17 July 2013

As in the Prose of Gertrude Stein

 Recording taken from PennSound.  This is from a reading by Kenneth Koch of his poem "One Train."

15 July 2013

The New Marriage, Society and the Law

America is no longer a Christian state.

1.1 Despite its constitutional pretensions, for most of its history America has morally behaved like a Christian state, since everyone’s conception of the natural law (or “what is obviously right”) was more or less a Christian conception.

1.2 As the grip of Christian culture and moral formation has loosened and been replaced by [an amorphous epicurean beast], common sense no longer directs our moral reasoning along Christian lines, and progressively more groups of individuals find reason to challenge the weak moral consensus and open up space for new choices and pleasures.

1.3 The culmination of this process has been (or will soon be) a re-opening of the American mind to an awareness of the epistemological basis (or lack thereof) of traditional (Christian) moral norms. There is no longer a monolithic voice in our culture on ethical matters. The preacher cannot count on having Satan as his sole competitor.

1.4 In light of all this, it seems unreasonable for us to expect narrowly Christian ideas about marriage to be politically enforced. “Marriage” has taken on a life of its own, one oriented toward the aforementioned “new pleasures and choices” in a way that it has rarely been historically, as far as I can tell. Marriage apologetics basically miss this point, and this is probably the biggest logical reason why the pro-marriage side has lost the struggle for narrative supremacy.

2 The New Marriage belongs to a different genus of activity than (broadly construed) Christian marriage.

2.01 These names lend themselves to confusion on both sides.  There is nothing new about the New Marriage.  It has been practiced and preached in the United States for at least a century, in various forms.  There is likewise nothing specifically Christian about Christian Marriage as the term is used here: we are speaking of a social practice and not a sacrament.

2.1 The New Marriage has a narrative terminus, just like any other regular human activity (eating, drinking, sex, computer programming, baseball, reading, etc.). The terminus in this case is the sexually “fulfilled” life of two people together in a state of blissful emotional entanglement. Because of this, the New Marriage no longer has any intrinsic reason for being contractual. It is based on physical and emotional bonds, and is as dissoluble as those bonds. Any contractual character is merely a way of publicly declaring that the two individuals are emotionally entangled and sexually fulfilled and intend to stay that way.

2.2 Christian Marriage, by contrast, functions primarily through the interest of a pair in protecting and rearing their children, and has a kind of natural long-term contractual character to it (inasmuch as children take a long time to rear, and in the context of such a bond more children tend to appear).

2.3 Because it is easily and generally recognized that parents ought to care for their children, and that this duty implies an extended bond, which is ordinarily perpetuated by the begetting of more children, by bonds of friendship, and by material expediency, Christian Marriage has normally been not merely a spontaneous, individual activity, but one prescribed by and condoned by communities. It is not merely in the interest of the parents to marry, but also in the interest of the parents’ parents, and the general concern that this sort of behavior take place spreads out naturally among the members of a community, for the protection of the young and the edification of those who have children.

2.31 The New Marriage is to Christian Marriage as Evangelical Baptism is to Catholic Baptism: A sign, which effects nothing, binds nothing, but means to express something.

2.32 The New Marriage, by being “marriage”, being “official”, having a rite, a law, and, in short, a public aspect, gains an extra degree of dignity. It receives a social, quasi-communal mandate, analogous to that proper to Christian Marriage by virtue of its association with natural duty, but instead tied to the common will for neighbors in society to do well, to pursue friendship, and to find physical and emotional fulfillment in another.

2.4 We might ask, then, how the New Marriage came to be called “Marriage”, when it fundamentally a different thing. If Christian Marriage, in terms of the integrity of its social basis, can be compared to food, then the New Marriage might justly be compared to perfume. Many of the sweetest delights of food are present in perfume, but only in a society where the practice of eating had been largely obviated could a confusion arise between the two.

3 The New Marriage is practically dependent on certain features of a highly technological and wealthy society.

3.1 It’s not that New Marriage is impossible without birth control, a high degree of wealth, geographical mobility, and the possibilities for communication that come with advanced technology. However, it seems unlikely that anyone would bother to enshrine the New Marriage in a situation where these features of our society were absent.

