Books and Code · A Miscellany

On Thomas Aquinas and an essentially ordered universe


Tom Woods discussed Aquinas on his show yesterday, specifically Aquinas’ approach to the argument of a prime mover. Now, I am no expert in Aquinas or the scholarship on his thought so I have no idea how accurately Woods explains it, but I have some issues with the argument as presented. (By the way, I agree with his comments about being an informed and thoughtful critic though. Granted, it is hard to be suitably informed about everything and many things worth criticizing are not worth being informed about. Consider this a good faith attempt, if you’ll pardon the pun.) You may want to listen to the show (link above) as this is going to get rather complicated.

Woods is very insistent that critics of Aquinas are misunderstanding his argument. Woods emphatically asserts that Aquinas’ argument does not apply temporally. That is, Aquinas’ point is not that all causes are traced back to God, who was the first cause (in time), but rather that Aquinas is making a non-temporal claim about “potentialities and actualities” in the current moment. Critical to this distinction is the notion of “accidentally ordered series” and “essentially ordered series.” I’m not going to repeat all the fleshing out of these terms here. If you don’t know what those are, listen to his show.

Anyway, there seems to me to be some serious problems in this distinction. According to Woods, an essentially ordered series is one in which all the parts of the chain occur simultaneously such that the later actualities in the chain are entirely dependent on the first actuality. Aquinas’ example is a person pushing a rock with a stick–take away the person and the stick doesn’t act alone. God is supposedly one such actuality.

My first problem is that this is not an example of non-temporality. These things do not happen simultaneously. To think they do is simply an error of scale–we can’t perceive time with such precision to observe it with our eyes, but if we could zoom in (or out) sufficiently we would see this is true. As we know from relativity, space and time are the same thing so any actuality that occurs in space must necessarily occur in time–any ordered series must be temporal. Therefore, Aquinas’ argument absolutely does entail the claim that all causes can ultimately be traced back in time to God, the first cause of creation. The existence of a non-temporal series has not been shown. (For contrast, the moment of the creation of space-time could result from an accidentally ordered series–google multiverse.)

We know the fastest any information can travel is the speed of light. Consider that some starlight we can see in the sky now is from stars that have already died. If we could scale out far enough, it would look like the starlight had no prime mover since the star is now gone. In other words, it would look just like an accidentally ordered series. Since all series in our universe must be temporal (if the series is not temporal then it is not in our universe and therefore irrelevant), the existence of an essentially ordered series does not imply the eternal nature of the first actualizer of the series. (Also note that inferring the former existence of a source star is not the same as inferring an “essential” prime mover.)

Now consider Woods’ example of an accidentally ordered series: that of sons and fathers–whether a son becomes a father does not depend on the grand-father. This claim is merely obfuscated by complexity. In fact, it is entirely possible that the choice to have kids is entirely dependent on prior actualities and that it only seems accidental because of the sheer number of actualities involved. It is possible that, like temporality, complexity can make a series appear one way when it is the other.

I should note that we have also observed the reverse case–accidentally ordered series that look like essentially ordered ones. I’m speaking, of course, about activity at the level of quantum mechanics. At that scale, any given actuality appears accidental–it is only the aggregate of many, many quantum effects that make things appear essentially ordered at the scale we perceive.

So, what can we say at this point? Well, it seems the distinction of Aquinas (one of the better arguments in support of theism) is “actually” meaningless. There appears to be no way to distinguish between the two. If the universe is accidentally ordered, then God need not exist. If the universe is essentially ordered, then God still may not exist (and free will might be an illusion). I suppose there is also the possibility that the universe is partially essential actualities and accidental ones, but to claim this is to give up the notion that God is omnipotent since he would have no control over the accidentally ordered series. That would not bode well for theologies that really exist in the world (vs. theoretical ones theists imagine for argument’s sake) and so I dismiss it without further comment.

We conclude then that God might or might not exist. There is no real knowledge to be found here. The only appropriate response to this long chain of reasoning is skeptical agnosticism. Color me unimpressed. Atheists, deists, and agnostics can now shake hands and go their separate ways–their views are all equivalent at this level of discourse. Other kinds of theists however cannot. They’ve decided to inject complexity where it is not necessary and assume the burden of explaining it since there are all sorts of phenomena that appear accidental upon the closest inspection we are capable of making but in their view would be deeply, profoundly intended. There is nothing here on which to build such hubris.