Thursday, August 21, 2014

First Way, Part I: A Moving Tale

OK, TOF has finished "In Panic Town, On the Backward Moon" and is ready to resume what he joshingly refers to as "real life."

Back to the Argument from Motion (See Preface)

Getting 'Motional

[T]he arguments require the appreciation of certain metaphysical principles that are unfamiliar or seem archaic to the contemporary philosophical mind...  In particular, the notion of causation employed by Aquinas in the arguments has a decidedly obscure ring to modern ears.
-Oderberg, ‘Whatever is Changing is Being Changed by Something Else’
Part of TOF's herculean effort here will be to translate, as much as he is able, those original items into more modern lingo. This is not always quite possible and not always well-advised, because words in different languages in different eras do not always divide thought into the same categories. But, Excelsior!¹
1. Excelsior. As all men know, this is a packing material used as dunnage.

Since the Argument from Motion involves something called "motion," we may as well address that. Modern science takes motion as axiomatic, and therefore never comes to grips with it. Science deals with how motion is effected¹ or altered, but never with what motion is. More often than not, it is restricted to one kind of motion: to changes of location -- electrons through a wire, planets through space, blood through the vessels, photons through slits², etc. But what motion is per se is a matter for metaphysicians.

Parmenides had held that motion is an illusion suffered by consciousness³, and his pupil Zeno illustrated this with a series of paradoxes. Moderns usually dismiss the paradoxes in the belief that convergent infinite series have resolved the issue. But convergent series provide only a mathematical model, and do not address the physical problem of motion. For this, we need the long-forgotten Aristotelian rebuttal: that of potency and act. [cf. Augros, scroll to Continuity of Motion]
1. effected. Yes, not affected.
2. or not.
3. illusion. Parmenides was much like a Late Modern in this respect, since the Late Modern also ascribes to illusion such things as color, pain, free will, the self... The last one entangles the bien pensants in a rather sticky logical briar patch. Whose illusion was that?

A Potent Act

1. Rock = Parmenides, who taught that "no thing comes from nothing." Hence, etc., etc., there can be no change. Parmenides tried to change people's minds about this.

2. Hard Place = Heraclitus, who taught that motion was everything and reality was a chaotic flux.

"Don't Move!"
Inventor of Chicken Parm
The realists, like Plato and Aristotle, tried to explain how Parmenides was wrong without tumbling into the opposite absurdity of Heraclitus. How can a body change without being able to change into anything? How can an apple change from green to red, but not from green to purple polka-dots or from green to triangular. Plato tried one solution, but wound up with a third realm of existence, the Ideals. Aristotle was dissatisfied with this and took a more empirical approach. The reason Late Moderns often "don't get" potency and act is because they are answers to questions they have forgotten were ever asked. They simply assume Parmenides was stoopid.

Since Aristotle wrote in Greek, we must understand his words, and that is not always easy. He uses two words --energeia and entelechia-- interchangeably. But energeia means being-at-work and entelechia means being-at-an-end. Compare the English words "building" and "building." One is a participle of a verb and means building-at-work; the other is a noun and means a building-at-the-end. If I am building a building, the distinction becomes clear. What Aristotle means by act (or "actuality") is... both. Simultaneously. To be a thing in the world is to be at work.¹ For Aristotle, actuality is therefore close in meaning to what it is to be alive.² [Sachs, IEP]

A building a-building
Thomas Aquinas showed how "building a building" was 
  1. not a contradiction and 
  2. a genuine definition of motion.  
English is fortunate to possess the present progressive tense, which helps us express this better. When we say that the puppy is growing or that the apple is ripening we mean that the puppy or apple is not merely "the complex of characteristics it possesses right now," but also that something that it is growing toward or ripening toward: that-toward-which it is, right this moment, ordered. The "that-toward-which" is called the final cause or telos. To say that something is in motion [kinesis] is just to say that it is both what-it-is and that-toward-which. To speak scientificalistically, it is its current location and its vector. [Sachs, IEP]

