Three First Causes I Don’t Pray To

Just give me a lever and a place outside of material existence to stand…

This post is part of a series on Aquinas, Aristotle, and Edward Feser’s explanation of them both.

I said in my first post on Edward Feser’s book that I have deep Aristotelian sympathies.  The four causes seem like a coherent way of describing the world, even if I’m not confident they’re the territory, not just an approximated map.  But if I’m willing to give a little ground there, how do I avoid believing in a First Mover?

That was the question the Dominans asked me, when I was discussing Feser’s book with them this past weekend.  Well, to be honest, I think an Aristotelian First Cause, that holds everything in the universe in existence, is a plausible hypothesis.  The trouble is, Feser and Aquinas label that cause ‘God’ awfully fast, but that word is linked to a whole mess of other qualities that are not necessarily true of a being whose essence is existence.

Feser didn’t spend much time showing a logical connection between the First Mover and a personal God that has any particular stake in humankind.  He does a little with Aquinas’s Fourth Way showing the First Mover has all perfections fully, and I’ll come back to that point in a later post.  A lot of Feser’s argument, once he lays out Aristotelian metaphysics, is that the god of Christianity looks like the best match for this being.  I’m not going to make a rigorous study of relative probability, but I’m going to give a couple of examples of things that might be able to play the role of First Mover, without looking anything like a deity.

1. The big equation

From Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia:

If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future; and although nobody can be so clever as to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.

I take what is apparently a very Platonist position on math.  I don’t treat it as the relationships that humans make between concepts we abstract from day to day life.  I don’t think I get the concept of ‘two-ness’ from seeing two apples, and then two people, and then two houses and abstracting away from the objects to see what they have in common.

I think of mathematical truths existing prior to human cognition and abstraction.  The relationship goes the other way.  The apples and the people and the houses are all similar insofar as they share in the form of two-ness, which exists independently of material things to exist in pairs or human minds to think about them.

So, although I can’t do the metaphysics rigorously, it seems plausible that the equations that govern our world have some kind of independent existence that don’t depend on any Prime Mover.  And if those relationships are defined in sufficient detail, the rulebook is essentially a spanning set for the entire universe — everything else logically follows from composing these rules, so, once the math exists, everything else follows.

I’ll note one problem with this idea right now: it might be that you need some parameters to go with these equations, to set a starting value.  I might have to come up with a cause for those parameters, but it might also be the case that the equations are only satisfied by one set of values, in which case, their cause — like everything else — is only contingent on the equations.


2. All of space-time

Let me give another possible example.  Aquinas’s writings (as summarized by Feser) place God outside of time and us in it.  From moment to moment, Aquinas’s god sustains the universe in existence.  I’m kinda wondering if I can categorize the entire universe as one composite being.

There are at least three dimensions, and I can define points in the universe by setting values for each of these three coordinates (provided I’ve stuck an origin somewhere).  But time can be treated as an additional, non-spatial dimension.  Just as a cube is the composition of an infinite number of 2D squares, the space-time continuum is the composition of all states our universe has ever been in and will ever be in.

This composite exists outside of time, and therefore does not change.  Absent change (or motion) there’s no need for a first mover.  So possibly, what I’ve just talked myself into is the idea that this space-time object is really real, which seems plausible, if not provable.


3. Look, my understanding of M-theory is impoverished

An illustration of quantum foam, apparently

Possibly wrapped up in those 11-dimensions are objects/beings that don’t seem to depend on a First Mover in ways similar to ideas one and two above, but it’s been a while since I read Alice in Quantumland or Flatterland, so my intuitions are rusty.

But the reason I want to bring this up at all is because we think of Quantum as weird or counter-intuitive when, as Yudkowsky points out, quantum is, as far as we can tell, that which is, and it’s not quantum mechanics’s fault that our intuitions are flat out wrong.

I think you can still make most of Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s arguments in the face of things like particles and antiparticles coming spontaneously into existence or all electrons actually being a single time-traveling electron, but I’m not sure.  If there are links to neo-Thomists who get into this, I’d be very interested to see them.


Long story short, even if I concede there needs to be some being that is pure Act and can unite essences with existence at every moment in time, that’s a long way from thinking that Act is an entity I should worship or could have any relationship with at all.  Full disclosure, this isn’t my true rejection; I’m not confident enough in Aristotle’s metaphysics or their correspondence to reality that, if the options I’ve outlined above were off the table, I’d become a deist.

