Introduction to Classical Christian Metaphysics – Part 5

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 4 we introduced being and goodness. In part 5 we analyze ultimate being, or what Christians call God.

As metaphysics is the study of being, the question arises: what is ultimate being?  Aquinas reasoned that given any change in the world (a movement from potency to act), there must exist a being who is changeless, who is pure actuality with no potency.  Joseph Owens summarizes the argument:

Every sensible thing . . . has its being from something else. . . . Its nature, prior to the reception of being from an efficient cause, has no existence at all.  Its nature, accordingly, cannot produce its own being.  Its being is caused efficiently by an agent other than itself.  If that agent in turn exists through an act of being that is accidental and prior to its own nature, it will similarly depend upon another agent for its proper being.  It will be a caused cause, in the order of efficient causality.

The series of causes will have to continue.  Even an infinite regression of these caused causes, however, would not account for the least being in the world.  In every instance and in all the instances together there would be only nature that contained no being, nature that merely remained open to receive being from something else. There would be an infinite series of existential zeros. . . . This means that for any series of efficiently caused causes there is a first cause.  It is first in the sense that it does not have its being from anything else.

Thus Aquinas concludes that “it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.”

From God existing as pure actuality, reason leads us to several other attributes of God.  “Since being is the act of all acts and the perfection of all perfections, where it subsists it will be perfection in the highest degree. . . . It therefore contains within itself the perfections of all other things.”

From pure actuality and from the perfections deduced from observation of the world, we reason that God must be immutable, immaterial, eternal, intelligent, volitional, morally perfect, omniscient, omnipotent, simple, omnisapient, and so forth.  God is the greatest conceivable being.

With the conclusion of this 5-part series, we have introduced a handful of basic concepts from classical Christian metaphysics. Armed with act and potency, form and matter, the four causes, being and goodness, and, most importantly, God as ultimate being, we can now construct a foundation for Christian ethics. That is the task we take up in another blog post series.

  • sean

    Throughout this, you continue to claim that causes do not have to be caused by a conscious entity; something I agree with. It’s clear to most everyone, I think that the wind moving a feather in the breeze is not indicative of the wind’s consciousness. However, you have then gone on to claim that the first thing that happens, from which all other happenings occur, is both intelligent and volitional. I am happy for you that you are capable of this vague reasoning that “we reason.” However, I am not a part of your we. If you could perhaps, explain to me how you get from “this thing preceded other things” to “this thing is smart” I’d be very appreciative.

  • There are a lot of ways to answer that question, but here’s one approach. If God is ultimate being, then God must be conscious. Why? Because consciousness is metaphysically higher than unconsciousness. A volitional being is greater than a non-volitional being.

    It seems like complete nonsense to say that the highest conception of being, the being that contains the perfections of all creaturely attributes, is unconscious. That would be equivalent to saying that rocks are greater than human beings.

    There are other arguments that can be made from first cause to consciousness, but this is one that immediately comes to mind.

  • sean

    But why does this first mover necessarily have to have the property of “ultimate being”?

    Surely you wouldn’t argue that our ability to conceptualize this makes it so.

  • As the First Cause, it must be the source for all other kinds of being. In other words, nothing can come into existence without this First Cause being the ultimate efficient cause of it. In that sense, it is ultimate, because there is nothing behind it or greater than it. From it comes every thing that exists.

  • sean

    this explanation unnecessarily precludes the idea that simple can create complex. You are seeing it the other way; that for the complexity of our reality to exist, something even more complex must create it. This isn’t true. It is perfectly possible for simple things to turn into seemingly more complex things.

  • Marko Balogh

    If God is changeless, then he can’t have free will (free will requires that at one point multiple things are possible and at a later point only one occurs) God therefore could not decide his own nature–this rules out theism because a theistic god without choice must be equivalent to a deistic god

  • To me, it is nonsensical to say that consciousness ultimately comes from unconsciousness, that beauty ultimately comes from ugliness, that order ultimately comes from disorder, that rationality ultimately comes from irrationality, that intelligence ultimately comes from non-intelligence, that being ultimately comes from non-being, that power ultimately comes from non-power, that knowledge ultimately comes from ignorance, that wisdom ultimately comes from foolishness, and so on. All of the things I have listed first in the above must exist “before” the things I listed second. The things listed second are derivative, ontologically, from the things listed first.

    What exists in an effect must exist in some sense in the cause. This seems like a fundamental tenet of reasoning, and it is what we repeatedly see day in and day out in our everyday lives.

    In any case, it seems that you agree that there must be a First Cause, but you don’t understand how we arrive at additional attributes of this First Cause. Perhaps I will take that up in another blog post.

  • When Christians say God is changeless, they mean that his Nature is changeless. So when you say that God could not decide his own nature, I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Of course, God cannot decide his own nature. His nature has always been and will always be. I don’t see how free will has anything at all to do with deciding one’s nature.