Actualization? Kinesis? Hunh?
What's in a name?  If "motion" is more than the thin concept used in modern physics, that raises the question³ of whether we ought to call it "motion" anymore. Because motion is defined as "the reduction potency to act," we might call it "actualization," but this would earn blank stares [see left]. So would kinesis, although that sounds agreeably scientificalistic. The word change captures the greater scope of kinesis, but comes off as rather bland. It's kinetic change, after all. It's "on the move!" TOF will be eclectic in this essay, using all four terms more-or-less interchangeably. Don't come crying to TOF afterward with some semantic quibble. You Have Been Warned.
1. Aristotle said "to be is to do." Sartre said "to do is to be." Sinatra otoh said, "do be do be do."
2. What it is to be alive. Compare similar comments in the series In Psearch of Psyche. Modern philosophers typically regard efficient causality (i.e., "agency") as due to rational agents only. Hence, either the rest of nature lacks agency or (rejecting agency altogether) humans lack agency also. Aristotelians, otoh, regard human agency as simply "a higher-order manifestation of a feature shared by every primary substance in the universe." These lower-order things serve as stepping stones to grasping higher-order things.
3. raises the question. It does NOT, as in NOT, "beg" the question. TOF is going insane, having seen and heard this misuse numerous times just over the past week alone on TV and Internet. It's enough to drive an Irishman to drink. OK, that's not a drive, it's a putt, but you catch the drift.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Get Back in the Discussion

Da Man
All power to the Movement!
Now that we realize that some things we hadn't thought of as motions are actually motions -- ripening apples, growing puppies -- we encounter the unsettling thought that some things we had though of as motions are actually not.

Motion is an alteration to something the body already has. If an apple has greenness (greenitude?) and it is altered to redness, that is a "motion." It actualizes a potential-to-be-red. It is an alteration to the green that the apple already has.

But Aristotle regarded the orbiting heavenly spheres as being in a state of rest. WTF? says the confused Late Modern. [See glyph, above, left.] How can an orbiting planet be at freaking rest?

Because the "ever-running" circular¹ movement is not changing. 

The same thing applies to a body in unchanging rectilinear motion; so-called inertial motion. The body already has the motion. So kinesis would mean a change to this motion. Hence, Aristotelian "kinesis" is more like "acceleration" than "velocity."²

So to the question of "what accounts for the change of location of an inertial body," the answer is, "whatever imparted the motion originally." This might be a rocket engine that lifted an interstellar probe and set it free. It might be a Mars-body that struck the Earth and took a divot the size of the Moon. It might be a supernova throwing starstuff far and wide into the Void. But in any case, the impetus³, as Jean Buridan said back in the 14th century, does not change until countered by a contrary or dissipative impetus. In that case, the change in the motion is due to the contrary force, just as Newton would later reiterate.
"When you shove a millstone, the motion or change is that of imparting momentum to the millstone. When the millstone moves, or continues to move after that, the motion is change of position owing to momentum [already] possessed by the millstone. Something that has momentum will continue to change its position until acted upon by some force (that's what momentum is). Something that does not have momentum will not suddenly get it out of nowhere. That's as true for modern physics as for the Aristotelian variety. Indeed, the continued motion of the millstone in empty space is the very same principle at work: the millstone will not undergo change (such as losing momentum it already has) without some cause (e.g. friction) continuing to act on it. Remov[e] the pushing cause, and the effect of getting more momentum does indeed cease; remove the retarding cause (friction), and the effect of losing momentum will likewise cease."
[Feser, 2014, emph. added]
A Modern term that captures this idea of "rest" as "not changing" is equilibrium state.

Not the act of building materials
The motion of a thing is always toward something which that thing has in potential, and a motion consists in some sense of being what-it-is-now and what-it-is-going-to-be. The original potency is made actual in two ways.

A set of building materials has the potential to become a house. It also has the potential to become a barn for storing grain, a scaffold for dealing with impertinent comm boxers, a grandstand for others to watch the aforesaid entertainment, or it may remain a set of building materials. It does not have the potential to become an aardvark, so it's not Heraclitus' "Anything Goes."

Bacon's big blue bouncy ball in motion toward red
When construction begins, the "wave function" of all those various potentialities collapses to a particular potential aimed at the one particular end. This is the first act: the potency becomes an "actual potency." The second act is when the kinesis reaches its equilibrium state (final cause): the house is actually finished. Between the first and second act there is an intermission.

Ho ho, TOF jests. Between the first and second acts is what Aristotle called 'motion' or kinesis. 

BTW, "building" in either sense is not the actualization of the house. It is the actualization of the building materials.
1. circular. TOF of course speaks elliptically.
2. acceleration/velocity. Note that these are medieval terms. They did not exist in ancient Greek. Sapir-Whorf notwithstanding, this did not prevent Aristotle from thinking about velocity and acceleration; but it did prevent him from thinking and writing concisely. The same may be said of the lack of a present progressive tense in Greek and Latin. In English we can say "it is changing" but in Latin and Greek we must content ourselves with "it changes" which doesn't quite have the same sense of happening-right-now.
3. impetus. Buridan held that impetus was proportional to the
weight and speed of the body. The Modern will immediately recognize this as "momentum," which is the product of mass and velocity. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The ablative of motion?
Alas, no abs.