This post is part of a series on Aquinas, Aristotle, and Edward Feser’s explanation of them both.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

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  • butterfly5906

    Do you believe we have free will? If so, how do you reconcile that with the Tom Stoppard quote? Theoretically, we could predict the movement of all of the atoms in our brains, and the behavior of our neurons and thus all of our choices, but that seems to negate free will. (I ask because I’m trying to find the answer for myself, and the best I can come up with is “I don’t understand quantum mechanics- so maybe it’s something to do with that” which is an absolutely awful explanation.) Thanks!

    • Casey

      The canonical answer to that is in Bohr’s principle of complementarity, which, as I understand it, states that there are certain pairs of properties of an object (like position/momentum, energy/time, or wave/particle) whose simultaneous physical manifestations are mutually exclusive, so that when one of the pairs of properties is being expressed, the other, in some sense, does not exist at all. I like the example of the letter “y” – its consonant and vowel properties are complementary in the same way as the wave/particle natures of light. So it’s not the conclusion Tom Stoppard’s hypothesis that’s false, it’s the premise. We can never have all the information on the initial state of the universe, so we can’t predict its future behavior with certainty, only probabilities. We can’t do what Tom Stoppard asks – stop every atom and measure its position and velocity – because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: if we measure the position with full accuracy, the velocity will become maximally uncertain.

      There’s a great quote from Heisenberg describing the situation:
      “Using the sharp formulation of the law of causality, `If we know the present exactly, we can predict the future,’ it is not the conclusion but rather the presupposition that is false. In principle, we can not know the present in full. Therefore, all observation is a selection from a complete domain of possibilities. Since the statistical character of the quantum theory is so tightly bound to the uncertainty of all observation, one could be led to the supposition that hidden behind the sense-perceptible, statistical world there is a `real world’ in which causal law is valid. But we would like to say explicitly, such speculations appear to us unfruitful and senseless. Physics should only describe the formal relationship between observations. One can truly characterize the situation in the following way: In as much as all experiments are subject to the laws of quantum mechanics, through quantum mechanics the invalidity of the law of causation is definitively established.” -W. Heisenberg, Zeit. fur Phys. 43, 172 (1927).

    • Ray

      Before the other commenters get too far off in the weeds of trying to find free will in the quantum, I should point out that the majority of philosophers (at least according to are compatibilists (, which is to say that they believe the most useful formulations of free will have nothing whatever to do with indeterminism.

      Really if you think about it, having your actions be entirely free of causation is the same as acting for no reason whatsoever. So if that’s what you mean by free will, it also precludes systematically acting in ways that will satisfy ones own desires and advance one’s own values. My general feeling is that the definition of free will people use in practice is much closer to the compatibilist definition (doing what you want) than the libertarian definition (doing something completely arbitrary) even if the average person would supply something closer to the libertarian definition when asked to define free will in the abstract.

      • leahlibresco

        Yes, this! I’m expanding on this idea tomorrow, but if free will means that no physically possible action is excluded from possibility, any kind of personal identity that persists through time must be incoherent.

      • Danie A. Duran

        “Really if you think about it, having your actions be entirely free of causation is the same as acting for no reason whatsoever.”
        That’s the standard caricature of libertarian free-will. No thoughtful, careful thinker identifies free-will with randomness. What they will typically say is something like:
        1-you apprehend the advantages and disadvantages of doing A or B prior to making a choice.

        2-you *decide* to focus on some advantages or disadvantages of a given action (say, a serial killer will focus on the thrill he will get from torturing women and* will choose* to ignore the pain he will inflict and the risk of being captured, for example).

        3-you choose (you’re the causa sui )which action to take.

        Understanding advantages or disadvantages prior to making a choice and being the cause of some actions is very different from the “without cause” and with “no reason” definition of libertarian free-will you gave.

        • Ray

          “That’s the standard caricature of libertarian free-will.”
          The standard caricature differs from your own view only in that it has been formalized while your view remains ambiguous by defining the philosophically contentious “free will” in terms of other philosophically contentious concepts. Examples include “you,” which may or may not be referring to the self as something distinct from the body, “choice” — isn’t that pretty much what we’re trying to define in the first place? and “causa sui”(just because it’s in Latin doesn’t mean it’s well defined.) Suppose that the first, and every subsequent choice I make is caused by some past state of my self. Does this count as self caused? If so, your definition may be taken to be Compatibilist, because nothing in this construction implies that the past state of the self was not caused by something external to the self.

          “No thoughtful, careful thinker identifies free-will with randomness.”

