The Unchanged Changer

Over on the aptly named McCabism blog, Gordon McCabe recently wrote about Christopher Hart’s review of Karen Armstrong’s new book, The Case for God: What Religion Really Means. Dr McCabe wrote:

Hart’s proposition that God is not a being, but Being itself, is the familiar doctrine of pantheism, which is inconsistent with the personal nature of God enshrined in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

However, the proposition that God is Being itself is not the same as pantheism. In fact, pantheism and “God is Being” are mutually exclusive. To explain this — or, more accurately, to explain my understanding of this issue: the whole thing is too damn convoluted and confusing for me to claim to understand it completely — I thought I would attempt to produce my own exposition of the famous “Unmoved Mover” argument.

We start with two premises. The first is pretty uncontroversial so I’ll get it out of the way now: we observe change in the world. Things change.

The second premise is really an attempt to provide an explanation of change. This is rather typical of philosophers: whereas a normal person might quite happily accept that things change and leave it at that, a philosopher cannot help but ask why: why do things change? What is it that makes them change? Can we explain change?

Philosophy is basically an attempt to explain things. I think it revealing that some modern philosophers “solve” the traditionally difficult problems of philosophy not by producing an actual solution but instead by declaring that such and such does not really require an explanation. It smacks of intellectual dishonesty, or at the least a lack of imagination and curiosity unworthy of a philosopher, but that is a cantankerous complaint for another day.

What is change? It is the phenomenon whereby an entity ceases to be in one state and is henceforth in another state, at least until it changes again. There are two extreme views about change, which have come to be associated with two early Greek philosophers: Heraclitus and Parmenides.

Heraclitus held that change is all there is. He claimed that there are no entities, just flux. Even if we can make sense of this idea (which is not easy: one intuitively assumes a substrate when considering flux) it has an obvious problem. We observe entities all the time. If everything is just flux, then how do we explain the fact that we appear to be surrounded by identifiable entities?

Modern science does not help us. The entities of quantum physics may not be much like the everyday entities with which most people are familiar but they are nevertheless things, not pure flux. A quantum state is still a state, whether mixed or pure, so we cannot get away from the fact that there appear to be things that change. Indeed, I suspect the difficulty we have trying to make sense of the notion of pure flux is due to its incompatibility with our experience, both our everyday experience and the most bizarre experiences of esoteric science, in which change is not something that exists alone but is rather something that things do.

Parmenides overshoots in the other direction: he claims that there is no change. All the apparent change that we observe in the world is, according to him, an illusion. The usual interpretation of his argument goes something like this: everything that exists is a part of existence; anything that changes must be changed by something else; but the only thing other than existence is non-existence, i.e. nothing, which obviously can’t change anything because it doesn’t exist; therefore nothing changes.

Well, it’s something like that anyway. To be honest, I don’t really understand Parmenides (and there is considerable controversy among those who claim that they do) but that doesn’t matter for now: it’s not as if my description of the philosophy of Heraclitus was at all fair to the complexities of his thought. For the purposes of this argument, I just want to set up two extremes concerning change: everything is change and there is no change.

This allows me to portray Aristotle’s views on change as a welcome return to common sense, a reasonable middle ground between the two self-evidently absurd extremes. The problem is this: we need to explain how it is that things can change. We can’t just follow Heraclitus and say that change is all there is, because that doesn’t allow for the existence of the things that we see doing the changing. But we can’t follow Parmenides either because then we can’t explain the change that we see the things undergoing.

Aristotle solves this conundrum by proposing that things are both actually in some state and potentially in some other state (or states). Now we can describe change as the process by which a thing moves from its current actual state to one of its potential states. We now have a notion of potential existence. The matches in my matchbox are not actually alight at this moment but they have the potential to be alight, if, for example, I were to strike them.

Instead of one monolithic thing we call existence — which cannot change because the only thing that isn’t existence is non-existence, and something that doesn’t exist can’t change anything — we have many different entities that vary in their actual and potential existence. Because these entities have both actual and potential properties, and the potential can become the actual via the process of change, we can accommodate both the existence of things and the fact that they change. This answers both Heraclitus and Parmenides.

Now, nothing changes unless something causes it to change. A match lights when you strike it and not if you don’t. If a match appeared to spontaneously burst into flame we would look for an explanation — perhaps it was being heated by some other heat-source — and we wouldn’t be satisfied unless we could find some explanation for its ignition. Whenever anything changes we expect there to be something else that caused that change: that is why the change happened then and not at some other time.

