Aquinas’s First Cause Argument, Part 4: Conclusion

This is the fourth and final post in my series on Aquinas’s First Cause Argument for the existence of God, also known as the Second Way. So far, in the previous posts (which can be found here, here, and here) we have established that there are efficient causes, that there are some instances of efficient causes which exist in essentially ordered series, and that these series must terminate in a First Cause. In the second post we established that two types of efficient causes which exist in essentially ordered series are composite beings and beings which operate within a system. We also noted, however, that on a superficial level, it would appear that for an object to “begin” to exist seems to just present us with an accidentally ordered series, rather than an essentially ordered one. But when we examine the deeper metaphysical principles, we discover that this is not actually the case. All the objects around us have an essence which is distinct from their act of existence, and thus something must conjoin the essences with the acts of existence when the object begins to exist, and conserve the essence with an act of existence while it continues to exist here and now from moment to moment. This itself comprises an essentially ordered series which must also terminate in a First Cause. Furthermore, the First Cause of this series, since it conjoins and conserves the essence and act of existence in those beings in which the two are distinct, must itself have an essence which is identical with its act of existence. In other words, there must exist something whose essence just is existence, something which is not being, but rather Being Itself, Pure Existence, Pure Being, which Aquinas calls “Subsistent Being Itself.”

But what can we actually know about this First Cause? First, since efficient causation refers to the actualization of potency, then we can know that the First Cause must be a Being of Pure Act. Those who read my Prime Mover series (an outlined version of which with links to the full articles can be found here) will be familiar with this term. The Prime Mover Argument deals with motion, which is just one specific type of efficient causation. Whenever something is the cause of something else (when referring to efficient causation), then it actualizes a potency in that something else. Second, as I mentioned in the previous post, to join an essence with an act of existence is also an actualization of potency. Take, for example, the essence of, say, a unicorn, which would just be a horse-like-animal with a single horn protruding from its head. Again, there is nothing logically incoherent or metaphysically impossible about such a being, and so we can say that such a being could potentially exist. And yet it does not actually exist. Likewise, before I was born, I was only the potential offspring of my parents. It was only when I was actually conceived that my essence was given an act of existing. And so, to reiterate, an essence is just a type of potential relative to existence. For those essences which lack existence as an intrinsic feature (which is the essence of every physical object in our universe), then something must conjoin and conserve the essence with existence, which leads us to the Subsistent Being Itself, whose essence is existence itself. But if Subsistent Being Itself gives existence to those essences in which existence and essence are metaphysically distinct, and if the joining of essence with an act of existence is an example of an actualization of potency, and if every actualization of potency is ultimately caused by the Being of Pure Act, then the Subsistent Being Itself must be the Being of Pure Act.

This actually makes quite a bit of sense, when one thinks about it. Subsistent Being Itself is just pure existence. The Being of Pure Act is, as its name obviously implies, purely actual, with absolutely no potencies. But “actuality” just is existence. If a table is green, it is potentially any other color. But it is actually green, because green is what actually exists as part of its nature at this particular point in time. So if actuality is existence, then of course Pure Act would be the same as Pure Existence. Subsistent Being Itself and the Being of Pure Act are identical, one and the same. This Being gives existence and actuality to all other beings. It is the source and ground of everything that exists and everything that happens. All other beings derive their very existence from this Being Itself.

Before I go on, I’d like to take a look at one possible question which might be raised as an objection to the essence and existence argument. In the previous post in this series, I explained that one reason to think that the essence and existence of physical objects in our universe are distinct is because knowing the essence of these beings does not tell us whether or not they actually exist. For example, the essence of an “alien” is usually understood as being just an intelligent form of biological organism that exists on some planet other than our own. While many biologists and astronomers are convinced that such alien life could possibly exist, there is no evidence as of now to confirm that such beings actually exist. So, knowing the essence of alien life does not convert to knowing the actual existence of alien life. This would suggest that the essence and existence of such beings are metaphysically distinct.