  • sean

    Consciousness is a fuzzy thing. There is certainly a scale of cognitive ability and awareness that we can observe in animals. It isn’t a black and white issue, but rather, a gradient. We do happen to sit on the conscious side of this gradient as compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, but to suggest that consciousness comes from unconsciousness is, I think to create a false dichotomy. It isn’t that unconsciousness spawns consciousness. Rather it is that increasingly complex neural networks give rise to greater and greater levels of consciousness. I do not claim that our consciousness rose from unconsciousness, but from slightly lesser consciousness and cognitive capabilities. We could follow this backwards in time to increasingly simple reactions, such that you’d no longer consider them consciousness, but involuntary reactions to stimuli by simple molecules. (Evolution explains exactly how we can get consciousness, and it isn’t by unconsciousness, but by a slow increase in the gradient.

    The concepts of beauty and ugly are almost entirely subjective, so I don’t know where you’re going with this. I’d say that evolutionarily we are predisposed to find attractive certain things, and hideous others. It isn’t really a one after the other thing.

    What you’ve decided is order is also subjective, but even granting objectivity to this claim, we have plenty of examples of order from disorder. Tornadoes are a type of weather pattern that can pick up sleeping babies and gently place them on the ground, without waking them. That seems pretty orderly, but we know it’s just the way the winds happened to randomly interact.

    Rationality follows evolution as well. it’s not rational to pour acid down my throat because people who think it is die, and can’t share that opinion with others. So rationality comes from irrationality leading to bad stuff.

    The intelligence one is pretty well correlated with the conciseness one, so I’ll just reference that argument here.

    Being absolutely follows non-being. First, you didn’t exist, then you did; you “became” (the act of coming into being, past tense used here)

    Power does come from non-power. Once there were no people in charge of America, now there are. Not power can precede power.

    Knowledge comes from learning which is preceded by ignorance. Once upon a time, people didn’t know about the microscopic world. Now we understand that we’d all die without the bacteria in our bodies. IT’s why people used to think the appendix was a vestigial structure, but we know know it has some use. It’s wy at one point people didn’t know how to reliably produce fire, but now we do. How could you say that we have to know stuff before we can’t know stuff? That seems pretty silly to me.

    Wisdom absolutely comes from foolishness, that is what learning is all about. Wise people understand that sticking your hand in a fire is a bad idea, but they only know that because someone foolishly found out the hard way.

    And so on. I really could refute these all day. All of the things you listed first don’t have to come first, as proven by the many examples I just provided. I quite disagree that these things are necessarily derivative.

    I don’t know that I necessarily agree with the first cause either, I just chose not to point it out, but I can. You see, when we talk about observing cause and effect, we are referring to the current, Newtonian universe. The application stops there. I don’t know that the universe needed to be caused at all. Causality is a Newtonian concept, potentially inapplicable to whatever happened before this universe, as I’m sure you’ll agree. This goes more to what you correctly pointed out though, that I don’t really get how we get the additional attributes of this first move.

    P.S. You say this site is for answering the tough questions. I’m here to ask them. I think defending what you believe is something more people should realize we out to do.

  • Sean,
    You’ve refuted nothing because none of these metaphysical principles concern proximate effects and causes. All you’ve done is point out that once the universe, the laws of nature, and everything else is in place, lots of stuff happens. Well, I’m not disputing that or even talking about that.

    The metaphysical principles I’m talking about, especially having to do with the First Cause, address the question of where the universe, the laws governing it, and everything else that exists comes from ultimately. In order for anything at all to exist, there must exist a First Cause that has the attributes I mentioned.

    Again, you have skipped the most important step in the argument, the first step! You have effectively said, “OK, let’s say we start with the universe, the laws of physics, biological evolution. Given all those things, we can get to consciousness, knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, and pretty much everything else that exists.”

    Well, that’s a grand story you’ve concocted, but it isn’t even the question I’m discussing on the blog in these metaphysics posts. You seem to have missed the point entirely. Please go back and re-read the posts, one at a time, and then come back and present a metaphysical argument that addresses what I’ve said. If I’m going to answer your questions, you’re going to have to make a real attempt at understanding what I’m writing. Otherwise, we’re wasting time.

  • sean

    You were talking about that…

    All of these metaphysical principals affect proximate events and causes, indeed, the principle of potency only affects those, since you said it can’t apply to the first cause. You used a rubber ball a an example for demonstrating things, and talked about angels. I did read your series, but nowhere did it explain why the first cause gets to be god, and not merely a phenomena. The thing about things outside the universe, is that time as we know it was created at the beginning of the universe, so to speak of “first” doesn’t even necessarily work. That’s how non-intuitive outside the universe is, though, that to is a nonsensical concept. There isn’t really an “outside” or “beyond” the universe, since the universe encompasses all of space-time.