3.2 A historical genealogy of the roots (in practice) of the New Marriage seems to confirm this. If the chief oddity of the New Marriage is its being named “marriage” in the first place, given the history of that term in our culture, then any decent explanation must show how the increased social emphasis on secondary aspects of Christian marriage enabled the primary aspects (which lie at the root, socially, of its institutionalization) to be displaced altogether.

3.21 We might ask how Thanksgiving came to be about eating turkey, when historically that word refers to something of a different genus altogether. The ceremonial aspects, which are the practice’s most salient feature, became its focus, and its former ratio was lost to history.

3.211 Many arguments against the New Marriage amount to "Thanksgiving is about eating turkey; how dare you mess it up by eating duck or stuffed squash."  Rather than understand the roots of marriage and its emergence as a contingent feature of Christian society, they stop at the latest possible conception of the New Marriage that suits their prejudices, and enshrine its features as essential.

3.22 All the common narratives about marriage for the past century have supported this transformation.

3.3 Given that Christian marriage has been displaced by something which shares only its secondary features, are the original social functions which led to the emergence of that genus of marriage being seen to? Are the rights of children being fulfilled?

3.31 By definition, it seems clear that the answer is “no”, unless the “New Marriage” in question functions additionally as a “Christian Marriage”. Thus in order to be just, mere New Marriages (which tend, on the whole, to be transient just like the emotional entanglements they are based on) must be sterile.

3.4 The rise of the New Marriage, because it has not been simply organic (the petrification of a decayed social function into an intricate ornament on the face of a more advanced culture) but has taken place through polemic and political struggle, has displaced not merely the practice of Christian marriage, but also the consideration of its primary object: since Christian marriage has been cast aside, the concern for one’s debts to one’s offspring has likewise been cast aside.

3.41 These debts, however, persist, and their neglect is to the detriment (materially, emotionally) of children, as well as (for lack of friendship, stability, and opportunities to develop virtue) their parents.

3.5 Only in a society awash with wealth, in which widely available emotional analgesia and material comfort are available, could such an arrangement be enshrined as superior to the alternative.

3.51 Doubts arise: old metaphors and gender issues in Christian marriage as traditionally practiced made it a potentially oppressive way of securing justice for Children. 

4 These need to be discussed, by someone not myself.

12 July 2013

Thomism after Vatican II

The great Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP, at the Dominican House of Studies last week:

06 July 2013

Twenty-one Random Movies in Two Sentences Each

1.  Daybreakers — Almost all of humanity having become vampires, the remaining humans are farmed for blood, which is increasingly scarce.  The film's chief merit is its attempt at a realistic portrait of how society would develop under the given conditions.

2.  Ken Burns' America: Huey Long — Ken Burns tracks the rise and fall of the Kingfish, who for a time ran Louisiana like his own private kingdom.  One of Burns's better documentaries.

3.  Swiss Family Robinson (1960) — A Swiss Family (not named "Robinson," the title being a reference to Robinson Crusoe) is marooned on a tropical island and must survive on the power of their wits and what they can scavenge from the wreckage of their ship.  Features the most epic treehouse ever.

4.  Lost in Translation — When a burnt out action movie star goes to Tokyo to star in a commercial for Suntory Whiskey, he encounters a depressed newly-wed woman, abandoned by her photographer husband in a hotel.  Through their insomnia, the two form a melancholy friendship based on mutual feelings of frustration with marriage, work, and purposelessness.

5.  Girl, Interrupted — After a panic-induced drug overdose, a recent prep-school graduate checks herself into a mental hospital for recovery and has various encounters with the patients and staff.  The movie is fairly disturbing, but has an exceptional cast, including Winona Ryder, Brittany Murphy, Whoopie Goldberg, Vanessa Redgrave, Angelina Jolie, and Elizabeth Moss.

6.  The Social Network — Socially mal-adjusted Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg makes a series of enemies while struggling to launch The Facebook.  Despite its unusual story, excellent writing, and fine acting, the final product is a little underwhelming, possibly for want of interesting social commentary.

7.  The Bourne Identity — Matt Damon stars alongside Franka Potente (Lola Rennt) in this fast-paced, trim action thriller.  Despite the rather far-fetched plot (which drags considerably in some of the sequels), it's difficult not to be absorbed in the harmonious execution of the story.