          Ever heard of the free will theorem?×7719049737074/fulltext.pdf
          This paper defines free will precisely in terms of randomness. I don’t know much about Kochen, but Conway is most definitely a careful thinker.

          • Daniel A. Duran

            “The standard caricature differs from your own view only in that it has been formalized..”
            If the debate on free-will has been formalized then it is less excuse for you to distort the position on libertarian free-will ‘as acting without cause or reason.’
            “while your view remains ambiguous by defining the philosophically contentious “free will” in terms of other philosophically contentious concepts.”
            The idea of you choosing or A or B after deliberation is contentious concept! ROFL.
            “Examples include “you,” which may or may not be referring to the self as something distinct from the body, “choice” — isn’t that pretty much what we’re trying to define in the first place? and “causa sui”(just because it’s in Latin doesn’t mean it’s well defined.)”
            Don’t tie yourself in knots over these terms; I am using them in mundane, ordinary ways. Causa sui simply means you’re the cause of an action, It’s not hard to hit search in Google for a definition.
            “Suppose that the *first*, and every subsequent choice I make is caused by *some past state of my self*. Does this count as self caused?”
            How can the *first* choice be caused by some past state of myself? Is that even coherent?
            “If so, your definition may be taken to be Compatibilist,”
            I don’t think you read my post.
            “Ever heard of the free will theorem?×7719049737074/fulltext.pdf
            This paper defines free will precisely in terms of randomness. I don’t know much about Kochen, but Conway is most definitely a careful thinker.”
            And you can define free-will in terms of “freedom from coercion,” “freedom from morality” and “freedom from mom.”
            I wouldn’t care less how they define free-will, I’m talking of libertarian free-will and no thoughtful free-will proponent in that vein will identify it with randomness. Next time: READ AND THINK ABOUT THE COMMENTS BEFORE REPLYING.

  • Ray

    I’m not sure the concept of “pure act” or “neccesary being” is even a natural extension of the rest of Aristotle’s philosophy. Both seem like stranded fragments of constructions that make a lot more sense (“A is neccesary in order to actualize condition B” or “C is Actually (as opposed to potentially) B.”)

    I suppose you might have a proposition that is a necessary precondition for the truth of every other proposition, but it’s hard to imagine what that could be aside from a meaningless tautology along the lines of “P or not P.” figuring out what “C is pure act” is supposed to mean seems even more hopeless. You definitely can’t say it means all statements of the form “C is actually D” are true, because you would arrive at a contradiction if you ever allowed C to actually both be D and D’, where D and D’ are mutually exclusive possibilities. In any event both constructions appear to be abuses of language.

  • Adam Lee

    I’ve never understood the cosmological argument either. Even if I grant that the universe has a first cause, it doesn’t follow by any conceivable leap of logic that that cause is an intelligent being, that it still exists, that it’s omnipotent, that it’s benevolent, that it’s aware of humans’ existence, that it answers prayers, or that it does any of the other stuff attributed to traditional conceptions of God. (I do, however, always feel amusement at the idea that our universe is a simulation running on an alien supercomputer, and the First Cause is an underpaid grad student…)

  • Brian Green

    Just my quick two cents… Don’t get your theology and metaphysics reversed. Catholicism loves Aristotle, but it loves Jesus more.

    “even if I concede there needs to be some being that is pure Act and can unite essences with existence at every moment in time, that’s a long way from thinking that Act is an entity I should worship or could have any relationship with at all.”

    Aristotle is being used as a hermeneutic for understanding Judeo-Christian theology here. The fact that the fit is very close can be compelling, if you are already a Christian, for acceptance of Aristotelianism. The fact that God names himself “I am” back in Exodus, centuries before Aristotle lived, helps out.

    But coming at it from the opposite direction will not get you the same result, as you perfectly well note. Instead you get a deity with no interest in humanity or the universe because it just contemplates perfection (itself) all the time. Very Aristotelian, very boring.

    There are other metaphysical lenses through which to interpret Christianity, such as Platonism or Whiteheadian process metaphysics, but the point is that these lenses are used after the fact and are interpretive. You have to start with your model of God, then try to figure it out, and that applies to atheists too, with whatever they think God to be (or not). The reverse will get you a different result, of course.

    Last thing, you said: “…Act is an entity…” I know it’s hard to speak otherwise, but just remember, Act is not an entity. :)

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  • The Ubiquitous

    As per the thoughts of Mike Flynn, there’s a kind of superstition that once you admit the final cause, God pops out at one end. This is not the case.

