Friday, May 26, 2006

The Prime Mover

Dear Dr. Freddoso,

I had a quick question for you. Today I ran across the following statement by Paul Kurtz:

“A popular argument adduced for the existence of this unknowable entity is that he is the first cause, but we can ask of anyone who postulates this, "What is the cause of this first cause?" To say that he is uncaused only pushes our ignorance back one step.”

Now, other issues aside, I was just wondering about the semantic pedigree of this inference. Isn't "first cause" simply a synonym for "prime mover," which is, in turn, an Anglicized transliteration of the Latin "primum movens," which is, for its part, a Latin equivalent of Aristotelian usage?

The assumption lying behind Kurtz' objection seems to be that "first" is being used in the temporal sense of the first member of a temporal series.

But is that really what Aristotle or Aquinas had in mind by our Latin derivative?

Or are they using it more in the sense of "primary" or "prior" (in a casual rather than temporal sense)?

It seems to me that the English phrases ("first cause," "prime mover") also carry the connotation of a linear series. But isn't the image of a causal chain just a picturesque metaphor, and should we be reading that back into Thomistic and Aristotelian usage?

Isn't the whole objection nothing more than a rhetorical trick?

Sincerely,

Steve Hays


>I had a quick question for you. Today I ran across the following statement by Paul Kurtz:
>
>"A popular argument adduced for the existence of this unknowable entity is that he is the first cause, but we can ask of anyone who postulates this, "What is the cause of this first cause?" To say that he is uncaused only pushes our ignorance back one step."
>
>Now, other issues aside, I was just wondering about the semantic pedigree of this inference. Isn't "first cause" simply a synonym for "prime mover," which is, in turn, an Anglicized transliteration of the Latin "primum movens," which is, for its part, a Latin equivalent of Aristotelian usage?

If you look at the first two of St. Thomas's five ways, you will find a difference between them. According to the first way, there has to be a first mover in order to account for changes in already existent things, which takes place through the actualization of already existent potentialites. It is true that moving things (i.e., making them change) is a species of efficient causality, but it is not the only such species if there is such a thing as creation ex nihilo. So the concept of a first mover is distinct from the concept of a first efficient cause. And it is the existence of a first efficient cause which is argued for in St. Thomas's second way, with one the key premises being that nothing is a cause of itself. Of course, St. Thomas will later argue that the first mover just is the first efficient cause, and vice versa.

>The assumption lying behind Kurtz' objection seems to be that "first" is being used in the temporal sense of the first member of a temporal series.
>
>But is that really what Aristotle or Aquinas had in mind by our Latin derivative?
>
>Or are they using it more in the sense of "primary" or "prior" (in a casual rather than temporal sense)?

You are right on this score. None of these arguments has to do with a temporal series of causes. The claim has to do with a series of contemporaneous causes and movers.

>It seems to me that the English phrases ("first cause," "prime mover") also carry the connotation of a linear series. But isn't the image of a causal chain just a picturesque metaphor, and should we be reading that back into Thomistic and Aristotelian usage?
>
>Isn't the whole objection nothing more than a rhetorical trick?

Kurz's objection is based on ignorance. Each of the first two ways contains an explicit argument to the effect that an infinite regress or movers/causes is impossible. Maybe Kurz doesn't think the arguments work, but his objection merely begs the question and doesn't even attempt to deal with those arguments.


----------------------------------------------
Alfred J. Freddoso
Professor of Philosophy and
John and Jean Oesterle Professor of Thomistic Studies
100 Malloy Hall
University of Notre Dame

5 comments:

  1. now who...wrote which..what...where?

    Is this some kind of subtle trick you're playing on us readers in observance of Joe Carter's drive-by critique? I feel like a hostage.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's time to move on... Not only can this guy not distinguish his own thoughts from those he quotes, he doesn't even make any good points in the end. Quite unrewarding reading here, Steve.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ted:

    We T-bloggers have been waiting for you to move on for quite some time now.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "The beauty of religious mania is that it has the power to explain everything. Once God (or Satan) is accepted as the first cause of everything which happens in the mortal world, nothing is left to chance... logic can be happily tossed out the window." Stephen King

    ReplyDelete
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