Reading Aristotle: Physics 2.2: Physics, Math, and Metaphysics

*Note: Instead of giving line by line commentary as I normally do, for at least the first part of this chapter I’m just going to be giving commentary on the main points with a few quotes added throughout. This is because I think there’s less in the first part that needs to be worked out in detail.

In the first chapter of Book Two of the Physics, Aristotle distinguished between natural and artificial things, where to be “natural” is to have an intrinsic nature; he then argued that things do in fact have such intrinsic natures, and that the nature of a thing is related primarily to its form. The second chapter begins with a discussion on the difference between physics as a science and mathematics as a science. Since physics is the science that studies nature, having in chapter one established what nature is, it makes sense for Aristotle now to consider how physics studies nature in relation to other sciences. Continue reading

Beginning Metaphysics IV: Essentialism

Central to Aquinas’s whole metaphysical system, and even central to his whole project of metaphysics, is the belief that essences are real. This is known as essentialism. Modern science and philosophy, however, have come so far from the common sense position that things have essences that to even ask the question is seen as a waste of time. This post is meant as a brief introductory look at an overview of arguments that could be presented in favor of an essentialist position.

By far the greatest reason to affirm essentialism is that it is just our starting point for understanding, describing, and interacting with reality. Whether we realize it our not, we are all at least implicit essentialists: we all look at and talk about reality as if there really are things with intrinsic unity which are distinct from other things and other kinds of things. Continue reading

Reading Aristotle: Physics 2.1: What is Nature?

*Note: I said that before I began commentary on Book 2, I’d write an outline of Book 1. Unfortunately that project is taking longer than I expected. I still intend to complete it, but thought in the meantime I would go ahead and begin Book 2 anyways.

Having completed Book One of the Physics, in which Aristotle explored the fundamental principles of nature, we turn now to Book Two, which begins with asking what nature itself is:

“Of things that exist, some exist by nature, some from other causes. ‘By nature’ the animals and their parts exist, and the plants and the simple bodies (earth, fire, air, water)–for we say that these and the like exist ‘by nature’. All the things mentioned present a feature in which they differ from things which are not constituted by nature. Each of them has within itself a principle of motion and of stationariness (in respect of place, or of growth and decrease, or by way of alteration). On the other hand, a bed and a coat and anything else of that sort, qua receiving these designations — i. e. in so far as they are products of art — have no innate impulse to change. But in so far as they happen to be composed of stone or of earth or of a mixture of the two, they do have such an impulse, and just to that extent–which seems to indicate that nature is a source or cause of being moved and of being at rest in that to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself and not in virtue of a concomitant attribute” (Physics 2.1, 192b8-23) [1].

As Aquinas points out, Book One of the Physics was primarily directed towards the “principles of natural things”, whereas Book Two is primarily directed towards the “principles of natural science” itself (Lectio 1.141) [2]. To know the principles of any science, we must first know “its subject and the method by which it demonstrates” [3]. And the subject of natural science is, of course, nature; hence the discussion of the definition of nature. Continue reading

First Conference Paper Presentation: The Metaphysical Possibility of Creation Ex Nihilo

This past weekend I had the opportunity to present a paper at the undergraduate Mid-Atlantic Philosophy Conference, hosted by Prometheus Journal (an undergraduate philosophy journal) at Johns Hopkins University. It was an incredible experience, and I am extremely grateful to have been able to attend and present. In addition to getting the valuable experience of presenting a paper, I was also able to listen to some great and thought provoking papers from fellow students.

My paper should be published on Prometheus’ online journal at some point in the near future. When it is, I’ll provide a link. Until then, I’ll post the abstract of my paper below, as well as an (admittedly low quality) video of my presentation and the commentary and question and answer session afterwards. The title of my paper was “The Metaphysical Possibility of Creation Ex Nihilo.” Here’s the abstract:

This paper seeks to examine two seemingly contradictory concepts, one a metaphysical principle, the other a theological doctrine, as well as their historio-philosophical backgrounds and contexts, and attempts to discover whether or not they are reconcilable, i.e. whether they can be held together. The concepts in question are that of ex nihilo nihil fit, and that of creatio ex nihilo, respectively. The former was a principle deeply embedded in the process of Greek natural philosophy, and it led nearly all Greek philosophers to conclude that matter could never have come into being from nothing. On the basis of this Greek understanding of the principle, the first half of this paper will formulate an argument that summarizes the metaphysical problem of creatio ex nihilo. The paper will then argue that Aquinas’ analysis of creation, set within his metaphysical framework, offers one possible solution to that problem. In particular, this paper will emphasize that Aquinas’ distinction between the causal powers of finite beings as opposed to that of infinite being is the key to defending the metaphysical possibility of creatio ex nihilo.