But wait, you might ask, couldn’t we say the same thing about Subsistent Being Itself? After all, there are a significant number of atheist, agnostic, and non-theistic thinkers who do not believe that Subsistent Being Itself exists, as well as many theists who, even though they believe God exists, would not themselves define God as Subsistent Being Itself and thus do not believe that Subsistent Being Itself exists. Does this not mean that knowing the essence of Subsistent Being Itself likewise does not tell us whether or not such a Being actually exists? And if this is the case, wouldn’t that mean that the essence and existence in Subsistent Being Itself are also distinct, just like in all physical objects?

First, to say that a Being whose very definition is “having an essence which is not distinct from an act of existence” actually has an essence which is distinct from its existence, is incoherent and self-contradictory. Second, it just doesn’t follow that because there are certain people who don’t believe that Subsistent Being Itself exists, that therefore knowing the essence of this Being does not tell us whether it exists. The argument involves complex and deep metaphysical issues which are easily misunderstood and not easy to fully comprehend. It deduces from what we do know about the world around us that there must exist a Being which is Existence Itself. Not believing in Subsistent Being Itself is not equivalent to fully knowing the essence of Subsistent Being Itself and still not knowing whether or not it exists. To see how this is different from other objects, consider this: when we know the essence of a certain physical object, such as, say, the planet Mars, part of knowing that essence entails knowing that this object is a contingent being. When we know, and fully understand, what Mars or any other physical object is, we know that this object did not have to exist, and that its existence is dependent upon many other factors/causes. But knowing the essence of Subsistent Being Itself entails understanding the argument behind why this Being exists, and thus knowing that this Being’s existence is necessary. Every being that exists has either an essence which is distinct from its existence, or an essence which is identical to its existence. If anything at all exists that has an essence distinct from its existence, then there must exist a Being whose essence and existence are identical. It just doesn’t make sense, and indeed is absurd, to say that Existence Itself doesn’t actually exist. Once the underlying metaphysical principles are understood, the existence of Subsistent Being Itself follows directly and necessarily, and thus knowing the essence of this Being does in fact tell us that it must exist; for if it didn’t, nothing at all would exist.

There are other possible objections to the argument which I will most likely be examining at some point in future articles. For now, however, I think the argument is fairly well established. But we are still left wondering what exactly this First Cause is.

We already noted that the Subsistent Being Itself is one and the same as the Being of Pure Act; and so everything that we can say of the Being of Pure Act we can also say of the Subsistent Being Itself, and vise versa. In my second and third Prime Mover articles, I went  into a good amount of detail explaining what we can know about the Being of Pure Act. For the full treatment, see those posts. I will now repeat briefly what is already written there, as well as add a few important points.

First, as should be obvious, the First Cause, which is Pure Act, has no potencies. Because change is potency reduced to act, a Being which has no potencies is incapable of changing or being changed. The First Cause is thus immutable.

But as I’ve already pointed out, change is just on specific instance of efficient causation in general. It’s not just when something changes that a potency is reduced to act, it’s when anything at all happens or is caused. Thus, following the same logic as in the previous point, if to be caused is to have a potency reduced to act, and if the First Cause is Pure Act and has no potencies, then the First Cause must be completely uncaused and self-existing.

Next, we can know by way of several reasons that there is only one First Cause. In order to distinguish between two different beings, they must have distinctive features. Take, for example, two triangles drawn on a sheet of paper. Say that these triangles are exactly the same in every way: same angle measures, same length of sides, same color, etc. The only difference is that one triangle is drawn on one spatial location on the page, and the other is drawn on a different spatial location. Each triangle had the potential to be drawn anywhere on the page. Let’s say one triangle is drawn in the upper right hand corner, and the other on the lower left hand corner. The triangle in the upper right hand corner has the potential to be drawn anywhere else on the page, but because it is actually drawn where it is, its potential to be drawn elsewhere is an unrealized potential. Because the two triangles are actually drawn in separate locations, they have different unrealized potentials, and that is how we can tell them a part. If the two triangles were drawn in the exact same spatial location, we would not be able to distinguish them at all, and thus there would really only be one triangle on the page. Objects are distinctive based upon their unrealized potencies. But if a Being has no potencies at all, it could not in principle be distinguished from another being without potencies.

