Precis to Nature and Nature’s God

Last week Alex Pruss, Rob Koons, and Ed Houser graciously joined me for a panel discussion of my book Nature and Nature’s God. I enjoyed everyone’s comments and objections, and found the event productive. What follows is the precis I delivered to start the discussion.

In my book Nature and Nature’s God I try to do two things: to set the historical record straight about Aquinas’ unmoved mover argument, and to defend a contemporary version of the argument in light of the developments of empirical science. Over the course of two decades I have felt that most presentations of Aquinas’ First Way have read much into the argument that just isn’t in Aquinas’ texts, and at the same time have drawn too much conclusion out of too little argumentation. Although St. Thomas certainly isn’t infallible, he was a brilliant man, and I take him seriously enough to think that understanding him on his own terms is worth my time.

My project on Aquinas’ First Way began when I learned something interesting about his philosophy of nature from Fr. Weisheipl, namely, that on his view heavy bodies fall of their own accord, with nothing impelling them downwards. I knew that Aquinas builds his First Way around the premise that everything in motion is moved by something else, which I thought meant that everything in motion must be currently impelled by some mover. If that mover was in motion, it too was currently impelled by some other mover, until one gets to an unmoved mover that impels them all: God. I found the argument, understood this way, unconvincing. But now it was obvious that this account of the First Way did not square with Aquinas’ own understanding of natural motion. Perhaps a much more interesting unmoved mover argument was hiding underneath a conventional interpretive cover.

Through a careful reading of Aquinas’ more elaborate presentation of the case for an unmoved mover in the Summa contra Gentiles, as well as books seven and eight of Aristotle’s Physics and Aquinas’ commentary on those books, an exciting physical as opposed to metaphysical argument for God’s existence emerged. Aquinas’ argument is clearly rooted in Aristotle’s, but Aristotle’s argument is quite foreign to us. We are used to cosmological arguments that first try to prove that the universe has a beginning, and then that God must exist to get it started. But Aristotle begins his whole argument by attempting to prove that the universe cannot possibly have a beginning. That proposition then becomes the key premise on which his entire argument for God’s existence is based: only an infinite power could cause a motion of infinite duration, and no physical being can have infinite power. Thus an immaterial being exists.

Aristotle’s argument proved troublesome for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Aristotelians. It is a central tenet of traditional western monotheism that the universe had a beginning in time, a moment of creation. But the culminating piece of Aristotle’s philosophical corpus was built around a denial of this point of religious doctrine. Moses Maimonides solved the problem, and Aquinas adopts his solution in the Summa contra Gentiles. Aristotle’s proof is placed inside a disjunctive wrapper: although we can’t prove that the universe has a beginning, clearly it either did or it didn’t. If it did, then since nothing brings itself into being God must exist to get the universe started. If it didn’t have a beginning, then it has been in motion for an infinite duration, and then Aristotle’s argument applies: God must exist to sustain the universe forever in motion.

But why must a motion of infinite duration be sustained by an immaterial mover? Motion can either flow from a thing’s nature, or be imposed by an external agent. In Aquinas’ view motion that flows from a thing’s nature is directed, as to an end, to the thing’s natural place and condition. When the body reaches its natural place it naturally comes to rest and does not undergo any further motion unless acted on by an external agent. Hence natural motion is of finite duration. But external agents can only act insofar as they are moved or energized by the motion of a heavenly body. Otherwise the would-be agent and would-be patient simply undergo motion to their natural conditions and rest in equilibrium with each other. Only a voluntary, rational agent can continue to move other things in a cycle indefinitely, and such an agent, if physical, will be of finite power and wear down over time.

According to St. Thomas, all things on earth would move towards their natural place, rest there, cease to act on one another, and remain forever motionless if it were not for the fact that the cyclical motions of the heavenly bodies continued to affect terrestrial things and change them out of their natural conditions, stirring the pot so to speak. But the motions of the heavenly bodies cannot themselves flow from the nature of the heavenly bodies, since such motion is cyclical and does not head towards a natural place of rest. Thus the heavenly bodies themselves are moved by one or more immaterial agents. Since their motions are choreographed to maintain the natural cycles and teleological harmony here on earth, they must ultimately be directed by one single, overarching immaterial being who is directed by no other. This is God.