As some readers may notice, the thrust of my paper was very much directed against certain arguments for naturalism which I’ve written about briefly before on this blog (see the Epicurean Cosmological Argument or the argument for naturalism from Material Causation and Creation Ex Nihilo), but treat in much more depth in the paper.

Here’s the video (Commentary/Q&A begins at around 39:41):

I was extremely grateful for the commentator from Prometheus who was exceptionally kind and engaging with my paper, as well as the others who asked questions afterwards. I’d like to provide a few more responses here, after having had some time to think about the questions more in depth:

The commentator’s first point was to bring up Heraclitus as a possible counter example to a pretty strong claim I make at the beginning of my paper: that until the birth of the modern period, the “ex nihilo nihil fit” principle was unchallenged and universally accepted. The commentator admitted that this was a relatively minor issue, but I think he was right to bring it up, since my claim was pretty strong, so strong, in fact, that even just one example would suffice to falsify it. The commentator referenced a discussion between Heraclitus and Cratylus in Book 4 of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. He says that this discussion seems to indicate a “tension” between their view and the view which I take as firmly established in the Greek tradition, namely that something cannot come from nothing. Here’s the full passage from Aristotle:

“Because they [earlier Greek philosophers} saw that all this world of nature is in movement, and that about that which changes no true statement can be made, they said that of course, regarding that which everywhere in every respect is changing, nothing could be truly affirmed. It was this belief that blossomed into the most extreme views above mentioned, that of the professed Heracliteans, such as was held by Cratylus, who finally did not think it right to say anything but only moved his finger, and criticized Heraclitus for saying that it is impossible to step twice into the same river; for he thought one could not do it even once” [1].

I do not take this as an explicit denial of the ex nihilo nihil fit principle, nor do any commentators that I can find; nor, indeed, does Aristotle himself seem to. The broad context of the passage is in Aristotle’s extended defense of the principle of non-contradiction, which he associates with a refutation of the belief that all things are perpetually in motion. He understands Heraclitus to hold this latter view, and says that such a position forces Heraclitus to hold that something both is and is not at the same time, which is a denial of the principle of non contradiction. One might argue that Heraclitus’ position implies or requires an ultimate denial of ex nihilo nihil fit, but Heraclitus himself never asserts this–indeed we have writings from him in which he claims that the universe is eternal and uncreated (which I quote in my paper). Here the issue is not ex nihilo nihil fit, but rather the principle of non contradiction.

Next is a question about the relation between essence and form in Aquinas. The commentator understood essence as being “strictly form” within the context of Aquinas’s hylomorphic (matter-form composition) view of reality. From this, I think he derives two distinct questions. The first question is about my use of the phrase “limited essence”, which he asks me to clarify. I could be mistaken, but from what I can tell, I think his question is directed towards why an essence would be “limited” if what is actually limiting is matter. In other words, if a thing is composed of matter and form, then matter is what limits the form, not the other way around. Since he understood essence and form to be identical, I think his question was why I would call the essence limited, rather than the matter. As I’ll explain below (and touched on a bit in the video), Aquinas does not take form and essence to be identical. But even if he did, I think the phrase “limited essence” would still be appropriate, in the sense that the essence would be limited by matter, not that the essence itself “limits”.

But Aquinas distinguishes form and essence, which was the point of the last question. In my paper, I explain that Aquinas has a sort of dichotomy between act potency relationships. On the one hand is the form/matter composition, and on the other is the essence/existence composition. In my paper, I state that in the latter composition, form is the actuality to the potency of matter; and in the latter composition, existence is the actuality to the potency of essence. Since the commentator took essence and form to be interchangeable terms for the same thing, he rightly saw a tension arise: if essence and form are the same, how could it be potency in one sense and actuality in another?

Now, for Aquinas, form and essence are certainly related, but not exactly identical. The essence of a thing includes both its form and matter–since to know what a man is (and hence know its essence) involves knowing that man is a material being, and hence knowing that man has a form instantiated in matter. Aristotle does not quite make this distinction, but Aquinas, drawing from some earlier Islamic thinkers, extrapolates it. This is seen especially in the question of angels. Aquinas held angels to be pure forms, not instantiated in any matter. Since he takes matter to be potency, the question is how angels can actually exist not instantiated in matter. If form is actuality, and angels are pure form, would this not imply that angels are pure act? But only God is pure act. So Aquinas posits that the potency of angels comes not from matter, but from their essence, which is actualized by an act of existing.

