with this, since there are whole swathes of inertialist-friendly explanations of the existence of temporal concrete objects at non-first moments of their existence. See Section 5 of my comprehensive post on EIT.

Feser then says:

“Now, in my book I explicitly criticize this thesis (ibid. 233, cf. also Feser (2011)).”

But Feser’s criticisms on p. 233 fail. Consider, for instance, Feser’s point here: “If something has this kind of “existential inertia”, it is claimed, then it need not be conserved in being by God. One problem with this thesis is that its proponents never explain exactly what it is about a material object or any other contingent thing that could give it this remarkable feature.” (p. 233)

The first problem with this is that it mistakenly treats [or at least seems to treat] existential inertia as a feature. But I’ve already shown why this is false in this post and this post. The second problem is that I have articulated a variety of accounts what it is about reality or about objects in virtue of which EIT’s truth obtains [if, of course, EIT is true]. That’s the point of the metaphysical accounts in Section 5 of my comprehensive post on EIT.

Or consider Feser’s point here: “It is merely suggested, without argument, that things might have “existential inertia”, as if this were no less plausible than the claim that they are conserved in being by God.” (p. 233)

This is the same misunderstanding of the dialectic context that afflicted Feser’s response to my Sophia article. It is irrelevant that a suggestion of EIT is not accompanied by an argument. As we’ve seen, the onus is not on the detractors of an argument to positively justify why one of the argument’s premises is false [i.e. to positively justify why things, contra a premise in the argument, enjoy existential inertia]. All detractors need to do is point out that nothing in the proof or what is said on its behalf gives them any reason to think EIT is false.

Feser then goes on to say on p. 233 that his various proofs themselves constitute reasons contra EIT. But as I have argued at length that this is false. See Sections 7.8-7.11 of this post.

Feser also cites his 2011 paper. But I have already argued at length that his arguments therein fail. See Sections 7.4 and 7.5 of this post.

“One problem with it, I maintain, is that it is ungrounded.”

Feser could mean epistemically ungrounded or ontologically ungrounded. Both are false. I survey reasons in favor of EIT in Section 6 here. I survey metaphysical accounts — the ontological grounding — of EIT in Section 5 of the same post.

“Its proponents do not tell us exactly what it is about material things, and contingent things in general, that would give them such a remarkable property.”

First, EIT is not a property. I’ve explained this at length elsewhere. Second, I have developed a variety of accounts that pinpoint what it is about things (or reality) in virtue of which EIT obtains. Third, Feser misunderstands the dialectical context here. The onus in this dialectical context is not on detractors of Feser’s premise (a premise which denies EIT) to give some positive account of what it is about reality in virtue of which EIT obtains. Instead, the onus is on Feser to show that EIT is false, and to show that no such positive account could work. Imagine I argue as follows:

  1. A timeless thing cannot cause a temporal thing.
  2. If CT is true, a timeless thing causes a temporal thing.
  3. So, CT is false.

I don’t think this argument works, but set that aside. Just imagine a different possible world wherein I argue this way. In response, it is perfectly kosher for Feser to point out that neither premise (1) nor what I say on its behalf gives those who accept (or are neutral on) timeless-to-temporal causation sufficient reason to abandon their position. It would then be utterly confused for me to respond, “Oh, but you haven’t given a positive account of how a timeless thing can cause temporal effects. You haven’t specified precisely what it is in reality [or precisely what it is about time or God or what have you] in virtue of which a causal connection of this sort could obtain”. This response confused because it is me, not Feser, who has the positive onus of justification in this context. I need to show how there couldn’t be such an account of timeless-to-temporal causation; Feser need not positively show that there is such an account.

Feser then says:

“Another problem is that there is positive reason to judge that they cannot have [EIT], namely that they are composite in various respects. For example, material objects are composed of physical parts and, Aristotelians claim, at a more fundamental level they are composites of sub-stantial form and prime matter. Contingent things in general are, Thomists main-tain, compounds of essence and existence. But anything that is composite in anyway requires a cause to maintain it in existence, or so Thomists and others argue.Indeed, a further argument I defend in my book, the Neo-Platonic proof, is devoted precisely to showing that whatever is composed of parts requires, at any moment that it exists, a sustaining cause. Needless to say, what requires such a cause does not have existential inertia.”