8.  Wait Until Dark — This terrifying film stars Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman who struggles to defend herself when a drug runner comes hunting for a misplaced package that has been left in her apartment.  The two things I remember most from the film are a teddy bear and a switchblade with carved ivory grip.

9.  Mission: Impossible — Tom Cruise plays a secret agent charged to do something or other (hack a computer, I think).  There's some betrayal, some weird explosive chewing gum, and that iconic scene where he's suspended in the white room with the computer and almost hits the floor.

10.  Return of the King: Extended Edition — This epic adaptation of the third part of The Lord of the Rings includes a large portion of the story that ought to have happened in The Two Towers, but which Peter Jackson (for reasons of stupidity) put off for the final installment, making it rather bloated.  There are some problems with the film, the most disturbing of which are as follows: (1) the increased role of the Army of the Dead, (2) the awful scene on the stairs of Cirith Ungol where Frodo tells Sam to "go home," (3) the absurd closeness of all the geographical locations (Mount Doom being essentially visible from inside Minas Tirith), but on the whole it's the strongest of the trilogy.

11.  Garden State — This was that Zach Braff movie with the hip soundtrack that everyone went crazy about.  It left me listening to Frou Frou for several years, which really isn't such a bad thing.

12.  American Experience: LBJ — Lyndon Johnson created the modern American welfare state.  Whether this was because he was a wicked human being, or in order to make up for that fact, the documentary doesn't tell us.

13.  The Black Stallion — I saw this when I was very young, and it's difficult not to confuse it with Black Beauty in my head.  The latter is told from the perspective of the horse, I think, but this one is just about a boy's friendship with a horse.

14.  Dr. Strangelove — At the height of the Cold War, Stanley Kubrick made this horrifying parody of nuclear politics, in which an insane general attempts to set off the destruction of the world.  One thing to take away: if you value the purity of your essence, of your precious bodily fluids, then never drink Fluorinated water.

15.  Monsters, Inc. — Not having seen either of the Cars movies, this is probably my least favorite Pixar film.  Billy Crystal and John Goodman co-star as workers in a monster power factory which harvests the energy of children's fears by sneaking into their rooms at night.

16.  The Rock — Former Alcatraz inmate Sean Connery helps sneak Jack Nicholson (haha, I can't believe I wrote this; it's Nicholas Cage, not Jack Nicholson) into the prison so he can defuse a chemical bomb colonel Ed Harris is poised to launch on San Francisco.  Connery does a delightful job, and the film is fun to watch.

17.  A Perfect Murder — Gwenyth Paltrow has an affair with artist Viggo Mortensen, who is then recruited by her husband, the financially distressed Michael Douglas, to murder her for money.  Things do not go according to plan.

18.  Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) — Peter O'Toole stars in this musical remake about a schoolmaster's struggle to maintain discipline and rigorous academic standards in changing times.  He and his wife are beloved by (virtually) everyone.

19.  The Hobbit (1977) — Extremely faithful adaptation of the novel, including a terrifying, frog-like Gollum, huge noses all around, and creepy elves.  Much better than the Peter Jackson version, so far, and has the advantage of starring John Huston as the (unforgettable) voice of Gandalf.

20.  The Last Days of Disco — Whit Stillman's third film looks at the cruelty and degeneracy of New York social life for young adults at the end of the Disco Era.  You will dislike basically all of the characters, but possibly like the movie anyway.

21.  Shutter Island — Leonardo DiCaprio plays a crazy (or maybe not crazy?!?!?!?!) boston police officer with a patchy accent, on a visit to a prison for the insane.  The best part of the movie is recognizing Max von Sydow as the ex-Nazi psychiatrist; the worst is the pointless suspense and stupid ending.

05 July 2013

The False Ideal of the Green City

[This is taken from a reply to a comment on that bloated movie review I wrote for Fare Forward last summer.  The originals can be found here.]