Summa Motus

Lets sum it up, motus-wise.
  1. "Motion" is a kinetic change from a state of potency to a state of actuality in any of the categories, esp.: location, quality, and quantity.  Such motions include growing puppies, ripening fruit, generation, morphogenesis, decay, and so on.
  2. A potency cannot be just anything at all, but something which the thing can become through its own nature, as when a puppy matures into a dog or a green apple ripens to red. [We may also allow what a thing can become by artifice: we can paint the apple with purple polka-dots. But art has never puzzled anyone.]
  3. "Motion" begins when the many potencies a thing possesses collapse onto a single potency (the "actual" potency). The act of building commences.
  4. "Motion" ceases when the potency has been fully actualized (or the actualizing force has been removed!) The building has been completed (or abandoned). 
  5. "Motion" means that a thing is both what it is now and what it is going to be, as of now.
  6. "Motion" is a change to something a thing already possesses. If the thing already possesses motion, then it would be a change in that motion (i.e., an acceleration)
  7. "Impetus," or momentum, remains with the thing unless dissipated by a contrary impetus. Hence, a body in space keeps going because of its original impetus.
  8. "Inertia" (lit. "laziness") is a principle of resistance to change, not a principle of motion. "Motion" ["Change"] must overcome this resistance. A body does not continue to move because of inertia, but because of momentum. If friction changes the motion, it must overcome resistance to change.
  9. "Motion" that is continuous and unchanging is actually "rest" (equilibrium). This includes orbiting planets, Belousov–Zhabotinsky reactions, etc. 
Next Exciting Episode: Two Lemmas Make Lemma-aid (link now active!)


Indicium Librorum

  1. Aristotle. The Physics, Book VI. Book VIII
  2. Augros, Michael. "A ‘Bigger’ Physics," The Institute for the Study of Nature, Jan. 28, 2009 (MIT)
  3. Feser, Edward. "Clarke on the stock caricature of First Cause arguments," (Feser blog, Jul 12, 2014)
  4. Feser, Edward. "The medieval principle of motion and the modern principle of inertia" in Proceedings of the Society for Medieval Logic and Metaphysics, Vol.10, 2012.
  5. Sachs, Joe. "Aristotle: Motion and its Place in Nature" (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  6. Thomas Aquinas. Summa contra gentiles, I.13, (Dominican House of Studies)
  7. Thomas Aquinas. Summa theologica, I Q2 art.3, (Dominican House of Studies)
  8. Thomas Aquinas. Compendium theologiae, Bk.1 ch.3, (Dominican House of Studies)
  9. TOF. In Psearch of Psyche: Some Groundwork. (The TOF Spot, July 11, 2014)
  10. TOF. America's Next Top Model, (The TOF Spot, February 4, 2014)


  1. I have been following this discussion both here and at William Brigg's site (and I have been reading Feser as well) and I have appreciated your clarifications and explanations immensely. I have a couple of questions so that I can try to understand the argument better. First, what is a convergent infinite series and how does this supposedly overcome Zeno's paradoxes? Second, I get why Paramendias is wrong, but why is Heraclitus wrong? That is, what is he missing when he is saying that all is in flux?

    1. 1. Convergent series: There are infinite series which add successive values in such a way that the sum is finite in the following sense: You can sum to any number arbitrarily close to a limiting number. No matter how many more terms you add to the series, the sum will never exceed the limit, and that limit will do to estimate things like actual time required to traverse a distance. However, the sum will never actually reach the limit (which is what makes it a limit rather than a sum). That means the limit does not have physical reality, only mathematical reality. Parmenides error is considerably deeper than a mathematical algorithm for estimating elapsed time and/or distance traveled. There is some discussion in the following link, and particularly in Appendix 2.

      Heraclides: He was correct that material things are in flux, but wrong to say that anything can change into anything else. The building materials cannot be rearranged into an aardvark; a tiger cub will not grow up to be a Pontiac. Plato, then Aristotle came up with a rationale for why things can change without changing willy-nilly.

    2. "That means the limit only has physical reality, only mathematical reality."

      Even the mathematical "reality" of a limit is only after a certain manner of speaking. For instance, in the equation f(x)=1/x, there is no value of f(x) when x=0. However, there is an answer to the limit of f(x)=1/x as x approaches 0, namely 0.