I have already addressed each such argument at length. See Sections 7.8-7.11 of this post. See also my forthcoming EJPR article on the Neo-Platonic proof. [For links concerning this EJPR article, see here. Therein I link my in-depth lecture video on the Neo-Platonic proof as well as an extended version of the paper accepted at EJPR. It’s a chapter in my book.]

Feser then says:

But as I show in my EJPR paper, Feser’s survey of potential explanations of the unity of a composite object’s parts is woefully inadequate. In the EJPR paper, I give (1)-(4) and (5f) and show why nothing Feser says successfully rebuts any of them. In Section 5 of this post, I explore (5a)-(5f). Again, see the links for more development. This is an extremely brief and underdeveloped summary:

(1) whole-to-part grounding

(2) the metaphysical necessity of said unity

(3) the kind of thing in question simply requires the obtaining of the explanandum.

(4) one of the parts explains or accounts for the unity or togetherness of all the parts

(5) And any of the metaphysical accounts of EIT:

(a) A tendency or disposition to persist in existence (à la tendency-disposition accounts, which can be construed in metaphysically heavyweight or lightweight ways);

(b) Transtemporal explanatory relations (e.g., causal relations) obtaining among the successive phases of objects’ lives or among their temporal parts (à la transtemporal accounts);

(c) Laws of nature that govern or otherwise explain the evolution of systems and/or objects over time (à la law-based accounts);

(d) The primitive metaphysical necessity of the existential inertial thesis (à la propositional necessity accounts);

(e) The metaphysically necessary existence of some foundational temporal concrete object(s), such as the neo-classical theistic God or various naturalist-friendly proposals (à la objectual necessity accounts);

(f) Persistence being the absence of change and so adequately explained by the absence of sufficiently destructive change-inducing factors (à la no-change accounts).

Feser then says:

“Similar problems would afflict any attempt to apply analogous proposals to amore direct defence of the existential inertia thesis, i.e. a defence that does not appeal to a second ‘configurational inertia’ thesis. For example, if it were proposed that it is simply a law of nature that things have existential inertia, the response would be that this just leaves us with the question of why things are governed by that law rather than some other law or no law at all.”

But the law-based accounts explored in Section 5.3 of my existential inertia post are keenly aware of this, and have responses to it. There’s mountains of literature on answering the question of why things are governed by the laws they’re in fact governed by, and it is simply false to suppose that the only candidate legitimate explanation is in terms of an efficient sustaining existential cause.

“Vicious circularity also threatens the existential inertia thesis. Existential inertia would be an attribute of the things that have it. But attributes are metaphysically dependent on the substances that have them. Hence we would have a scenario in which a substance depends for its continued existence on its attribute of existential inertia, and its attribute of existential inertia in turn depends for its continued existence on the substance which has it.”

I have explained at length elsewhere why this is false. ‘Existential inertia’ is not a property. See, e.g., my two responses to Feser’s engagement with my published articles (one, two). And EIT does not at all entail any vicious circularity. See Section 7.7 of my EIT post.

I also want to highlight that Feser says, in footnote 5, that “what requires a cause cannot be necessary”. But this is mistaken. Something’s being necessary means that it cannot fail to exist. But this is perfectly compatible with requiring a cause. Simply suppose that its cause is necessary and necessarily causes it.

Thus, nothing Feser says here does any damage to EIT.

Hierarchical Causal Series

I’m broadly sympathetic with Feser’s gist in this section. I will, though, provide some comments.

First, Feser says:

“Whatever one might say about such arguments, the empirical and scientific details about the physics of sticks and stones, the difference in mass between acup and the earth, and so on, fall away as entirely irrelevant.”

I think Feser is right here in one respect. Feser is right in that Oppy’s specific qualms about the scientific details of Feser’s examples are irrelevant. And that’s all Feser really intends to show in his article.