    In addition, yes. Yes.

    “OK, let’s say we start with the universe, the laws of physics,
    biological evolution. Given all those things, we can get to
    consciousness, knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, and pretty much
    everything else that exists.”

    Yes. That’s the point. We know those things exist, and they’ve been tested, demonstrated, and proven beyond reasonable doubt. We work within that framework to prove things because we use what we know to prove things. That said, you are correct in that these are only proximal forms of matter, as dictated by the law of conservation of energy.

    But what you’ve said about the fantastic nature of such a cause doesn’t really work. As I said, time was created with the beginning of the universe, so if you’d care to demonstrate how a first cause could cause something without time, (which is the measurement of the duration of events and the intervals between those events) I’m all ears. Causality simply breaks down at that point, I think.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea of a first cause, but I think you are exactly trying to give the kalam cosmological argument here, which is explaining the nature of the beginning of the universe through the refutation of the idea of an infinite series; refuted in this case, by positing god.

    In addition. Your idea of something existing without matter is gibberish. You claim angels are form without matter, but form describe the order of matter. It would be like explaining that you have a strawberry cake because you have the mold for it. You need the cake batter (matter) too.

    And’ you’re still precluding the idea that the simple can give rise to the complex. You feel that though it can happen, it cannot ultimately happen. I don’t see why this is so. It certainly doesn’t come as an extension of the idea that this is how our universe works internally, and must therefore work externally.

    You want a metaphysical argument, I’ve got one. The only type of being that’s been proven is material; energy and matter. All of these other types of being describe the relationship between energy and matter. They unto themselves are not things. Since energy and matter were created with the beginning of the universe, a being of intelligence and consciousness cannot have existed except as a result of the beginning of the universe.

  • “The only type of being that’s been proven is material; energy and matter. ”

    So the laws of mathematics, laws of logic, truth, morality, mental states, consciousness, intentionality, all of these things are reducible to energy and matter?

    If that’s what you really believe, then we might as well end our conversation. You presuppose the existence of all of these things, yet your metaphysical view claims they don’t exist!!

    What’s worse, your thoughts about matter and energy are actually about nothing, because matter and energy can’t be about anything. Only non-material thoughts can be about anything, so that your metaphysical view undermines your ability to say anything about anything else.

    Bottom line: if you are going to take metaphysical naturalism seriously as your metaphysical view of choice, then you need to quit borrowing metaphysical resources from other worldviews to make your arguments. I want you to make an argument using only matter and energy (which is impossible). No more stealing resources from my worldview to keep your sinking ship afloat.

    P.S. You might want to read Alex Rosenberg’s book called The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.

  • sean

    There are two different types of being here. You correctly point out that not believing in math is dumb. I should have better explained myself. These abstract concepts also exist, but the abstract is outside of time and reality. It is a different type of existance, one without the ability to do, to perform an action. If God is going to be the cause of the universe, I don’t see how this type of immaterial and abstract existance can get him there.

    The laws of logic are indeed an excellent example of this other type of existance. Their existance does tranced our universe, but I wasn’t looking at that type of existance, since, as an immateral abstract, it has no ability to act, no causal power. The abstract isn’t able to effect the material. (I did mean effect. For anyone who doesn’t know, effect can mean cause/bring about.) Nor can it affect it. It can describe it; you can have two rocks, but this is not what causes the rocks to exist, nor does it affect the way they exist. That would make no sense. The fact that the absract concept of things exists does not mean that those things can or do happen. For example, I can imagine that you never existed, that abstract concept exists. But we both can see how this is fails to affect or effect reality. It can only potentially be used to describe reality, if the two happen to agree. For example the concept of the Bible as a book and actual copies of said book both exist. I hope you can see how a God that does not materially exist has no ability to do. He cannot intend and he cannot manifest in the flesh as Jesus. The immaterial cannot change. Therefore, what you describe as God’s nature does exist in the abstract, as an idea. But that does not make God exist. This is where your metaphysics fails. Your first cause cannot have these poperties, as these properties you attribute to God, like the ability to conciously decide to create the universe, are not properties of the immaterial.

  • Why is it that abstract concepts can exist outside time and matter, but God cannot? You have given no reason for me to accept this claim. In fact, once you have admitted that abstract concepts transcend time and matter, you have all but admitted that the Christian God could indeed exist.

    The difference between abstract concepts and God is that God is the most concrete thing that exists! There is nothing more concrete than God because God is causing everything that exists, right now, to exist. God is the most real being that exists. Again, he is the First Cause, not in the order of time, but in the order of being.

    This is NOT the kalam cosmological argument. This argument is saying that if anything exists right now, then there must exist a being whose very nature is to exist. Since that being is the cause of everything else, then that being must have all the powers that the effects have. A cause can only give what it has to its effect.

