Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Aquinas' Cosmological Argument: A Response to a Defender


This blog is a response to two blog posts made by an acquaintance recently. His first post is Change Happens. Does that mean God Exists? and second, How is that God? Objections and Responses to the Argument from Change. This was originally written as a Facebook comment that, after it was written and published, seemed to warrant moving the discussion to a longer format writing platform. I've tried to modify some of the writing to fit the format, but my use of "you" will remain. I haven't yet decided if in the future I should refer directly to the blogger, or respond from the third person.

Due to the breadth of the subject material covered in the blogs, I picked out a few quotes that stood out, and commented on them. Also, I've struggled with the formatting due to my copy and paste from Facebook. 

First Blog  


Change is something existing potentiality becoming an actuality. Only what is already actual can cause something to go from potentiality to actuality.

If we end up agreeing that there would have to originally be an entity that caused everything to go from potentiality to actuality, it doesn't mean that the uncaused cause created all potentiality. The argument hinges on the relationship between things transitioning between states, but doesn't comment on potentiality itself. Since the goal of the argument is typically to show that an entity that not just caused the events to begin but caused everything to exist, the argument would fall short.

I would guess the response to this criticism would have to posit qualities of potentialities that are beyond our experience. Since we simply have experience of things changing from potentiality to actuality, much of the proposed qualities of potential entities would be unfounded speculation.

Whatever is changeable is changed in the act of changing another


By this premise, in order to change something, one must change himself. This means the unchanged changer is either (A) an exception to the rule, whatever is changed must be changed by another, or (B) both the changer and not the changer at the same time.

If we are going to say a contradiction exists, or an exception to a rule exists, why this exception and not another? Or, why not admit to the many other contradictions we could imagine as solutions? We could assume that there is an entity that has both potentiality and actuality which caused everything. It would be an exception to the rule, but so is the proposed solution.

At the very least, it is nothing material, nothing with dimension or extension, nothing with quantity or measure. It is nothing inert, but it is active – since it changes all things changeable. It could be nothing temporal, because it is utterly unchanging. There can be only one such being, even in principle, since as Parmenides showed us, being is only differentiated by potency. So pure being, or pure act, would be utterly one and undifferentiated.

(1) You say that the proposed entity has no quantity or measure, but then go on to talk about it as a thing separate from other things. If something has no quantity, it cannot be referred to as a thing, since that implies it could have a quantity of one.

The reference to an undifferentiated one could refer to everything in existence. This would possibly be compatible with Parmenides view of the world, but probably not the view of God Aquinas is trying to show. The view that God is a part of everything, in the sense described here, would be a kind of Pantheism.

(2) On a different note, to describe something as unchanging is to refer to its state from one moment to the next. That is, we say, for some length of time, the thing didn't change. If the entity exists outside of time, we cannot ascribe the attribute of unchanging to it since that description assumes it existing in time.

Second Blog

Intelligent changers, with respect to intelligence, are never the instruments of changers that are non-intelligent. But the reverse is often true. In other words, the creation of information always requires a mind, and a student is always taught by a teacher. To add or create information, requires a mind. A person can program a computer, or teach another person to do so, and the computer can copy and process information, but a computer will never generate new information, nor use a human mind as an instrument to do so. But all changers, even intelligent ones, are instruments of the first Unchanging Changer. Therefore, the Unchanging Changer must also be intelligent.

(1) The claim that only intelligent beings create information seems to be untrue. Machine learning programs come up with strategies for solving problems and beating each other and human opponents without humans explicitly programming a solution into them. These methods are inspired off how the brain functions. So, an "unintelligent" thing does create new information. Also, the information in DNA is changed through random mutation. This is another unintelligent process that creates new information.

(2) The argument would benefit from some clarity about what an intelligent changer entails. Sometimes it seems like you are referring to agent causation, but then start discussing minds and possibly the hard problem of consciousness.

There are a few different ways I can guess at what's trying to be argued. Some discussion about how intelligence is related to the argument would clarify things.

The above said, if I were to guess, the argument is drawing on the experience we have of turning potentialities to an actuality. It proposes that we are the only types of things that cause the change from potentiality to actuality without a sufficient previous causes. So, based on this experience, the original cause would be a being that is like us.

If it is agent origination that satisfies the requirement for universal origination, there is nothing about knowledge or overarching abilities that would also be required in satisfying this requirement. For example, I can cause an explosion without necessarily understanding why a thing explodes. And, I can cause an explosion without intending to do so. Further, the fact that I caused an explosion doesn't mean I can do a miriade of other things other people can do - like play an instrument. Thus, the fact that a being caused everthing to exist doesn't mean it is particularly intelligent or can do even things that we can.

(3) The claim "Intelligent changers, with respect to intelligence, are never the instruments of changers that are non-intelligent" on the face of it seems untrue. Under the influence of drugs or other psychological events, people's actions can be directed by non-intelligent causes. For example, someone that had a tramatic experience with a spider could react to seeing spiders without reflection. There are many experiments that show people can be influenced, or even caused to act, by non-intelligent causes.

I also do see how this strong claim fits into the argument. You can have agent origination and have people be the instruments of changers that are non-intelligent. It seems like you are trying to anticipate free will skepticism, but this seems like an untenable position.

The Kant Objection:
Kant argues that our understanding of the world is based on our constitution (spacial-temporal beings) and our experiences. So, we cannot describe things in terms that are independent of these concepts. For example, when we describe something as existing the concept of existance presupposes a spacial-temporal framework. To illustrate, if someone said John exists, but said that he exists at no time or place. We would wonder in what sense it means for him to exist. In fact, when we say that God exist outside time and place people typically think of God as existing in all of time and space - not outside it.

Kant's metaphysical and epistemic position comes out of an objection to an empiricism and rationalism that, particularly radical empiricism, is not really held today. His comments on metaphysics and epistemology has inspired many thinkers such that it is dubious that to agree with some of Kant's objections means that one must then accept all his positions. In fact, there are many different ways people have of conceiving Kant's larger system. For example, Dan Robinson, a professor at Oxford, argues that Thomas Reid and Immanual Kant have very similar positions on the world. Yet, many supporters of cosmological arguments seem to adopt Reid's metaphysics and epistemology.

There's more to be said about the history of metaphysics and epistemology, and Kant's view on them than I've said here, but whole books written just on pieces of Kant's work. I would strongly recommend, if you want to talk about him, reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) article on the The Critique of Pure Reason (CPR). The article provides a good overview of some thought on CPR. I think an overview would show that even arguing for "Kant's epistemology" could entail arguing for some pretty different systems.

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