Edward Feser’s Aristotelian Proof for God

In Five Proofs of the Existence of God, Feser runs an Aristotelian inspired argument for God. While there’s a lot that can be questioned about the argument, I’ll narrow this post to what I think is one of the weaker parts of the proof: his proof that the first cause (i.e. pure act) must be intelligent. To motivate the idea that there must be an intelligent first cause, Feser appeals to the principle of proportionate causality (PPC).

PPC: Whatever is in the effect must in some way or other be in the cause.

Feser explains the PPC:

Suppose, for example, that I give you $20. The effect in this case is your having the $20, and I am the cause of this effect. … [There are] different ways in which the cause may have what is in the effect. When I myself have a $20 bill ready to hand and I cause you to have it, what is in the effect was in the cause formally, to use some traditional jargon. That is to say, I myself was an instance of the form or pattern of having a $20 bill, and I caused you to become another instance of that form or pattern. When I don’t have the $20 bill ready to hand but I do have at least $20 credit in my bank account, you might say that what was in the effect was in that case in the cause virtually. For though I didn’t actually have the $20 on hand, I did have the power to get hold of it. And when I get Congress to grant me the power to manufacture $20 bills, you might say (once again to use some traditional jargon) that I had the $20 eminently. Because in that case, I not only have the power to acquire already existing $20 bills, but the more “eminent” power of causing them to exist in the first place. When it is said, then, that what is in an effect must in some way be in its cause, what is meant is that it must be in the cause at least “virtually” or “eminently” even if not “formally”. (2017, 33)

John Cottingham has criticized a variation of the PPC as implying an implausible heirloom view of causation where properties as passed down from cause to effect:

a sponge cake… has many properties – e.g. its characteristic sponginess – which were simply not present in any of the material ingredients (the eggs, flour, butter). … But this fact simply does not support the conclusion that the sponginess was somehow present in some form in the materials from which it arose. (Cottingham, 1986, 51)

Feser thinks this is a mistaken objection: the PPC doesn’t entail that sponginess in the cake requires there to be sponginess in the ingredients, because that would be to presuppose that the effect must be in the cause formally, i.e. that the cause must have the form of sponginess. What the PPC says is that the effect has to be in the cause formally or virtually or eminently.

Cottingham considers a weaker reading of the PPC:

(One may be tempted to say that the sponginess must have been ‘potentially’ present in the materials, but this seems to defend the [PPC] at the cost of making it trivially true. (Cottingham, 1986, 51)

Feser replies that Cottingham must have in mind Moliere’s “dormitive virtue” objection. According to that objection, to explain opium’s power to cause sleep by saying it has a dormitive power is a tautology or trivially true, since a dormitive power is defined as a power that causes sleep. That is, you would be saying nothing more than, “Opium causes sleep because it has the power to cause sleep.” Feser replies that while this statement is “minimally informative” it’s not a tautology, because the existence of powers can be denied. For example, Humeans about causation deny causal powers.

So, since I do think there are causal powers, I do think the PPC is true because to say that the effect is in the cause “eminently” is just to say that the cause has the power to produce the effect. I also think it’s minimally informative, which will be play into my objection to Feser’s proof that the first cause (pure act) must be intelligent.

From the PPC and since the first cause (pure act) is the cause of every possible form or pattern, Feser says:

38. Whatever is in an effect is in its cause in some way, whether formally, virtually, or eminently (the principle of proportionate causality).
39. The purely actual actualizer is the cause of all things. [I think it’s safe to assume Feser means all things besides itself.]
40. So, the forms or patterns manifest in all the things it causes must in some way be in the purely actual actualizer.
41. These forms or patterns can exist either in the concrete way in which they exist in individual particular things, or in the abstract way in which they exist in the thoughts of an intellect.
42. They cannot exist in the purely actual actualizer in the same way they exist in individual particular things.
43. So, they must exist in the purely actual actualizer in the abstract way in which they exist in the thoughts of an intellect.
44. So, the purely actual actualizer has intellect or intelligence. (p 37)

Earlier Feser argued that the first cause (pure act) must be immaterial. I’ll grant that for the sake of argument. I’ve already accepted 38, the PPC. I’ll accept 39 for the sake of argument. I accept 40 because it follows from 38 and 39. Here’s an example to show how modest accepting these steps are. Say I cause someone to have a black eye. The form of black is in me in the eminent sense that I had the power to produce the black eye; I needn’t have a black eye myself to give another person a black eye, which is to say that the effect needn’t be in me formally. I think if you accept causal powers (and pure act just for the sake of argument), then you should accept 40. So Feser is using two points to motivate the idea that the first cause must be intelligent: (1) the PPC, and (2) the first cause is the cause of all things. Steps 41-44 is where things move too quick for me. He motivates these steps earlier:

… what follows is that the forms or patterns of things must exist in the purely actual cause of things; and they must exist in it in a completely universal or abstract way, because this cause is the cause of every possible thing fitting a certain form or pattern. But to have forms or patterns in this universal or abstract way is just to have that capacity which is fundamental to intelligence. (33-34)

Feser is saying that since the forms or patterns of things must exist in the first cause (based on the PPC), it must exist in the cause as a universal because it is the cause of every possible particular thing that could have that form. Think of all the possible particular round things: a particular basketball, a particular orange etc. Since the first cause is the cause of all possible round things, Feser is saying that the universal roundness must be in the first cause, and that just is what is fundamental to intelligence. Here, concepts will play the role of universals. (By “universal”, we’re talking about properties that particular things have in common, like roundness.)

I think this move is too quick. All the “minimally informative” PPC requires of me is that the cause have the power to produce the effect, i.e. that the effect is in the cause eminently. And the fact that the first cause is the cause of all things doesn’t suggest to me that universals must be in the cause.

[edited 1/10/18] I think Feser’s reasoning is that the first cause can’t be another instance of fitting a certain form since it is the cause of “every possible thing fitting a certain form.” But why think that? It seems the first cause must also have some form and that that form can’t itself be caused. This is similar to the Third Man objection to Platonism. So it seems it can’t be the cause of every possible thing fitting a certain form. If some forms don’t need causes by way of universals then why do any? At this point Feser may appeal to analogies or simplicity in the first cause, but I find both of those aspects make the first cause unintelligible.

One may object that Feser uses an Augustinian argument for divine conceptualism in chapter 3 to argue that the first cause must be intelligent, and that that can be supplemented here. But I think that that is besides the point. The point of this post is to object to how he derives intelligence from the (1) PPC and (2) being the first cause of all things in chapter 1’s Aristotelian argument. For my review and criticisms of divine conceptualism see this.

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