  • sean

    Again, The reason abstracts get to exist outside of nature is the way they are. Those properties do not include effecting the physical world. That is why the Christian god cannot exist in the same way as these other abstracts. You claim that he effects and affects the universe. Abstracts merely have the potential to describe the universe. That is why my admission of abstracts does no result in an admission of the Christian god.

    I think you’re confusing your terms here. Philosophy classifies two categories; concrete and abstract. If god is concrete, he certainly cannot fall in the category of abstract, meaning his existence cannot be had outside of our universe. The only things with causal powers are physical things, which are incapable of transcending the universe.

  • I am not aware that any philosopher has ever said that abstract means “existing outside our universe.” Abstract concepts exist in minds, and if there is a Mind that transcends our universe, then abstract concepts exist both in our universe and beyond.

    In fact, if we have good reason to believe that abstracts such as the laws of mathematics and logic transcend time and space, then we have good evidence to believe that there exists a Mind that transcends time and space. It would be ludicrous to say that 3+4=7 is only true if human beings are around to think it.

    In addition, when you say that only physical things have causal powers, how can you possibly know that? Where is your evidence for that statement? I see immaterial human minds causing all sorts of things to happen.

    My 5-part series of posts on Christian metaphysics presented a strong case for the existence of God as the First Cause, and you seemed perfectly happy with all of the posts, until I mentioned God, whereupon you proclaimed without any evidence, arguments, or reasoning, that God can’t be the First Cause because God can’t cause anything to happen unless he is physical.

    Honestly, it looks an awful lot like special pleading on your part. You don’t want God to exist, for some reason, so you balk when the metaphysical arguments inexorably lead you to his existence.

  • sean

    It isn’t that I don’t want God to exist, it’s that I don’t think he does. Whether or not I want it to be raining outside right now, I don’t believe it is based on that. I believe or disbelieve in the rain outside based on the evidence. All I’m saying is your evidence for minds that transcend reality isn’t backed up by the evidence. Every single instance of a mind we’ve seen has been attached to a brain. Alter the brain, alter the mind. The brain goes away, so does the mind.

    The reason I was happy until you mentioned god was that you didn’t claim anything until then. You were just setting up your argument. There wasn’t anything to refute. I’m sorry that you made your post in such a way that you didn’t say anything wrong until then. That’s not my fault. I’m only pointing out where your arguments fail. And, I actually did have a problem in your fourth post. I reject your idea of form without matter, god or not. I did so before you brought god into the picture as the prime mover. Your argument for god as the first mover is predicated on this idea that form (you asserted that thinking angels and god exist and have minds, yet you have not explained how minds are not tied to the physical) exists without matter. You still haven’t explained how that’s so.

    If you could convince me that minds are not tied to the material world I’d be much more accepting of your claims.

  • Why would minds be tied to the material world? It seems obvious to the vast majority of people who believe in the supernatural (most surveys indicate greater than 95% of all human beings) that minds do exist outside our material world.

    You are in a tiny minority position of people who don’t believe that, so it seems that the burden is on you to show why minds must be reducible to matter.

  • sean

    Incorrect. I do not have the burden of proof. You are making a positive claim that minds are not tied to the material. All I’m saying is that this has not been demonstrated. You make the positive claim, you provide the proof.

    In case you plan on trying to flip this bit on me, I’ll give an analogy. There is a jar of candy pieces in it. Each piece is a whole piece. Now, there is either an even number of pieces or an odd number of pieces. By claiming that minds exist separate from the physical world, you are claiming there is an odd number of pieces. If I say I do not believe there is an odd number, it doesn’t mean I think the number is even. All it means is that I want you to prove there’s an odd amount before I’ll believe you. All I want is for you to prove minds exist apart from matter.

    If you think that argumentum ad populum is not a fallacy, you’re so wrong. The burden of proof is on the person making the positive claim, not denying it. If I say vikings wore horns on their helmets, it’s my job to cite evidence. (As it happens, most people believe this to be true, but it’s entirely unsubstantiated. We have no reason to believe the vikings wore horns on their helmets. That idea was the brainchild of Wagner, the opera writer.) You, or someone else I suppose, must explain how a mind can be non-material.

    Also, if you’re going to say that it’s obvious to people who believe the supernatural, that’s a sampling bias right there. 100% of atheists don’t believe a god exists. Why then, do you? Do you see why that’s wrong?

  • Lucian Ciocoiu

    Hi Sean,
    Wasn’t this point (that the primary cause cannot be matter) already proved by Aristotle in Physics II, 7 and 8?

  • But you are also making claims: logic and math transcend our universe. Evidence? All we have is minds inside this universe making a metaphysical claim that some “things” like goodness, logic, math transcend our universe. Where’s the evidence that this is true?