...The question about the green city is an interesting one. I think the ideal of the green city is a compromise between ecological soundness and capitalism that we should really question. Anyway, in my analysis I was mainly going for layered sets of metaphors. The city is capitalism, is alienation from nature, is tyrannical government. Given these associations, all clearly supported in the movie, the the city's dissolution is much more profound. Imagine if The Lorax had ended with an eco-friendly city instead. That would have totally killed the movie, no? The capitalist would still reign, the citizens would be just as alienated from nature, it would just be an accident of the products they were consuming that they didn't devastate the surroundings. In that situation, the people benefit the least. Anyway, as for blaming Christianity, I think that's incorrect. The abuses of nature are much more compellingly traced to modern philosophical thought. Beginning in the 16th century with the emergence of a new humanism during the renaissance and the enlightenment, europeans thought of human nature as fundamentally discontinuous with the natural world. The natural world was meant to be battered and subjugated and made useful for human ends, which were rational and intentional and (in a non-religious sense) super-natural. This idea of man as the rational spirit at work to bend nature to his will has lingered in the popular consciousness of the west for some centuries now, and it's done a great deal of harm. But it is not fundamentally a Christian idea. It's a humanist idea. Christian thought has a strong tradition of seeing the continuity between human nature and the natural world and understanding that man is charged with the task of governing the natural world, which means respecting and caring for it according to what it is.

The Ethics of Privilege

[I wrote the following a few months ago for Fare Forward's Patheos blog.]