Philosopher Michael Augros offers another way to think about this:

“Two first causes would have to share a common nature (that of a self-existing thing) and hence would have to differ by a combination of this common nature with some distinctive addition in the case of at least one of them.

The common nature itself would be indifferent to this addition, since it can exist with it in one case, and without it in the other.

Where something is combined with a feature to which it is indifferent, there is a prior cause, a combiner.

Hence, one of our two hypothetical first causes would depend, for its distinctness from the other one, on a prior cause. This means it would depend for its very existence upon a prior cause, and hence, it would not be a first cause after all.

Therefore, there cannot be two first causes, but only one at most” [1].

So, to break this down, the argument establishes that essentially ordered series of efficient causes must terminate in a First Cause. We might wonder if different series terminate in different, entirely separate first causes. But we’ve also established that the First Cause for such series must be Pure Act, and there can only be one Being of Pure Act. Likewise, a First Cause necessarily is uncaused. So we have two reasons to support that there is only one First Cause. First, beings are only distinguished between each other by some potencies. Let’s imagine that there were actually two Beings of Pure Act, but one had more knowledge than the other. The only way that one could have more knowledge is if its potency for knowledge was more fully actualized. But this would mean that in the other Being of Pure Act, the potency for knowledge had not been fully actualized, and thus that it still has potencies. But a Being of Pure Act by definition cannot have potencies. So there can only be one. Secondly, if there were two First Causes, they would share the same nature: that of a self-existing, uncaused, Being of Pure Act. But if one had some additional feature that the other lacked, this feature must have been caused or actualized. But then the Being in which this additional feature was caused could not be said to be uncaused, and thus would not be a true First Cause. And so there can only be one First Cause. There can also only be one Subsistent Being Itself. For consider if there were more than one. Each would be an individual instantiation of the common essence, just as each human being is an individual instantiation of our common essence of “humanity.” Each human shares an essence that is just given a separate, unique act of existing. But how could a Being in whom essence and existence are identical have separate “acts of existing?” It could not, and thus there can only be one. We have also already noted that the First Cause, which is Pure Act, is identical to Subsistent Being Itself. Thus there is one, immutable uncaused First Cause which is Existence Itself.

Next, the First Cause must be immaterial, for several reasons. First, matter just is potency. The fundamental particles that make up our universe can exist in an almost endless arrangement, as a tree of an elephant or a star. All matter has potencies and changes, and therefore the Being of Pure Act cannot be material. Furthermore, every material object has an essence which is distinct from its act of existing, and thus cannot be Subsistent Being Itself, which must be immaterial.

The First Cause must also be eternal. For to come into or go out of existence is an instance of change, and the First Cause is incapable of change. In addition, to come into being requires a cause, and the First Cause is uncaused. Likewise to come into being requires the joining of essence with an act of existing, but the First Cause is Subsistent Being Itself and as such is Pure Existence which does not require its essence to be joined with an act of existing. It is absurd to think that Existence Itself could somehow go out of existence.

The First Cause must also be timeless, because to exist in time is to change. In order to exist from moment to moment, a being must have the potency to exist from moment to moment, and this potency must be continuously actualized. But the First Cause has no potencies, and thus must exist outside of all moments in time.

The First Cause is the ultimate cause of everything that happens, the ultimate actualizer of all potencies, and, as Subsistent Being Itself, is that from which all other beings derive their very existence. In this sense we can call the First Cause “omnipotent,” although that term is a bit complex, and I will be writing a separate article at some point in the future entirely on this issue.

Finally, we come to the issue of whether or not the First Cause can be said to be “personal.” I’ve already gone into some detail in the third Prime Mover article explaining how this can be the case, so I won’t repeat everything here. I’d also like to mention here the extremely significant point that even if this argument alone is not sufficient to establish that the First Cause is personal, this does not somehow render the argument a failure. The argument has already established one First Cause which is immutable, uncaused, immaterial, eternal, timeless, omnipotent, purely actual, and Pure Existence. This alone does not fit in to any naturalistic, atheistic worldview. However, I think it is possible to argue that the First Cause is personal. In brief, I gave two reasons to think so:

First, all material beings are composites of matter and form. A material object can only be instantiated with one form at a time. Human minds, however, grasp multiple forms at once. This would suggest that the human mind has an immaterial component. A purely immaterial being would not be limited by the potencies of matter, and as such could be instantiated with an infinite number of forms. This is just what “intellect is.”