    Many people think admission of telos is automatically an admission of God. Since they already do not believe in God, they are obligated to reject telos. But Aristotle never reasoned from telos to God (as he did from motion/change to God). Thomas Aquinas did so, but he thought getting from telos to God was difficult reasoning, while the existence of telos itself was self-evident.

    Just so, if I remember correctly, Feser repeatedly asserts that he’s making the foot-in-the-door case for common-sense causality and against the tissue-paper thin trolling of the New Atheists. His point isn’t to lay out the complicated reasoning that Aquinas shows — even for Aquinas, that took a book. And the Five Ways do not prove God-as-person, nor do they set out to. They freely admit that they are only proving the attributes of God in whom we believe already. (Deism is not atheism, you know.)

    We freely admit that who we believe in is a hidden God, but belief in Him is far from unreasonable, despite what the New Atheists say, and it is here that Feser strikes. That is why his book is subtitled not, “proof of the God of classical theism through the Four Causes and Five Ways,” but “a refutation of the New Atheism.” We are not fogged in. We are leaning into the harbor, gripping at a rope and one foot on the pier; God is just on the cusp of the horizon, and all creation points in his direction. It is not, could not be, and I believe God has ordained that it should not be the one thing a rigorist requires: an absolute proof to which we are bound. He is not the idle fancy of a dilettante as the Demiurge was ever; the engineer, grasping but not gripping, has no use for Being Incarnate. Such belief is a wager for the open-hearted, immensely satisfying to a healthy mind.

    With Feser as with Aquinas, you can’t fairly call him out on failing at what he does not set out to do.

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  • deiseach

    Leave it to the mathematically weak (yours truly) to pick up on the playwright: “the formula must exist just as if one could.”

    How does Stoppard (or his character) get to “must” from “could”? That’s the question I think we’re all getting at, when talking about a First Cause or Final Mover. I think someone could accept a hypothetical Final Mover that could exist, but saying that It/He/They must exist. It seems to me to be swiping St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument for the existence of God (if we can conceive of that which is most perfect, than which nothing more perfect can exist, then it must exist) and a lot of people have difficulty with that one, so why – even if you could imagine such a formula – does it have to exist?

  • Gilbert

    This time it actually like to make a comment on the “not my true rejection” part. It sounds like you are “willing to give a little ground” on Aristotolo-Thomistic metaphysics, but if it turns out that really implies a God (even of the deist variety) you would want to take that ground back. This is rational iff you are more sure of there being no God than of Aristotolo-Thomistic metaphysics being a good map.

    But then I would want to know where that surety comes from. So far you have told us you don’t believe in God simply because of lack of evidence. And that is certainly a respectable reason, but if it is the only or even main one it isn’t compatible with using him as a reduction against anything. So do you have positive evidence against even a deist God you haven’t told us about?

  • Gilbert

    Looking at your alternatives I don’t think they make plausible first causes.

    If mathematical objects exist necessarily, then so might the big equation for our universe. But then so would loads of equations for loads of other universes. So unless you want to claim every logically consistent universe exists you would need an additional necessity for this particular equation to actually govern the real universe. That already would make it more like a metaphysical principle than an mathematical tautology. But it goes further than that: you also would want everyday objects to actually exist. To bestow existence on trees would make the principle relate to them and not just to the universe they are part of. But that would mean forms would exist in the principle apart from any instantiation making it analogous to an intellect. Also it probably needs goal-directedness to impart final causes. And if it has anything to do with morals it will be intrinsically relational to persons. I’ll agree Feser gives this a bit of a short shift and nobody will fix that in a comment but the basic claim is that if you flesh out all the properties such a principle would have to have to fulfill its role in the framework it looks an awful lot like a loving but otherwise deist God.

    As for all of space-time, OK go ahead and classify the universe as a composite being. But then you have a being with a very complex form. Conceivably the form could be different if for example it had one neutron less or the elementary charge was a ppm larger or whatever. I’m not making a fine-tuning argument here, it is quite irrelevant if those universes would host anything interesting, it’s quite sufficient for them to be theoretically possible. So now you need an explanation why this particular space-time is cojoined with an act of existence and you are back to option 1.

    And option 3 isn’t an option at all, in Yudkowsky-speak it’s a fully general counter-argument. Some stuff almost nobody understands may theoretically provide an out. But then some thing we don’t understand may theoretically disprove objective morality or prove that racism isn’t so bad after all. It’s basically an out from any conclusion you might draw from anything.