In light of Sarah Ngu’s recent post on privilege, I’d like to offer some rough thoughts on problems we face in defining privilege and distinguishing between the moral qualities of different sorts of privilege. I’m still working through the issue, so comments on the view I’m presenting would be appreciated.
1.  In Sarah’s post, she cites Andy Crouch’s definition of privilege as the enjoyment of benefits on the basis of someone else’s past creative power.
2.  By this definition, privilege includes every aspect of human life.  I breathe today because of the exercise of creative power by my parents in the past.  I use this computer because of the exercise of creative power of its manufacturer, of the people who built it in a factory somewhere, of scientists in universities who developed the techniques necessary to make complex instruments like this one possible.  Everything we do participates in this dependence, this reaping of benefits.
3.  Clearly the sense of the word “privilege” normally used in moral discussions is narrower than all that.  It makes little sense to attach the normal moral weight associated with privilege (generally, guilt) to my ability to eat or breathe or sleep or think about chestnuts.  Dependence and debt do not imply abuse or injustice.
4.  So how do we sift out the different moral strata of privilege?  Instead of settling with “those benefits that result from the past use of creative power by others,” I’d like to outline two progressively narrower descriptions of privilege which help convey the moral relevance of the concept.
5.  First, there’s the privilege which forms a habitual, invisible element of our daily way of existing.  The privilege of having decent roads, of having a postal system, of being able to trust that no one will murder you in the night, of finding fellow citizens affable and open to discourse or friendship, of expecting to be cared for by your mother and father, of expecting your children to care for you in your senility, etc.  These are privileges (whether some of them are also rights—that is, things we owe to each other as basic conditions of social order—I will bracket) that are not universally shared, but which form and make possible the way of living that many of us enjoy.    Privileges of this variety—let’s call them customary privileges, since they depend on the stable customs of a society—are good to have and to share, and they are generally expressions of a kind of social excellence.
6.  The moral quality of these customary privileges comes chiefly from the way they form our habits of thought and expectations about the world.  Someone who comes from a socially well-adjusted and virtuous background may be less inclined to understand how defects in other sectors of society cause difficulties.  The comfortably employed republican may have moral scorn for the obesity of the urban poor, not realizing the ways familial breakdown, community violence, anxiety and poverty conspire to make obesity more common.  Likewise the trendy bourgeois university student may have a patronizing contempt for that same population, imagining that their lack of educational privilege makes them incapable of rational judgment and in need of intervention from the state and its cronies to run their lives.  (Variants of these two errors abound.)  Privilege can shape our expectations and lead to delusional prejudices and bad judgments about unfamiliar ways of living.
7.  Note, though, that just as privilege in general, by Mr. Crouch’s definition, has no intrinsic moral quality to it, what we’ve called “customary privilege” is likewise morally neutral.  Sometimes it leads us into error, but this is only an accidental consequence of what might otherwise be a positive moral good.  To be raised in a community with stable homes, good friendships, the influence of extended family, reasonable prosperity, work, and education is indeed a great thing.  That familiarity with such a world would lead to confusion about the precise conditions and mechanics of a situation which defected from that ideal is no sin.  Imprudent intervention in or unjust condemnation of someone else’s life on the basis of ignorance is, however, morally questionable.
8.  We divided off “customary privilege” from privilege taken generally by limiting it to those benefits that form a habitual (and therefore largely invisible) element of our daily way of existing.  Thus there are many benefits received on the basis of past exercises of creative power that are not “customary”.  The difference between customary privilege and non-customary privilege is thus essentially determined by the subject who receives the benefits in question: whether he is aware of their contingency and recognizes their dependence on the work of others.
9.  However, we can divide privilege a second way, not on the basis of the person receiving benefits, but on the basis of the “creative power” by which the benefits are won.  In the subject that receives the benefits of privilege, the moral quality comes most obviously through the ways privilege shapes that person’s understanding of the world and the moral character it encourages in the individual and his actions toward others.  But on the part of the person exercising a power to create benefits, the morality rests not in the shaping of his consciousness but in the rectitude of the act itself.  Thus, depending on whether the original act or set of acts by which benefits are won is morally good or corrupt, we can divide privilege accordingly.  In particular, we can specify “unjust privilege” as benefits accrued from a past act or set of acts which are unjust or broadly immoral.
[10.  Here the phrase "creative power" used in our original definition proves to be quite dubious, since obviously many benefits are won by the use of power that is not creative at all.  (Those of us accustomed to "checking our privilege" probably cringed when we read Crouch's definition, since it assumes moral positivity in past actions that are frequently dubious or evil.) ]
11.  Unjust privileges seem to lack the broad moral neutrality of customary privileges and privilege in general, because it is possible for privilege derived from evil acts to perpetuate an acceptance of that evil, or to make the original injustice habitual and invisible.  Possible, but not necessary.  It is likewise possible for unjust privilege to result in a basically normal and morally neutral way of thinking and behaving, but one that still bears the consequences of past sin.  The great great grandchildren of a usurper king may be just and godly rulers, though their line lacks historical legitimacy.  This fact of history need not morally taint their personal acts.  They are not guilty for receiving the benefits of their ancestor’s crime.
12.  So again it seems that even privilege based on past acts that are morally evil does not necessarily implicate the beneficiaries in that guilt.
13.  We are left, then, with two ways of thinking about privilege, neither of which necessarily carries with it any degree of moral fault.  So how does moral fault enter into privilege in general?
14.  Privilege is the reception of benefits on the basis of someone else’s past (or continuing present) actions.  Privilege becomes morally problematic when the acceptance of these benefits participates in a systematic injustice or evil act which deprives someone else of what is due to them or is morally corrosive of the one benefitting.  This is to say, if in accepting the benefits of privilege one is depriving another person of what is rightly theirs, and perpetrating or perpetuating some act of violence against them.
15.  Aside from such situations, privilege is morally neutral, and becomes significant in the moral life of individuals only insofar as it shapes their understanding of things and ability to make sound prudential judgments.  However, privilege is not unique in creating bias or prejudice, since the lack of privilege likewise participates in the formation of our understanding of the world, and just as often for the worse.
16.  This is to say that it is not privilege as such that has any particular bearing on someone’s moral status or credibility, but their honesty, prudence, justice, and general moral rectitude.  With privilege or without it, the same things make one a good person or a bad person.  Privilege itself has no intrinsic moral status, but acquires moral relevance only by association with some other act.  We might compare privilege to a hammer, which is ordinarily a neutral tool, open to being used in a variety of ways, but when misused for malicious intent or stolen from someone becomes implicated in that evil.
17.  Thus the rejection of any intellectual position on the ground of the privilege of the one holding it is prima facie ridiculous and, worse, unjustly discriminatory.  We should be as unwilling to tolerate discrimination on the ground of privilege as discrimination because of the lack of privilege.
18.  And, finally, the assignment of guilt (or praise!) merely on the basis of whether someone has received the benefits of others’ past actions is likewise reprehensible and unjust.  Privilege does not impart guilt any more than disadvantage and oppression do.  Instead it is always injustice, imprudence, officiousness, intemperance, cowardice and pride that create guilt.  And these are qualities to be found across all strata of society, regardless of one’s privilege.

03 July 2013

Attempting to Follow the First Way

I.  A reader recently requested a response to some pretty bad objections to St. Thomas's first way (aka the "Argument from Motion").  Since I'd been planning on working through the five ways, but was really paralyzed by the difficulty of the task, I took the request as a prompt to get this one done with.  I should preface my remarks by admitting that when I started working through it (and for the past year or so) I had very little confidence that the first way actually proves God's existence.  However, I gave it my best, or at least seven so hours over a few days, and I find it, as outlined here (which is expanded greatly beyond the original Summa text, obviously) moderately compelling, though not absolutely (see [T] below).