Furthermore, according to the Principle of Proportionate Causality, all causes must contain their effects either eminently or formally. If a cause contains its effect formally, it actually has the effect in it (think of a torch, which has fire, being used to light another fire on a different torch). If it contains its effect eminently, it does not actually contain its effect, but has the power to produce the effect in it (a match does not actually have fire in it, but has the power to produce fire). The First Cause is the ultimate cause of all human attributes, so it must contain our attributes either formally or eminently. But many human attributes are material in nature, so the First Cause could only be said to contain these attributes eminently (having the power to produce such attributes without actually having those attributes). Other human attributes, however, such as personhood, are immaterial, and thus the First Cause could contain these attributes formally.

Michael Augros presents a similar construction of this argument:

“A principle productive cause precontains in itself (in a simpler and superior way) whatever actualities it causes in other things…

The first cause is the principle productive cause of all actualities in all things…

Therefore, the first cause precontains in itself (in a simpler and superior way) all actualities in all things…

When some actuality that we can name need not include any potential or limitation in its meaning, then that actuality must be attributed to the first cause…

“Intelligence” is an actuality that we can name that need not include any potential or limitation in its meaning (since what understands all things, not just some, and actually understands them and is not merely potential to understanding them, would still deserve to be called “intelligent”).

Therefore, intelligence must be attributed to the first cause [2].

In other words, since the First Cause is Pure Act, it can have no potencies or limitations. Since it must contain the attributes of all things either formally or eminently, but since all things in our universe are material and therefore have potencies and limitations, it can only be said to contain these attributes eminently. But human intelligence is at least in part immaterial and thus without potency and limitation, and thus the First Cause can actually, formally be attributed intelligence.

At long last we have established the existence of one, uncaused First Cause that is immutable, immaterial, eternal, timeless, omnipotent, intelligent, and Pure Existence Itself, that is the ultimate cause of everything, which conserves and sustains everything in existence because it itself is Subsistent Being Itself, the source and ground of all existence. And this Being we can rightly call God.

 

 

Sources

[1]. Augros, Michael. Who Designed the Designer? A Rediscovered Path to God’s Existence. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015. Print, 219.

[2]. Augros, Michael. Who Designed the Designer? A Rediscovered Path to God’s Existence. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015. Print, 221-222.

 

 

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11 thoughts on “Aquinas’s First Cause Argument, Part 4: Conclusion

  1. Harrison,
    You wrote, “…since all things in our universe are material …. But human intelligence is at least in part immaterial and thus without potency and limitation…”

    I read the above as saying that the immaterial part of human intelligence is not in our universe. How can that be? If an intelligence is human, it must be in the human universe, by definition.
    Paul

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    • Thanks for pointing that out. It would have been more fully correct to say that “all things in our universe are composites of form and matter,” which includes humans and human minds. I also realize that I when I state that “human intelligence is at least in part immaterial,” that is a significant claim which I haven’t fully explained and defended. I’m sort of writing with the assumption that the Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of the human mind is correct for the sake of this argument. I will be writing a series in the future (probably a few months) on philosophy of mind, where I will develop these ideas more fully.

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  2. Thanks for the clarification. I think “composites of form and matter” fixes the problem I had with the original. It’s probable that I will have more questions after more study.

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  3. (1) You quoted Augros as follows:
    “A principle productive cause precontains in itself (in a simpler and superior way) whatever actualities it causes in other things…
    The first cause is the principle productive cause of all actualities in all things….”

    Shouldn’t “principle” be “principal” in this quotation?

    (2) Please define “mind” the way you are using it in this argument.