But only something that actually exists can cause change. I cannot light my pipe with an unlit match regardless of the fact that the match has the potential to be lit. The match must be actually alight before it can cause change in other things as a result of its burning.

So we arrive at our second premise: change is the phenomenon whereby something that actually exists causes something else to actualise its potential.

It is important to note that this is an immediate effect. We are not talking about causes happening before an effect: that does not make sense in this context. Changes occur precisely when they are caused. The cause precedes the effect only in the sense that it is logically antecedent, not temporally antecedent. To go back to striking matches, it is precisely when the combustible chemicals on the head of the match reach their ignition temperature that they begin to burn. Here the friction caused by striking the match is the cause of the heat that ignites the match head and it all happens at the same time.

The stock example in philosophy textbooks is that of someone pushing a stone along the ground using a stick. The stone is moving because the stick is moving and the stick is moving because the person is moving, but obviously they are all moving at the same time. The movement of the person is logically antecedent to the movement of the stone but not temporally so.

Well, then. According to our first premise, things change. We observe change in the world. According to our second premise, the change that we observe involves the actualisation of potentialities by things that actually exist.

However, there is an obvious danger of infinite regress here. If A was changed by B which was changed by C which was changed by D which was changed by E… where does it end? How can it end?

Obviously the end of the chain cannot be something that can itself be changed. If it were, then it wouldn’t be the end of the chain. So the end of the chain cannot have the potential to be in any way other than the way that it is. So it has no potentiality. But it must, as we have seen, actually exist or it would not be able to cause change. So the end of the chain is purely actual.

You have probably guessed by now that the end of the chain is, as Aquinas would put it, what we call God (et hoc dicimus Deum). You can deduce lots of stuff about the Unchanged Changer, such as that there can only be one of them, but I don’t intend to attempt any of that now. I just want to point out the silliness of a couple of common refutations of this argument.

First, there is this one: “If everything has a cause then what caused God?” As should be evident from the above argument, it is not necessary to suppose that everything has a cause. We only suppose that change has a cause. God, as pure actuality, does not (indeed, by definition, cannot) change and therefore does not need a cause. That is the whole point of the argument.

Second, there is this: “If God caused everything, what came before God?” Again, it should be obvious from the above argument that temporal precedence has nothing to do with it. How or if or when the universe came into being is completely irrelevant. We are talking here only about logical antecedence. As Edward Feser wrote about Aquinas’ proofs:

His aim is to show that given that there are in fact some causes of various sorts, the nature of cause and effect entails that God is necessary as an uncaused cause of the universe even if we assume the universe has always existed and thus had no beginning. The argument is not that the world wouldn’t have got started if God hadn’t knocked down the first domino at some point in the distant past; it is that it wouldn’t exist here and now, or undergo change… here and now unless God were here and now

I also rather like this metaphor:

The world is not an independent object in the sense of something that might carry on if God were to “go away”; it is more like the music produced by a musician, which exists only when he plays and vanishes the moment he stops.

[The Last Superstition, St Augustine’s Press, 2008, pp. 86 & 88]

Embarrassingly, I realised as I was coming to the end of the argument that I’d done the wrong one. I did the one that ends with Pure Actuality and not the one that ends with Being Itself. It is similar but is based on existence rather than change: roughly, contingent existence takes the place of potentiality and necessary existence takes the place of actuality; thus rather than ending up with something that actually exists and has no potential, you end up with something that necessarily exists and is not contingent on the existence of anything else.

Anyway, the point was merely to demonstrate that when theologians say things like “God is Being” they are, or at least might be, referring to the conclusion of a rational argument rather than just spouting mytho-poetic metaphor. Certainly, in that particular instance they are not referring to the doctrine of pantheism. It is also not true to claim that such a statement is “inconsistent with the personal nature of God enshrined in Christianity”, as it is actually a rather old proof, one of many, from which various attributes of God including his personality are deduced at great length by Aquinas and other Scholastic philosophers.

Finally, is the argument sound? I think it is valid. I think if you wish to refute the argument your best bet would be to have a go at the second premise: Aristotle’s metaphysics of change.

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Published in: on July 6, 2009 at 6:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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