II.  First, let's have the text in front of us.  

Respondeo dicendum quod Deum esse quinque viis probari potest. Prima autem et manifestior via est, quae sumitur ex parte motus. Certum est enim, et sensu constat, aliqua moveri in hoc mundo. Omne autem quod movetur, ab alio movetur. Nihil enim movetur, nisi secundum quod est in potentia ad illud ad quod movetur, movet autem aliquid secundum quod est actu. Movere enim nihil aliud est quam educere aliquid de potentia in actum, de potentia autem non potest aliquid reduci in actum, nisi per aliquod ens in actu, sicut calidum in actu, ut ignis, facit lignum, quod est calidum in potentia, esse actu calidum, et per hoc movet et alterat ipsum. Non autem est possibile ut idem sit simul in actu et potentia secundum idem, sed solum secundum diversa, quod enim est calidum in actu, non potest simul esse calidum in potentia, sed est simul frigidum in potentia. Impossibile est ergo quod, secundum idem et eodem modo, aliquid sit movens et motum, vel quod moveat seipsum. Omne ergo quod movetur, oportet ab alio moveri. Si ergo id a quo movetur, moveatur, oportet et ipsum ab alio moveri et illud ab alio. Hic autem non est procedere in infinitum, quia sic non esset aliquod primum movens; et per consequens nec aliquod aliud movens, quia moventia secunda non movent nisi per hoc quod sunt mota a primo movente, sicut baculus non movet nisi per hoc quod est motus a manu. Ergo necesse est devenire ad aliquod primum movens, quod a nullo movetur, et hoc omnes intelligunt Deum.
The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality toactuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.

II.  It cannot be stressed enough with commonly excerpted texts like ST Ia q.2 a.3 that Thomas is writing for "beginners in theology," that is, people who have already completed several years of graduate study in (Aristotelian) philosophy.  He doesn't explain a lot of his concepts in great depth, and sometimes leaves important premises undemonstrated, because he assumes that his readers already have a high degree of familiarity with them.  Most people who read ST Ia q.2 have no familiarity with these concepts and principles at all.  So we've got to do bit of preliminary legwork.  

III.  POTENCY / ACT : St. Thomas distinguishes between the potency or "potentiality" of a thing and its act or "actuality".  What does this mean, and how does he come by this distinction?  Suppose I love making things with apples (apple butter, apple sauce, apple pies, apple cakes, caramel apples, you name it).  When I bring home a sack of apples and set them down in my kitchen, I know that they may some day become sauce or pie, even though they aren't yet.  The apples are "in potency" to become pie, but in actuality, they aren't pie.  They're still just apples, and despite this "potency" they may never become pie.  I may, from forgetfulness or mere spite, decide to let them rot instead.  Things capable of changing are in potency to become different from what they are, presently, in act.  This is extremely common-sensical, and one would have to embrace a radically indeterminate view of the world or of change in order to get around it.  (Quantum Physics people sometimes take such a line, but the fact that the physics community has yet to give an account of what's going on in wave function collapse makes it difficult to take them seriously as philosophers.  Let alone the numerous obvious philosophical objections to a metaphysics of radical indeterminacy, which I won't get into here.)

IV.  So we have the distinction between act (what a thing is, actually, right now) and potency (what it can be made into or is capable of becoming, by whatever process).

V.  Now we define MOTION : Motion is simply any change from potency to act.  Motion is a specialized term for Aristotelians and Thomists.  It doesn't just mean "a change in place", it means any kind of change.  To Move, in the Aristotelian sense, is to realize some theretofore unrealized possibility for being or acting—to make what was possible, actual.  With those preliminary explanations out of the way, we can run through the argument.


The argument divides cleanly into two parts: first, a defense of the proposition that Whatever is moved is moved by another.  Second, a demonstration of the impossibility of an infinite chain of movers.  If we accept these two points, plus the minor premise (A), it follows that there must be an unmoved mover.  Let's look at the full argument in detail.

A. It is clear from experience that some things are in motion. (Pretty obvious.)

B. One thing can move another only insofar as the it (the mover) is in act. (I.e., non-existing things cannot be the cause of motion.)