But there is another respect in which it is incorrect that empirical and scientific details do not have a bearing on the success of such arguments. (Feser didn’t explicitly say the contrary. What he did say is slightly ambiguous, so I’m not attributing to Feser the claim that ‘empirical and scientific details have no bearing on the success of such arguments’.) For instance, Feser’s arguments tend to rest rather heavily on the notion of simultaneity. But most philosophers of physics think that relativity theory renders such talk of (objective, i.e., frame-of-reference-independent) simultaneity relations entirely misguided. This is important, since a cause which is simultaneous with its effect in one reference frame may be earlier than it in another reference frame, and yet by Feser’s own lights what happens earlier than an object at t is not sufficient to explain O’s existence at t. Findings in physics also have a significant impact (or, at least potentially have such an impact) on our conception of causation, as philosopher of physics Daniel J. Linford has pointed out in his published work.

Aquinas’s Five Ways

I think Feser’s criticisms of Oppy here are absolutely spot on. This is one reason I was spawned to write my chapter here on Aquinas’s First Way. Unlike Oppy, I engage with a wide variety of contemporary commentators: Feser, MacDonald, McNabb & DeVito, Kerr, Augros, Davies, Oderberg, and on and on. I also engage with what Aquinas writes elsewhere in his own work.

Anyway, see the chapter above for my analysis of the First Way (or, more accurately, a contemporary rendition thereof informed by both the contemporary literature on Aquinas’s argument as well as the passages in Aquinas’s writings). I also made a video on the first way here. I briefly discuss the five ways in my video here [from 1:55:56 to 2:11:52], and I discuss the third way in my video here.

The De Ente Argument

For starters, I direct people to my video here [from 2:11:52 to 2:52:20] wherein I discuss the De Ente argument at length. I also discuss the De Ente argument’s relationship to existential inertia in Sections 7.13, 7.14, and 7.10 of my EIT post.

Once again, I fully agree with Feser here that Oppy’s treatment is cursory. I have no interest in defending Oppy’s treatment.

Feser then says that making existence a part of something essence (i.e., making it such that the object essentially exists) entails that the object couldn’t fail to exist, i.e., that it is not contingent but rather necessary. But this is mistaken. Essential features are de re necessities, not de dicto necessities. F’s being essential to O is equivalent to (though probably not informatively or metaphysically analyzed as) <necessarily, if O exists, then O is F>. Thus, existence’s being essential to O is equivalent to <necessarily, if O exists, then O exists>. But this plainly does not entail that O is a necessary being. I explain this in more detail in Section 7.3 of my EIT post. (Feser recognizes this problem in footnote 18. He doesn’t offer a response to it but simply notes that this only reinforces his claim that Oppy was cursory.)

Conclusion

Feser and I agree quite substantially regarding Oppy’s criticisms. My main point in this post, again, was never to defend Oppy. Instead, it was to show why nothing Feser says in the article does any damage whatsoever to EIT. And this is, I claim, clearly true.

Author: Joe

3 Comments

  1. Alexander Delaney

    I probably overlooked this somewhere, but in your argument that Feser’s premise 4 entails EIT, could an objection be made to your argument that object O causes itself to cease to exist? In other words, O is inherently unstable and will cause itself to cease to exist, which is why there must some external cause that continuously overrides this.

    • Absolutely — O, or something within O, might cause O to cease to exist. But I don’t think this is an objection to the argument. My argument just points out that so long as nothing positively acts on O to bring O out of existence [whether that be O itself, or something within O, or something outside O], O will persist even in the absence of sustenance. O’s causing itself to go out of existence is compatible both with the argument and with EIT, since neither the argument nor EIT stipulates that the cessation/destruction must be caused from something *outside* O. Hope this helps! 🙂

      • Alexander Delaney

        Yes, it helps a bit, although I have to admit that the Aristotelian way of thinking is so foreign to me that I’m not sure what makes sense 😮 I guess what’s troubling me is whether an Aristotelian would say that O necessarily causes itself to stop existing without outside sustenance. So in their mind, saying that any object (besides God) would persist without sustenance would be like saying a neutron would be affected by a magnetic field if it had an electric charge.

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