    • Alex

      “it’s quite sufficient for them to be theoretically possible”

      I’m curious as to why you think they are theoretically possible.
      The existence of solutions to the equation
      x^5+y^5=z^5 (x,y,z all integers)
      seems plausible at first glance but they do not in fact exist.

  • Danie A. Duran

    I may be stating the obvious but if you think:

    1-mathematical truths are independent of our minds. “I think of mathematical truths existing prior to human cognition and abstraction.”

    2-mathematical truths are immaterial. “The apples and the people and the houses are all similar insofar as they share in the form of two-ness, which exists independently of material things to exist…”
    What keeps you from concluding that:

    3-Mathematical truths depend on an immaterial mind apart from us.

  • Daniel A. Duran

    I keep forgetting to fix the misspelling in the user-name block, ha, ha.

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  • Emmanuel

    Perhaps you should read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In it he constructs an epistemology which distinguishes the content of experience from the mode of experience. In the end he lays down a serious critique of the prime mover/cosmological argument.

    “I think of mathematical truths existing prior to human cognition and abstraction. The relationship goes the other way. The apples and the people and the houses are all similar insofar as they share in the form of two-ness, which exists independently of material things to exist in pairs or human minds to think about them.” I think you should read Gottlob Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic and read up on logicisim, formalism, and intuitionist (mathematics). The problem with mathematical truth is that it is teased out of a set of axioms (mathematical and logical) which may not bear any resemblance to what we experience in reality. Given the ways we have to undertand mathematical knowledge (logicism, formalism, etc.) what does it mean for it to exist prior to our cognition?

  • Joe

    It seems that in your first example you are ignoring the problem of volition. Im not sure if math concepts can produce and maintain a material universe. For instance 3 and 1 stand alone, it takes an intelligence to but the plus sign between them to make 4. It only seems like math has fecundity because we are acting on them willfully with our intelligence. But even if you had an infinite regress for numbers perpetually copulating and producing larger and more complex formulas I don’t see how they could ever produce anything material. But I could be way out of my depth, I’m not a math guy.

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  • Timothy

    It is not necessary to link Aristotle’s Prime Mover with Aquinas’ God. Aquinas himself recognizes this, and contents himself with working out the divine attributes in the First Part of his Summa. It is because he believes in the God as revealed by the Roman Church, whose attributes are often the same as those worked out about the Prime Mover, that he believes they are identical; for as the Dumb Ox might say, what reason properly deduces can never be in conflict with what divine revelation teaches.

  • Stephen P. Schaefer

    Although it is proposed that these are not first causes to which one might pray, I don’t see any argument: why not?

    Concerning the “Big Equation”: the universe is not the uniquely necessary only equation, because there are any number of internally consistent finite mathematical systems. The simplest of mathematical universes are not self-aware (e.g., the system consisting only of 0 and 1 and the four operations that can be defined over them). Within itself, however, it is a universe: it is everything that is. You may have an intuition that it isn’t “real” because it is impalpable, insensible – but remember that our own universe consists entirely of impalpable, insensible components: it takes at least five near-simultaneous photons to stimulate a human visual receptor, and that signal is likely to be lost in the noise of our neural system – close your eyes and see the noise. As Ms. Libresco remindes us, the impalpable “quantum is … that which is”. The current technological trajectory seems headed toward a realization of a finite, essentially mathematical model that it would be difficult to deny is self aware (e.g., could easily pass a Turing test – and more).

    By comparison, that would still be tiny equation. Remember that the “Big Equation” would be the equation that describes everything *you* are and everything that everyone you love is and everything that every human being is, including everything that the incarnate Jesus is and was – and perhaps it further describes other universes inaccessible from this one. And the mystery of the incarnation would be that the equation would be perfectly mapped onto the incarnate Jesus – and why not? Have you ever explored a fractal? How could I not pray to such an equation, to love such an equation, the equation that exquisitely describes every proton in every carbon atom in every molecule in every cell in every ridge of my wife’s fingertips? It would be omniscient, omnipotent, outside of time and – if one affirms of creation “It is good” – omnibenevolent.

    Once one has an inkling of the consequences of the perfection of the “Big Equation”, it cannot be distinguished from “All of Space Time” – and if one also accepts the mystery of the incarnation, it cannot be distinguished from God.

  • Mitchell Porter

    I would also love to see neo-Thomist M-theory. I don’t think it exists, but if it did, it would be both holographic and hylomorphic.