C. Nothing can be moved unless it is in potency to whatever it's being moved toward.  (Since motion is defined above as a reduction from potency to act, this is pretty much tautological.)

D. A thing cannot be in potency and in act in the same respect at the same time.  (Since to be in potency to something is not yet to be that thing and to be in act is already to be that thing, this follows by the principle of non-contradiction.)

E. Therefore, nothing can, in the same respect at the same time be both mover and moved, i.e., nothing can move itself. (This follows cleanly from [D] and the definition of motion.)

F. Therefore, whatever is moved is moved by another. (This follows from E.  Note that thus far, the only really questionable premise is [B], which itself seems fairly commonsensical.)

G. Now, in any particular case, that which moves another thing is, in the act of moving another, either itself unmoved, or is moved.  (This is tautologous.)

H. However, since motion is the reduction from potency to act, if the mover itself changes in the process of moving another, we must say that it is also moved by another.

I.  Next, Aquinas says (without much further explanation) that in the absence of an unmoved mover we would have to postulate an infinite regress in the order of movers (A is actualized by B being actualized by C being actualized by D....).

J.  Now, if the infinite regress were temporally extended (like a series of dominos), so that A was actualized by B, which had earlier been actualized by C, etc., we would not have a problem.  Aquinas himself affirms the possibility of that sort of infinite regress later on in theSumma .  One need not postulate an absolute beginning for any sequential series of causes.  There's nothing irrational (setting aside empirical evidence to the contrary) about saying that things have been bouncing around in space for an eternity.

K.  So, what kind of infinite regress is Aquinas talking about here?  Let's look at a concrete example.  Suppose we have two big blocks of concrete floating through space.  A fast moving block hits a slow moving block.  As a result, the slow block speeds up and the fast block slows down.  In the first instance we would simply say that the first block moved the second.  But of course, the first block was likewise moved in the interaction (it slowed down).  So, as masters of newton's third law, we say that each object moved the other.  The slow one, by its inertia, conveyed an impulse to the fast one, and vice versa.  But let's focus in on the impulse itself.  We can think of the two blocks, at the point of their collision, as a single object, undergoing a change.  But obviously there's nothing intrinsic about two blocks placed next to each other that would lead to their springing apart a moment later (as these will).  In other words, if there's a reduction from potency to act in our object, we need to ask what is actualizing it.  What moves the blocks apart?

L.  Well, physics tells us that the transfer of impulses in the moment of the collision (which is not instantaneous, but let's focus on a single instant of it to keep things clean), is caused by the interactions of the electrons on the surfaces of the two blocks.  The Pauli exclusion principle, properly aligned orbitals, etc., lead to the distribution of a large-scale shift in electron clouds throughout both of the objects, and the qualities of this shift determine the elasticity of the collision.  Cool.  But let's stop at these electromagnetic interactions.  Let's focus in on a particular interaction between two electrons.  Based on my extremely limited amateur knowledge (forgive me!) the interaction can be described in either of two ways: as a feynman interaction involving the exchange of a force-carrying photon, or as the transmission of a change in the surrounding electromagnetic field, which transmits an impulse to the electron.  Either way, we've ended up with a quantized version of our original setup.  I.e., what's moving our composite two-block object is just another composite three-object system (electron, electron, field/boson).  And here we can repeat the process again.  An impulse is communicated from electron A to electron B, meaning that in some moment the two are both actualized.  So we take them as a single thing.  What causes this little electron interaction system?  What actualizes it?  Why does it behave this way?

M.  A brief aside.  Hopefully, we're starting to get a sense of the kind of regression Aquinas is interested in.  As already established, it isn't a regression of sequential changes; but it also (in case the reduction to electrons made it seem that way) isn't a regression to fundamental parts.  It's a reduction to motive principles, i.e. to the motive principle which leads a thing to change.

