The Sad Plight of the Unmoved Mover

St. Thomas Aquinas famously had five proofs for the existence of God.  Of these, by far the best known is the “argument from motion,” otherwise known as the “Unmoved Mover.”  It’s pretty basic:  All effects have a cause.  Motion is a simple, commonplace effect, and everyone knows that an object in motion must have been put in motion by another (think of pool balls scattering off a break).  But that leads to an infinite regress — X was moved by X1, which was moved by X2, which was moved by X3, ad infinitum… unless there is something that set them all in motion, that is not itself in motion.  This is the Unmoved Mover, aka God.

The Unmoved Mover has some interesting consequences.  For instance, Thomas deduces (I forget just how) that the Unmoved Mover wasn’t an isolated event, like the Big Bang, but is in fact sustaining us even now.  We, the universe, and everything else would wink out of existence should God stop willing it.  Note, not “God can destroy the universe at any time,” but “the universe would cease to exist if ‘making the world exist’ slipped His mind, even for a split second.”

This means that our individual wills are really just instances of God’s Will, which, if you think about it, accounts for all our little individual motions, too.  The arm is moved by muscles; the muscles are moved by tendons; the tendons are moved by nerves; the nerves are moved by electrical impulses; the electrical impulses are moved by chemical reactions; the reactions are moved by the electron shells of atoms; the electrons are moved by… well, I dunno, I didn’t get that far in high school chemistry, but no matter how far back down the chain of causation you go, the fact remains that something — you — willed your arm to extend.  You — your soul — is your body’s unmoved mover, and it is sustained in being by the first Unmoved Mover.

Simple, right?  Probem is, it can’t be correct.  If it were, then some ignorant medieval churchman, who spent his off hours chanting ooga-boogas to scare away witches, has answered every important ontological question in the history of philosophy.  And to be fair, the Scholastics (Thomas’s intellectual heirs) did get fairly ridiculous about what you can prove with syllogisms.  When Early Modern critics of Scholasticism like Hobbes asked “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin,” they were joking, but they weren’t kidding; Scholastics got up to stuff like that.*

So the Unmoved Mover hypothesis can’t be right.  Which, unfortunately, dooms us to materialism, which, a few world wars later, becomes the kind of shit-flinging nihilism that fucking loves science.  How did the Big Bang happen?  Dunno, it just did, and how dare you question it, God-botherer.  Why can’t we ever see the source of nerve impulses in our fMRIs?  Shut up, bigot, and wait for the technology to get better.

Which leads to SJWism.  With no Unmoved Mover, there’s nothing says the universe must be the way it is.  Hell, how are we to know that it is the way it is, or at least appears to be?  David Hume argued (again, I forget how) that there’s no necessary relationship between cause and effect; they just tend to correlate.  From there, Karl Popper (ditto) said there’s no way to “prove” anything in science, because only propositions that are “falsifiable” are scientific, and science doesn’t work like that.  No amount of white swans, say, will prove the statement “all swans are white;” it can only be disproved by finding a black swan.  So there’s no proof that witches don’t exist, that unicorns aren’t real, that voodoo doesn’t work, or all the other Feyerabendian nonsense that passes for “philosophy of science” nowadays.  And from there, I hope it’s easy to see that it’s child’s play to claim there are 57 (or whatever) genders, that there’s no such thing as race, that two men can be married, et cetera ad nauseam.

Pity the poor Unmoved Mover, eh?  All he was trying to do was make the world comprehensible for the beings He loved, hoping they’d love Him back… and knowing they wouldn’t.  What a chump.  He should’ve taken that one gender studies class; that’d set Him straight!



*Note that Thomism is updated Aristotelianism, which itself was an attempt to deal with this kind of thing.  Parmenides, for instance, held that, since something cannot be created out of nothing, there is no “nothing” — no “void” for things to move into.  And since two things can’t occupy the same space simultaneously, there is no motion.  Similarly, Zeno** held that, if you give a tortoise a one foot head start in a race against Achilles, the turtle will always win.  To overtake the tortoise, Achilles has to close the gap between them.  So he cuts the gap in half with his first step…. his second step cuts the new gap in half, the third step cuts that gap in half, ad infinitum, and the turtle ambles across the finish line while Achilles is still bridging almost infinitely small gaps.  The syllogisms work, but the conclusions are insane; hence Aristotle’s Four Causes and all that.

**of Elea, not Zeno the founder of Stoicism.

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4 thoughts on “The Sad Plight of the Unmoved Mover

  1. nightfly

    English lay preacher Frank Sheed explained it thus: if you make something and walk away and forget about it, it relies on its substance to persist. A chair relies on its wood, which substance has properties that permit it to hold its shape, support weights, and so on.

    If God similarly made us and then walked away and forgot about us, then we would have to rely on our substance to persist… and that substance is NOTHING. We were willed into existence. There is (literally) nothing apart from God that we could be made out of, since He is utterly simple and cannot be taken apart. So, should He forget us, we would have to rely on our complete nothingness of substance.

    From this Sheed goes on to explain that this is one way in which God is always everywhere, because as a spirit “He is where He acts,” and He is always acting to keep us in existence. He also connects this to being made in His image and likeness, since we are (as you observed) little unmoved movers of our own selves, and are always present in those selves (because we are always acting upon ourselves in some fashion).

    Very good books: Theology and Sanity and Theology for Beginners. The second of them is smaller, the first goes into more depth and expands the scope of the topic.

    1. Severian

      You know, I’ve even read one of those, and thought “this is the best simple primer on Thomism I’ve ever read”…. and couldn’t for the life of me remember the argument.

      (Probably not “academic” enough. That’s one actual benefit to eggheads’ impenetrable jargon — if you wade through enough of it to actually decipher the one nugget of meaning, you don’t soon forget it. “Oh, Edward Said… yes, ‘occidental modes of knowing.’ That means ‘white people are evil.’ Judith Butler? Yes, ‘cisheteronormative.’ That means ‘straight people are evil.'” Etc.).

      1. Nate Winchester

        Briggs has an entire series on this stuff. His category system doesn’t seem to work right now but this should clue you in on where to search.

        Now to be THAT guy…

        TECHNICALLY what you’re talking about with creation and the first of all motions would be the first efficient cause. The unmoved mover would be what is at the “bottom” of all motion.

        From here.

        The muscles are also in motion: individual cells contract or extend now, in this moment. The materials in the cell are also in motion: chemicals are moving or reacting now, in this moment. The chemicals are also in motion: the chemicals subcomponents are moving or reacting now, in this moment; and if the chemicals are simple, the electrons in its shell and the neutrons and protons in its nucleus are moving now, in this moment. And the electrons themselves, and the quarks inside the nucleus are moving now, in this moment.

        Again, all this is happening at once. Not in the distant past, but right now.

        The quarks are also in motion: the strings, or whatever, inside the quarks now, in this moment are also “vibrating”.

        Are there things “bellow” strings, or whatever? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. What does is that if there is, whatever these objects are, have to be in motion now, in this moment too. The chain of all these objects pushes along, as it were, pushed from “below,” all at the same time. This series cannot, however, continue to infinity. There cannot an infinite number of things smaller, or rather more base, than strings and which must first move before any movement is possible.

        There must be a base. There must be a thing which moves, which is itself not moved, and is indeed immovable. There must be a start to everything, a first unmoving mover. If there were not, nothing would ever happen. And we have already agreed things happen.

        At least as far as I understand. I might be wrong.


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