    Thank you.
    Paul

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    • (1) I’m out of town and don’t have Augros’s book with me at the moment, so I’m not sure which word the original quote used, but yes I think you’re probably right, it probably should be “principal” rather than “principle.” I’ll check for sure and make the change in a few days.
      (2). Broadly, my use of “mind” refers to human consciousness. “Brain” would refer to the actual, physical organ residing in the human skull. The “mind-body” problem in philosophy deals with the question of the relation between the mind and the brain. Specifically, as I believe Feser mentions in The Last Superstition, when Aristotelian-Thomists refer to the mind or personhood, we’re referring to the intellect and will, intellect being knowledge and will being active choice.

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  4. Hello again, Harrison,
    I continue to research the First Cause argument of Aquinas and the Scholastics. Today I read something in the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article, “Cause,” which confuses me. I hope that you might be able to shed some light on it for me.

    Under the heading “Efficient cause” the CE author writes,
    “The action, or causality, of the efficient cause is conceived as one which educes the actuality of the effect from its potentiality. This it is held to do in virtue of its own actuality, though precisely how no one has ever explained. No explanation of the essential nature of the action of the efficient cause would seem to be possible.”

    So far, so good. Later in the article, under the heading “Common Sense,” the author writes,
    “… the theory of Aristotle and the Schoolmen … provides a suitable account of the manner in which an observation of individual cases can become an intellectual concept. … it proceeds farther, though still along the lines traced by common sense, in its analyses and syntheses, until it has presented natural knowledge as a complete and co-ordinate whole.
    ….
    “That, as a matter of history, modern speculation on this point did not return, confirmed and justified, to the earlier lines, after the criticism of Hume, is probably due, in the main, to the fact that the full concept of causality had been more or less lost sight of during the period preceding him. His criticism was aimed at the possibility of a knowledge of causal efficiency; and without an adequate theory of cognition, as well as a proper grasp of the relationships between efficient cause and effect in the process of becoming, the idea of efficiency, or power, is indeed inexplicable.”

    So, if I read the second quotation correctly, the CE author is saying that because Hume and his followers did not address the “full concept of causality” and did not present “an adequate theory of cognition” such as Aquinas and the scholastics did, then the idea of efficiency is inexplicable. Yet, the first quote states that the scholastic theory can’t explain the nature of how the efficient cause works, either, that an explanation might not be possible. I don’t see a difference between the two opposing theories regarding an explanation for efficient cause, yet the CE criticizes Humeians for lacking such an explanation.

    Am I missing something here?
    Thank you,
    Paul

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    • Hi Paul, sorry for taking so long to respond. I haven’t read this article in full yet, so if I miss/confuse something, my apologies in advance. But I don’t think, from what I read, the first quote is meant to say that we can’t know the nature of how efficient causes work. After all, it says itself how they work: “The action, or causality, of the efficient cause is conceived as one which educes the actuality of the effect from its potentiality” (or in other words, the efficient cause actualizes the potency in its effect). I think the quote it gives from Aquinas right below that explains what it means: “an effect shows the power of the cause only by reason of the action, which proceeds from the power and is terminated in the effect. But the nature of a cause is not known through its effect except in so far as through its effect its power is known, which follows upon its nature.” I think what this means is that understanding what an effect is, does not necessarily tell us everything about what the cause is. So, for example, if I come across a pile of sticks in the woods which spell out the word “Hello,” just seeing this effect does not tell me who exactly caused it. But on the other hand, “through the effect its [the causes’s] power is known.” So knowing the effect can tell us about the POWER of the cause. In the case of my example, we know that the cause of the word “hello” must be a personal agent who can read/write. This relates to God, because Aquinas was of the opinion that actually, most of what we can know about God is what he is NOT, not what he is. So Aquinas reasons from the effects of the physical world, to the cause, which is God. By doing so, we can know about the power of God to bring about effects. We can know from motion that he is an Unmoved Mover, from efficient causes that he is a First, Uncaused Cause, etc. But this does not tell us everything about God’s existence. Aquinas famously thought that reason alone could never take us to the trinity, only divine revelation. So knowing the effects does not tell us the triune nature of God. That was my interpretation of that passage. The second passage, I think, was referring to something different.

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      • Thank you. I think you understood it better than I did. I was confused by the article’s statement “This it is held to do in virtue of its own actuality, though precisely how no one has ever explained.” I left out the quote from Aquinas because I did not understand it at all.

        Good luck with your new studies.

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