A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

First Way, Some Background

Sr. M. Amelia, IHM
explicator of logical thought,
or else.
Sr. Amelia: And so, class, as we see from Postulate 9 and Axioms 6 and 2, supplements of the same angle are equal. Yes, Billy?
Billy: But, Sister, I don't see how this proves that a point equidistant from the endpoints of a line segment lies on the perpendicular bisector of the line segment!
Sr. Amelia: It doesn't, Billy. That comes later. Now class, let us proceed to showing that the vertical angles of two intersecting lines are equal.
Billy: But, Sister! How will that show that a point equidistant from the endpoints of a line segment lies on the perpendicular bisector of the line segment!
Sr. Amelia: You must have patience, Billy. You can't prove everything all at once, so you must prove something first.
Over on Briggs' place a discussion of the so-called Argument from Motion is being served up piecemeal, literally a paragraph at a time. Thus, by the time the esteemed Statistician to the Stars completes his Herculean labors, the final proof will be obvious, inasmuch as the Second Coming (and/or Heat Death of the Universe) will have taken place and all will see clearly and not as through a glass, darkly.

But since everyone knows where it is all heading, and some find this destination exceptionally uncongenial, a variety of objections are being raised as we might say prematurely. For example, when Briggs presents only the argument that "what is being changed is being changed by another" folks ask how the First Mover can be equated with the Triune Christian God or with Jesus H.Christ. (Sometimes they use the sobriquet "god" to show how very clever and with-it they are.) The answer of course is that one is only demonstrating that supplements of the same angle are equal, not yet that a point equidistant from the endpoints of a line segment lies on the perpendicular bisector of the line segment. One must sip wisdom as from a fine wine, savoring each mouthful, and not guzzle as from a cheap beer.
Exceptionally good-looking
student of plane geometry
TOF digresses: TOF's college history professor, John Lukacs, once characterized the Roman limes by saying that "on one side were the Romans and light and wine, while on the other side were Germans and darkness... and beer." This last in a low, ominous voice.
So TOF thought it worthwhile to lay the Argument from Motion out, as it were, all in one place to the best of his abilities. He has done so before in more off-the-cuff fashion, but will make a more determined effort here, since misunderstandings appear rife and folks more often object to a caricature of the argument than to the true quill.

A Brief History of the Argument

The argument from motion first appears in Φυσικὴ ἀκρόασις, (i.e., "Lectures on Nature," a/k/a The Physics, Bk. VIII), where Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC) establishes "the existence of the unmoved mover of the universe, a supra-physical entity, without which the physical domain could not remain in existence."

The Physics was written originally in Greek, so it is all full of Greek words and stuff. TOF avers that "it's all Greek to me" and so must rely on translations and commentaries. Alas, too many others rely on rumor and gossip and thus object to the argument they have in their heads rather than the one on the pages. As Josh Billings once said, "It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble. It's the things we know that just ain't so." When we think we know something, we don't bother to look it up. TOF once confused Regiomontanus with Longomontanus in this fashion.¹
1. One wishes they had been brothers; but they weren't.

It is worth noting that Aristotle was probably not a Catholic, so the religious motives said to inform the Argument from Motion are not especially germane, even if a religious person later repeated or adopted it. In Latin Christendom, Aristotle was often called simply "The Philosopher."

Among the muslims, the great ibn Rushd (1126-1198) also took up the argument from motion during the brief efflourescence of so-called "Greek Studies" in the House of Submission, although he weirdly seems to have put his money on early versions of Paley's watchmaker and the fine-tuning argument! Go figure. Ibn Rushd was a Spaniard writing in Arabic, but his philosophical greatness was recognized mainly in Latin Christendom, where he was known as Averröes or simply as "The Commentator," the number two go-to guy for Aristotelian thought. In the House of Submission, he was stripped of all offices² and forced to flee al-Andalus and his writings were largely forgotten there.
2. Note: It was important in Islam that a philosopher held office under the protection of the ruler. Natural philosophy and natural theology had a number of important advocates, but they held on by the skin of their teeth and the field never caught on in the society at large. Science there, of any sort, was like the seed that fell upon the rocky ground.
Ibn Rushd's contemporary, Moses Maimonides (1135 - 1204), a Spanish Jew who lived in Cairo and wrote in Arabic, presented the argument in his Guide for the Perplexed II.70, but TOF knows little of this thread, save that Maimonides was one of the greatest minds of all time and blended Greco-Roman, Jewish, Arabic/muslim, and Latin/Western thought in his writings.