But if this is Aquinas’ argument, of what interest is it to us? We surely do not believe in the harmony of the spheres, celestial influences, or angels moving planets around. We also believe in inertia, indefinite “natural” motion that never comes to rest, and the conservation of energy as a physical law. Yet a closer look at modern physics reveals that Aquinas’ proof, in its essentials, is just as valid as ever. Allow me to explain.

Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics, stated that “The force of inertia is a passive principle by which bodies persist in their motion or rest. . . . By this principle alone there never could have been any motion in the world. Some other principle was necessary for putting bodies into motion; and now [that] they are in motion, some other principle is necessary for conserving the motion. . . . By reason of the tenacity of fluids, and attrition of their parts, and the weakness of elasticity in solids, motion is much more apt to be lost than got, and is always upon the decay.” No collision is perfectly elastic, and so bodies rebound with less total motion than they had before. Also, the viscosity of fluids and the friction of surfaces diminishes the motion of bodies moving through them or over them.

But the first law of thermodynamics states that no physical process can increase or decrease the amount of energy in a closed system. The energy of motion (“kinetic energy”) lost in collisions and through friction is converted to the energy of heat. Heat, in turn, can be converted back into kinetic energy by various processes, for example in steam locomotives. It might seem, then, that Aquinas’ argument cannot work: no immaterial mover is needed to sustain motion in the universe forever; the energy conservation law guarantees perpetual motion.

Yet scientists are agreed that a perpetual motion machine cannot exist. Why? Because the first law of thermodynamics is complemented by the second law of thermodynamics, according to which the energy in a closed system can only decrease in its availability, and never increase. “Entropy” is a measure of the degree to which energy has become unavailable to do work, and thus the second law is often expressed thus: the entropy of a closed system can only increase, and never decrease. As energy goes through various changes, it tends to find its way into the form of heat, and thermal energy can only be converted back into other forms of energy if it exists in two bodies at different temperatures. But heat tends to flow directly from a hotter body to a cooler body without doing any work, and thus more and more of a system’s energy tends to get locked away into the unusable form of thermal energy at equilibrium. In a sense Aquinas was right: all bodies head towards the natural condition of equilibrium, and once they reach it they never change again unless acted on by an external agent.

Rudolf Clausius, the pioneer of thermodynamics who coined the term entropy, applied the two laws of thermodynamics to the universe at large and expressed them thus: “1. The energy of the universe is constant. 2. The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum.” Modern physics and cosmology conclude that the universe must inevitably head towards the equilibrium condition known as the “heat death,” in which all energy is dissipated about the universe at even temperature, and nothing interesting ever happens again.

All bodies radiate their energy away in the form of photons; they shine at a frequency proportional to their temperature. This is why night-vision goggles work. But many of these photons inevitably escape into space where they undergo a cosmological redshift as the universe expands. As each photon’s frequency drops, the amount of energy it can deliver upon impact with a body diminishes. Thus energy is spread thinner and thinner throughout space, entropy rises, and the universe gets ever closer to the heat death.

If the universe had no beginning and had already existed for an infinite time, it would already have reached heat death. The fact that it has not indicates that the universe had a beginning a finite duration in the past. Alternatively—and this is where Aquinas’ argument differs from that the kalam argument—the universe has existed forever but God has either continuously or periodically converted some of its high-entropy, unavailable energy back into usable energy. In that way it could still exist out of equilibrium as it does today, without having a beginning in time.

Thus Aquinas’ unmoved mover argument is still valid, and serves as a welcome, more accessible addition to his other arguments, particularly to the argument based on the act of existence in De Ente et Essentia. The De Ente argument is a powerful one, but very subtle and not very accessible to the empirically minded. Aquinas’ more physical unmoved mover argument is a good first step for such people.