There are many philosophies. As with scientific theories, only the best philosophies survive the test of time. We use Aristotelian-Scholasticism because we feel that it's not only the most accurate, but it's arguably the most successful and intellectually rigorous philosophy in history. This is important because we need a philosophy to be rigorous, consistent, and exacting to match the rigorous, exacting nature of science.
Aristotelian-Scholasticism has its origins in Ancient Greece with the non-religious philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; was further advanced during the era of the Roman Empire; and was eventually honed to a very high precision by the Scholastic philosophers of the High Middle Ages, most notably Thomas Aquinas.
Like Mathematics, it's firmly grounded in logic and the Principle of Identity. It continues to be a dominant philosophy in the 21st century. Aristotle’s philosophy was so successful that it debunked the polytheistic religion of ancient Greece. It’s useful because it comports with science, but its concepts are capable of transcending the physical universe that science observes. The part of philosophy that pertains to Being is called metaphysics.
WHERE DID EVERYTHING COME FROM?
Have you ever wondered how the Universe came to be? Where everything came from? Why the universe exists rather than nothing at all?
Our answer starts with an ancient debate among philosophers in ancient Greece regarding permanence and change. A philosopher called Parmenides held that there wasn’t change in the world because change would require being to arise out of nothing. Therefore, he denied the reality of change and saw the world as being permanent and unchanging.
Another ancient philosopher called Heraclitus held the opposite view: that there wasn’t any actual being but only an endless cycle of becoming. Obviously, neither view corresponds with our experience of the world where things both exist but change. These two views also contradict each other.
Aristotle resolved this dilemma by positing that being is comprised of both act (the way how a thing actually is now) and potency (the way how a thing could potentially be later). Therefore, being wasn’t either in act or in potency but was a combination of potency and act. Despite our vast advances of knowledge, Aristotle’s simple but groundbreaking idea continues to remain true today, especially when viewed through the lens of modern science.
HOW DOES POTENCY AND ACT INVOLVE THE QUESTION OF GOD?
Everything that we observe in the world is in motion in some form. Things are continually coming into existence, moving, changing, and aging. By motion, we aren't just referring to localized physical motion (e.g. a car moving from one location to another) but to everything that moves from potency to act (e.g. a new tree which comes into existence or an apple that changes from green to red).
Act refers to a thing that's in existence as it is at the moment in which it is being discussed. For example, if we're talking about a wood door that's in front of you, the door in act is the way how it is exactly at this moment. We're not talking about how it was a second earlier or a second later. This includes its position and the state of its material composition.
Potency [or potentiality], on the other hand, is an object’s capacity to come into existence or to change. It can refer to any number of changes including a change in physical position, physical state, chemical state, color, etc. Potency also limits the type of act that can occur. For example, an acorn has a potency to become an oak tree but not a mulberry bush. For a brief but more detailed discussion, please click Potency and Act.
Since everything that we observe exists yet also changes, we know that everything of our experience is comprised of both potency and act.
Now, interestingly, the cause of movement from potency to act is never found in the object that is undergoing the change. Rather, the cause is always found in something else. For example, a box resting on a table will remain at rest until something else causes it to move. Likewise, a spherical rubber ball will remain spherical until acted on by something else such as a bunsen burner. In this case, the burner gives energy to the ball's molecules which causes them to vibrate quicker, thus causing the ball to lose form and melt.
If you think about yourself, you didn’t cause yourself to come into existence: Rather, your parents were the main cause. Likewise, your parents only came into existence by the actions of their parents and so forth. Science doesn’t have a clear understanding of human evolution, but it appears that we can trace our ancestors back to sub-human species of animals and even further to simple life hundreds of millions of years ago and beyond. So everything looks to something else for the reason why it exists.
DON'T LIVING BEINGS MOVE THEMSELVES FROM POTENCY TO ACT?
In a certain sense, it's true that living beings move themselves from potency to act in the course of moving and eating. However, this appearance is deceptive for the purposes of our discussion. It's not true that living beings bring themselves into existence or that they created their powers of movement that enable them to move and eat. Both of these find their cause in something else. (For a more detailed discussion of this type of movement, please click Living Beings.)
So, whether it's inanimate objects or living beings, everything traces its existence to something else which existed before it. Therefore, if we ask ourselves where everything in the universe came from, we have two options: Either there is a chain of causes [each dependent on another for its existence] that extends into the past for infinity (e.g. an infinite regress) or there was something that always existed that placed everything else into motion.
INFINITE CHAIN OF DEPENDENT CAUSES
While the first option regarding the infinite chain of dependent causes might appear plausible, it fails as a valid option upon closer inspection. The problem with an infinite regression is that we never find a principle of motion in the series -- We only find causes that pass on their motion but nothing that actually creates the motion. We'll help demonstrate our point using a clock.
Suppose we have a clock with a linear set of gears in a series. Each gear looks to the prior gear for its motion. However, if there's not a principle of motion in the series [such as a battery or winding], none of the gears will ever move because gears don’t move themselves. Simply placing more gears in the middle or continuing to attach them to the beginning of the series will not cause any of the gears to move. Even if you have an infinite number of gears, none of the gears will ever move.
Why won't they move? Because we keep finding gears that pass on motion from other gears, but we never find a gear that began to turn on its own.
If you haven't yet grasped why the gears can't find the source of their motion in an infinite series, it's probably because you mistakenly assumed that the first gear visualized in your infinite series was already in motion. This is a mistake because the first gear can't initially be in motion. Visualize this same example again, but this time assume that the next gear that appears in your infinite series is not in motion to begin with. Do you see it now? Nothing moves, does it. If the first gear doesn't start to turn, none of the gears in the infinite series moves.
When people fail to grasp this example, it’s because they've automatically assumed that the theoretical “first” gear somehow and somewhere began to turn itself. But this is false because a gear can’t turn itself on its own.
THE SOURCE OF EXISTENCE
The same thing applies to being. All being of our experience is not a principle for its own being. Instead, everything came into existence from something else that came before it.
Since we've shown that an infinite series of subordinate causes doesn't explain the existence of the universe, our second option (above) must be true: There must be a principle of motion/existence which, itself, always existed in act. In short, this principle of existence must be uncaused.
Before we continue on to science, though, it's important to explain a few things that must be true for something to be uncaused. As we'll see, these attributes will show that a gear could never be uncaused.
Movement and causation can not be explained by the thing that is moved or caused. Rather, the explanation for a thing's existence is always found in something else that was already in existence before it.
When looking for the ultimate source for this existence, we can't resort to an infinite series of dependent causes because none of the beings in this series is a source of its own being. Therefore, there must be a first cause which, itself, has a principle of movement within itself: Something which has always been in act and is uncaused.
Do you grasp the concepts?
As you may have noticed, metaphysics, like science, is not easy for most people. If you're not familiar with the philosophical concepts of potency, act, and causation, you'll probably need to re-read this section several times on different days to better grasp the concepts. We invite you to continue reading, but we also recommend that you to go back later and re-read this section several times. This will be time well spent.
1 "Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction" by Edward Feser, Ph.D., pages 31-32, Editiones Scholasticae, 2014
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