N.  Back to our electrons.  At this point when we ask "what moves the electrons/field/boson?" the inclination of the normal person would be to say either "the field" or "the laws of electromagnetism" (to which the field is going to have to be reduced at some point anyway).  But what *are* the laws of electromagnetism, anyway?  How do they (ostensibly) cause these concrete wave/particle things to change?  Are the laws of electromagnetism an independently existing reality, or a consistent feature of electromagnetic particles?  Let's assume we go with the latter (the former would lead us into weird subsistent-numerical-principles territory).  In this case, we have to say that particles actualize themselves, i.e. that they are the cause of their own particular way of acting, and that they elicit from themselves the properties observed in laboratories which are gathered in abstract under the name "laws of electromagnetism."  In other words, it seems that we have to say that there are some things that move (both transitively and intransitively) without being moved.

O.  But hold on, I thought we showed earlier that logically speaking, everything moved is moved by another, i.e., things just can't be the reason for their own actualization?  There must be a way of getting around this without admitting the existence of an unmoved mover.  Well, one option is to postulate another layer of interactions below the electrons we were talking about before.  But it seems clear that if we do that, we're just deferring the inevitable.  A second option is to create a closed explanatory loop.  But again, this kind of solution has been tried (at the very beginning, in our appeal to newton's third law), and when it is applied, the question of the principle of motion remains unanswered for the system as a whole.  Another option, and probably the most powerful remaining (also the most popular), is to deliberately draw a blank — to say that there is no motive principle.  Fields do not move themselves, and nothing else moves them.  They simply are that way.  

P.  There's a soothing nihilism to this last option, but it leaves a bizarre problem unsolved: what moves things to act when they do?  If they have natures, what actualizes those natures?  What motivates things to follow the "forces" and "laws" that we see consistently worked out on the smallest scales?  The question is not about the horizontal succession of movers, but the "vertical" succession: what orders things to these sorts of behaviors, these potentialities, these tendencies?  What gives the rule to nature, or bends nature to follow the rules we observe?  If these questions are to have any answer, it seems that we have to give in and accept the existence of an unmoved mover.


Q.  "Not so fast, Tommy boy! Suppose we go the pythagorean route, and postulate the existence of transcendental subsisting laws which order the world.  There's an unmoved mover for you.  How about that?  Let mathematical physics be our god."  At this point, Aquinas would be perfectly happy to accept some sort of quasi-pythagorean law-deity.  The task of winnowing down the precise attributes of this thing the existence of which we have just demonstrate is left to the next two dozen questions.  What sort of deity he proves it to be is a question that transcends the scope of this argument.

R.  "But you're saying there's some being that moves other things without itself changing.  Isn't that a contradiction?  Surely if something changes something else, it must itself change."  How does that follow exactly?  Oh wait, it doesn't.

S.  "But inertial motion requires no mover to explain it."  Actually, if we take an inertial object as our central illustration, the argument works out pretty much the same way.  An inertially moving object is either (1) perfectly inertial, in which case it isn't interacting with *anything* and there's no way of even saying that it's moving, because it's so totally isolated from the rest of the universe, in which case its "inertial motion" isn't really motion in any meaningful way, OR (2) imperfectly inertial, in which case its movement is detectable within some system, which means that we can take that system as a composite object in motion (in the technical sense outlined above), and pursue the line same line of thought as before.

T.  "But really, this is just an intellectual game.  You're insisting on creating a certain type of conceptual empty space, so that you can then demand that we fill it with God.  I refuse to acknowledge the necessity of this way of setting up the terms and concepts of the discussion."  Good objection!  But I'd like to hear a coherent alternative.  Then we could have a really interesting conversation.  As things stand, the only alternatives involve the denial of the reality of motion.  I.e., either things don't change and the appearance of change is an illusion cast by the mind in interpreting the world (i.e. parmenides/kant) or things don't change because when something ceases to be precisely what it was at a given moment, it ceases to exist altogether, and something new exists instead (Heraclitus and friends).  These are both, I confess, pretty awesome theories, and they're fun to think about, but they certainly can't be called reasonable theories, because what they defy is precisely the central rational habit of isolating and identifying principles.  But maybe there are alternative ways of undoing our argument that can't be reduced to these!  A world of possibilities awaits.

U.  Finally, one of the most common objections: "But the world doesn't need to have had a beginning.  How can you pretend to have demonstrated the existence of a prime mover if it's rationally indeterminable whether the world ever began to exist?"  Well, friend, actually if you read any of the above (granted, it's a little long), you would have learned that the "prime mover" argument has nothing to do with temporal succession at all.  Even if the world never had a beginning and had always existed, it would still hold just as well as it does.