    3. Timotheos:

      No, the limit of 1/x as x approaches 0 does not exist, because 1/x tends to positive infinity as x approaches 0 from the right (very small positive numbers) and 1/x tends to negative infinity as x approaches 0 from the left (very small negative numbers)

      A better example for your point would be a function like f(x) = 3 for all x except x=7. The graph of this function would be a flat line 3 units above the x-axis, except that it would have a "hole" at the spot where x=7. In this case, f(7) is undefined, but the limit of f(x) as x approaches 7 is 3.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. Oops, that's what I get for changing my example on the fly on my phone... (normally I use f(x)=x/x, but most people don't see that as a "real" equation)

  2. Thanks for the answers. That helps.

    Here is another question, again for clarification. If "rest" in the metaphysical sense means something like equilbrium state, does that mean an atom is at rest notwithstanding the movement of the sub-atomic particles within the atom, but that there would be kinesis, for example, when the atom absobed energy and the electron(s) were excited to a higher orbital or underwent some other similar change? And if so, then is the constant or inherent movement of sub-atomic particles (or atomic or molecular structures, for that matter) explained in terms of the nature or essence of such ... things (what's the right term? substances?). I know "essence" has a technical definition in Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics so perhaps my usage here is incorrect. I guess the question is, how does one talk about (in Aquinas's terms) the fact that the building blocks of matter are in constant motion (as current physics defines matter and motion).

    1. It's not clear what the atom is like. The old miniature solar system has gone the way of the dodo. It was never a fact, but simply a stance adopted by people in awe of Newtonian mechanics.

      Clearly, the excitation of the atom is motion caused by another. But the "inherent" motion, whatever that might be, may be simply like the "inherent" motion of the stars and galaxies: a momentum imparted long ago and which simply has not dissipated because there is no contrary impetus.

  3. Remov[e] the pushing cause, and the effect of getting more momentum does indeed cease; remove the retarding cause (friction), and the effect of losing momentum will likewise cease."
    [Feser, 2014, emph. added]

    I'm not actually Feser, though I'd be happy to play him on TV. (He would have proofread the comment and caught that "Remov[ing]"… whereas I proofread it and missed it anyway. If I'd known I was going to be famous, I'd've proofread it twice!)

    Regarding atoms, they turned out not to be atomic after all, i.e. they have parts, so change inside an atom could be the result of some parts changing other parts. (Of course, this would still trace back to some sort of "original momentum" to start the parts moving in the first place.)

  4. Very glad for this exposition. Thank you.

  5. Thank you for doing this, TOFloinn. Here is a question I have been mulling over and I wonder if anyone can give me some clarity:

    Imagine that a materialist, when confronted with an elementary particle that *seems* to move randomly, simply says that the most elementary level of reality is random or 'magical', kind of like what some physicists are/were saying with quantum mechanics. Now if one were to argue this wouldn't it essentially be saying that reality is ultimately unintelligible? Because if the most elementary level of reality is unintelligible then how can anything built upon it be intelligible? And then wouldn't that essentially kill modern science, or at least reduce it to mere 'well, it works because of technology' pragmatism?

    Or am I committing some form of the fallacy of composition here, or some other error?

    1. I'm inclined to agree with you. Randomness per se is not and cannot be a cause since it is not a "thing." This was hard for me to grasp. Like everyone else, I was raised on "events" not on "things" and the reasoning in the Motion argument is things-are moving-things. When folks say something moves at random, they are saying "we cannot predict the motion." But predictability is different from causation. A may indeed cause B without our being able to predict (even in principle!) when and where it will do so.

  6. >But Aristotle regarded the orbiting heavenly spheres as being in a state of rest.

    Do you have a quote for this? I thought Aristotle considered the unmoved mover to be the source of the motion of the spheres.

    1. I forget where I saw it. But for him, "motion" = "change" and the heavens did not appear to be changing. The ever-running heavens were not changing in the relevant sense of actualizing a potential. The turnings of the spheres just were the finality of their actuality, which ultimately traced back to the prime mobile. That's why "equilibrium state" may be a better translation than "rest."

  7. I understand very well. I'm asking because I want to use this point when I explain it to people, but I have nagging doubts about it. I have one interlocutor who is quite well versed in philosophy and will call me out on anything that is wrong. And if I say that Aristotle thought the planets were not in motion, as much as this may help the First Way, I want to be sure.

    1. The planets are in motion "by location" and mover in that case is simply whatever put the planetary spheres in motion originally. There being no resistance in the heavens, this motion would continue indefinitely. (Buridan said that, but others may have come before him.) What kinesis referred to was change, in this case, "change in motion." For that, one needed a force other than the already-existing motion. And this is what they were all talking about. Resistance to this change is what we now call "inertia" (L. "laziness"), and the impetus given by the changer is what we now call "momentum" (L. "motion")

      There is commentary here:


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