The first audience question was how God, being Pure Act, could possibly cause change in the world. This is a substantial objection to the First Way, and I’ve actually written a post devoted exclusively to it, so I’ll just link to that here.

The final question was about interpretation of substance in Aristotelian substantial change. In particular, the question was about an example I used to illustrate substantial change. I think this is a relatively minor issue, however, since the questioner acknowledged that another example I used for substantial change does work, and hence my point on substantial change in general stands.

In all, it was a fantastic experience. Thanks to Prometheus and the philosophy department at Johns Hopkins for making it possible!


[1]. McKeon, Richard, editor. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, Inc, 1941. Print. Metaphysics 4.5, 1010a6-14.

Aquinas’s Argument from Design Part 2: Final Causality

In the first post in this series on Aquinas’s Fifth Way, I introduced and explored several historical examples of different “teleological arguments,” of which the Fifth Way is one. In this post, I will make some final distinctions between the Fifth Way and other teleological arguments, and then begin laying out, explaining, and defending Aquinas’s argument.

For the most part, the majority of teleological arguments make use of what we might call “extrinsic” teleology, whereas the Fifth Way is based upon intrinsic teleology; it is largely for this reason that I think the latter is much stronger and more successful than the former. To grasp this, we might consider an example: Suppose you’re walking along a beach and come across some sticks arranged into a word. The word, qua word, is teleological; it conveys meaning, “points to” some meaning beyond itself. The sticks, on the other hand, in themselves are not teleological, at least in relation to the word. A stick, in itself, does not signify anything beyond itself (what it is), unless such further signification is imposed upon it externally, as in the case when the sticks are arranged to depict a word. So, when you walk on the beach and come across the sticks arranged into a specific word which conveys a meaning, you most likely conclude that some rational agent, some intelligence, some human person, was causally responsible for arranging the sticks. Because sticks in themselves do not convey a meaning beyond themselves, and yet because they have been externally arranged to convey a meaning beyond themselves, you conclude that some intentional and purposeful agent has imposed the meaning.

This is a simplistic example of what many teleological arguments are essentially. Continue reading

An Augustinian Argument from Desire

What follows is, I believe, a novel argument for the existence of God. It is drawn almost entirely from the writings of St. Augustine, but though the line of thought is his, he does not seem to use it as a positive instance of natural theology. It is in this sense that the argument, as I’m using it here, is somewhat new.

Naturally theology is often divided into distinctive branches or types of arguments. These include families such as cosmological arguments, moral arguments, or teleological arguments, along with some other, less common ones as well. Of this latter sort, I’d suggest, there is the branch of “arguments from desire”. I consider these as less common just in relation to professional philosophical work; but, among popular apologetics, they are seen more frequently. Furthermore, they are quite common just in terms of their natural appeal and emotional effectiveness. It seems plausible that a good number of people believe in God and subscribe to some religious tradition on the basis of a kind of implicit, perhaps even subconscious argument from desire within them. Continue reading

Aquinas’s Argument from Design for the Existence of God: Introduction

At long last, we begin the first post on the fifth and final of Aquinas’s Five Ways, or arguments for the existence of God. Outlines of the previous four Ways can be found here, here, here, and here, respectively. The first three, as I’ve explained multiple times previously, are considered Thomistic cosmological arguments. The Fourth Way is really a unique type of argument in its own right, although it certainly has precedent in earlier arguments, including one from Augustine. It also has certain features in common with axiological (moral) arguments, although contains very important differences.

The Fifth Way is commonly categorized as a “Teleological Argument”, or an Argument from Design. Design Arguments have quite a long and impressive history going all the way back to Ancient Greece, to Socrates and perhaps even earlier. The general concept received treatment, at least implicitly, from Plato, Aristotle, some Stoics, and medieval Islamic, Jewish, and Christian philosophers. Modern philosophers such as Newton and Leibniz likewise proposed design arguments. But modern forms of the argument, while perhaps maintaining the same spirit as the classical and medieval versions, underwent somewhat drastic development, particularly in relation to the natural sciences. In fact, contemporary incarnations of the argument are, for the most part, almost entirely dependent upon, and hence most susceptible of criticism by way of, certain interpretations of findings from biology or cosmology. Unfortunately, many who are only familiar with these contemporary design arguments unjustifiably assume that all design arguments are essentially the same and hence guilty of the same or at least similar faults. In this post we will give a brief overview of some different design arguments before introducing Aquinas’s version, which, I think, is not only significantly unique, but also the best of all design arguments, precisely because, in its uniqueness, it does not commit some of the same mistakes as others. Continue reading