A couple generations later, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) refined the argument in his Summa contra gentiles, I.13 (AD 1263). This also known as Liber de veritate catholicae fidei contra errores infidelium (The Book on the Truth of the Catholic faith against the Errors of the Infidels) but the shorter title was catchier. There is a difference between a liber and a summa, so it is not entirely clear who the book was written for. The usual consensus is that it was intended to set out arguments for use in debates with Jews and muslims, both of which had flourishing Aristotelian traditions at the time. These public debates were very popular in medieval Europe, like rock concerts albeit with greater cerebral content. 

The argument was included, along with four others, in digest form in Summa theologica, I Q2 art.3, (AD 1265-1273) an instruction manual for theology students. Some of what was spelled out in Contra gentiles was left out of S. theologica, because theology students would already have a master of arts covering Aristotelian physics, etc. Lastly, Aquinas included a brief compendium of the argument in (naturally enough) Compendium theologiae [ad fratrem Reginaldum socium suum carissimum], Bk.1, ch.3 (AD 1273). Again, the shorter title won the day, and no one cares if it was written to Brother Reginald.

Anyone hoping to grapple with the Argument from Motion ought to study all three.

Fr. JJ, declining to conjugate
TOF digresses: While ignorant of Greek and Arabic, TOF can with horse sweat and a judicious amount of self-flagellation slog his way through Latin, thanks to the quondam efforts of Fr. John Joseph Gonchar, OFM, William Whittaker's Words, and his grandfather's old Latin Text.³ Salve, magister!
TOFian Grandsire,
over Latin declension
3. Grandfather's Latin text. You should see it. There was nothing of "Run, Spot. Run!" about the texts of TOF's grandfather.
The Argument from Motion was subjected to critique, not only from fideists, who thought that everything ought to be believed rather than known, but also from other scholastics, such as the Scotists who from their Franciscan trenches would take pot shots at the Dominican Fortress of Solitude.  

Twilight of the Argument from Motion

When the Modern Revolution came, David Hume, an Anglophone man of letters, demolished the Argument from Motion. 

Ho ho. TOF jests. Humean fanboys claimed that he had done so, but Hume himself was more modest: he had been critiquing a version of the argument in which Descartes had confounded "cause" with "explanation." Brandon Watson writes: "The real problem has less to do with Hume and more to do with how he is interpreted/used. He's often doing something very narrow and specific in focus that gets treated by people looking for a mascot as if it were sweeping and wide of scope." Far from giving "a general refutation of cosmological arguments," he actually seems only to be "arguing that Newtonians should not accept the arguments of Samuel Clarke." 

But by the turn of the 18th century the original Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics underlying the Argument from Motion had been largely forgotten, especially in Protestant lands, and so Hume and the rest were whacking a straw man, not the argument that Aristotle, ibn Rushd, Maimonides, and Aquinas had argued.

But however unintentional the straw Hume may have stuffed into this man, his position was taken up by Bertrand Russell and others ever since, using Hume as a sock puppet. It is astonishing that modern atheists have not had an original thought in more than three hundred years.

Yes, yes. TOF realized that the Aristotelian argument is a tad older than that, even if we wait for Thomas to put on the finishing touches. But Thomists at least make the argument, whereas the Hume-Russell proponents simply toss off dismissive quips. (This seems to have been a major shift from the Medieval Age of Reason to the Renaissance Age of Witty Put-downs.) The Argument from Motion may be wrong, but it is not stupidly wrong.

As TOF proceeds with this exploration, he will take note of some of these objections, a few of which have already been mentioned.

The necessary first step to grasp the Argument from Motion is to understand Motion; and so:


  1. Aristotle. The Physics, Book VIII
  2. Feser, Edward. "Clarke on the stock caricature of First Cause arguments," (Feser blog, Jul 12, 2014)
  3. Hillier, H. Chad. "Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126—1198)" (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  4. Thomas Aquinas. Summa contra gentiles, I.13, (Dominican House of Studies)
  5. Thomas Aquinas. Summa theologica, I Q2 art.3, (Dominican House of Studies) 
  6. Thomas Aquinas. Compendium theologiae, Bk.1 ch.3, (Dominican House of Studies)


  1. I think one major problem is that these proofs are not usually well presented to the sort of people who actually take proofs seriously; i.e. mathematicians and logicians.

    Most people I think don't find them convincing for the same reason they don't find any other kind of mathematical proof convincing; most people just aren't that good at understanding proofs!

    Speaking of mathematicians/logicians, I've always wondered how many of them would go for it if Aquinas's five ways were calmly discussed and well presented; my instinct is to say that most of them would, given the way they are usually predisposed towards Platonism.

    Which is the one thing that bugs me the most about William Lane Craig; he tends to use MORE rather than less scientific argumentation than metaphysical/logical argumentation when he presents to thinkers more likely to take the metaphysical/logical argumentation seriously, and more knowledgeable about the difficulties of the scientific argumentation.

    Go figure!

    1. Russell was a great logician and he rejected the Five Ways.

      Thing is, logicians/mathematicians are expert in formal proofs i.e. proofs that are capable of been formalized in symbolic form such that that form can be formally manipulated.

      But I doubt that Five Ways are formalizable in that sense. Understanding is needed and not merely manipulation of some formal expression.

    2. Russell rejected his own misunderstanding of Hume's critique.

    3. They, as well as versions of Anselm and Descartes, are formalizable. It comes down to the premises.

      For instance,

    4. As the O'Floinn was hinting at, it's doubtful that Russell ever spent any serious time studying any of Aquinas's Five Ways.

      The argument that we know that he did reject was his own misunderstanding of J.S. Mill's own misunderstanding of Hume's critique and merely partial rejection of a version of Samuel Clarke's cosmological argument that was popular at the time. So that's anything but a well presented and calmly held discussion of the Five Ways...

      And we also know that Russell tended to take anything but a impartial and calmly considered view on these sorts of things, so he probably wasn't the best choice for a counter-example...

      Regardless, even if he had impartially rejected the argument, that doesn't show that my suspicion was wrong. People tend to think that Mathematicians, when calmly and clearly presented with a sound mathematical proof, just immediately accept it. If you learn a little more about the history of mathematics however, you find out that this isn't always the case; there has been some serious controversy and debate over now universally accepted proofs!

  2. In my limited experience, the casual atheist-on-the-street has simply never been exposed to the kind of intelligent Christian who bothers about things like logic and metaphysics. Fact is, there are a lot of dumb Christians out there trying to evangelize through bad arguments, and the brights rightly reject them.

    If you've ever tried wading through youtube atheism vs theism debates, you know what I mean.

    And then what happens is that whenever an Oderberg or a Feser tries to talk to them, they filter the arguments through a set of heuristic pre-expectations that condition what they are able to hear at all, which can only be broken through with time and repetition, or perhaps in a sudden burst of beauty.

    I think something that could help is if those on our side with understanding started making more use of popular formats like facebook "memes" and entertaining youtube videos to get our message out without simplifying it or sacrificing accuracy... I guess that job's going to fall to people closer to my age, though.

    1. Actually, one needn't be a Christian. Aristotle wasn't. And none of the arguments depend on Christian doctrines.

    2. Yes, but we already know that the argument from motion is going to prove transubstantiation and the doctrine of indugences, so we have to be extra-carefully-watchful for when you sneak Christian assumptions into the argument. Speaking of Assumptions ...

    3. Let me know if you spot any, once we get down to it.

  3. Reading with great anticipation (this and the psychology series).

    Edward - I hear you, on the burden of presenting these arguments anew. Someone should figure that out.

  4. Errant link again, in Note 6.