If you had to summarize your reasons for believing in God in ten words or less, how would you do it? Here’s what I’d say: “The world is contingent, complex, fine-tuned, rule-governed, mathematical and beautiful.” For me, these features of the world point towards a Being Who is necessary (or self-explanatory), perfectly integrated, and limitlessly intelligent, creative and bountiful – a Being in Whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
As you can see, I’ve listed not one but several features of the natural world which (I believe) point to the existence of a Creator. Here’s a question. How would you react if someone told you that you didn’t need to list all these features: just one of these properties of the world – namely, its property of being composed of multiple parts – was enough to take you all the way to God? What’s more, they add, you don’t need to consider the world as a whole: just a single hydrogen atom will do, for even the simplest thing in the natural world can be shown to be composite. They also tell you that from considering this property of a hydrogen atom, we can establish the existence of not just any old God, but the God of classical theism! That, you might say, would be a pretty tall claim, and you might reasonably demand to see the evidence. So how would you react if you were told that there was not only evidence, but proof: a metaphysical demonstration which conclusively establishes the existence of the God of classical theism, and that this proof comes in no less than several different versions!
That, you might say, would be a wonderful proof. But you would surely want to check it, to see that it actually worked. As anyone who is familiar with the history of mathematics knows, proofs can often take hundreds of years to construct. Metaphysical demonstrations aren’t the same as mathematical proofs, of course, but they do have one thing in common: the rate of progress is painstakingly slow, and it can take centuries to formulate a rigorous proof that’s free of any logical “gaps” in the argumentation.
The danger of putting all one’s theological eggs in a single basket
The title for this post was suggested by a comment made by the Thomist philosopher Edward Feser, in his 2011 article, “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” (American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 85 (2):237-267):
…[N]atural substances are contingent. But why are they contingent? … Aquinas’s answer is that they are composite in various ways, and it is this compositeness that entails that they cannot enjoy existential inertia. Only something non-composite, and thus something necessary (indeed something divine) can in his view have that. (p. 259)
Likewise, on page 256 of his article, Feser identifies “being metaphysically composite — being, that is to say, a compound of form and matter, or of essence and existence, or, more generally, of act and potency,” as the feature which determines whether a thing (or substance) is unable to remain in existence without a conserving cause.
In these passages, Professor Feser identifies “compositeness” as the central attribute of things which tells us that they must have an utterly indivisible, all-perfect First Cause Who is Pure Act and Existence itself. What I intend to argue in this post is that this amounts to putting all one’s theological eggs in one basket. It is dangerous to single out one attribute of natural objects and argue for God’s existence solely on that basis. There are many attributes of things which point to their having a Creator Who maintains them in existence; rather than singling out one of these attributes, a policy of “letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” to quote a memorable phrase of Mao Zedong’s, would be a wiser and more prudent course of action.
That was why I wrote above that “the internal complexity and law-governed mathematical behavior of material substances, coupled with the fine-tuning of the laws and constants of Nature, can all be seen as reflections of the contingency of the cosmos and all that is in it.” All of these facets of reality can be seen as indicators that the cosmos is not self-sustaining: it requires an external Cause.
Part A – Feser’s claims and my views on them
(a) Feser’s tall claim: each of Aquinas’s Five Ways proves classical theism
The “tall claim” that Thomist philosopher Edward Feser makes is that each of Aquinas’ Five Ways, when suitably fleshed out and properly understood, conclusively establishes the existence of the God of classical theism. This is borne out by what Professor Feser has to say about metaphysical demonstrations in his recent book, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Editions Scholasticae, 2014):
For Aristotle and Aquinas, the truths of philosophical theology may not be expressible in mathematical language and are not based on specific predictions or experiments, but that does not make them less certain than the claims of physics. On the contrary, they are more certain, because they rest on strict demonstrations which begin from premises that any possible physical science must take for granted. (2014, p. 12, emphasis mine – VJT.)
Feser is even clearer about this point in his earlier book The Last Superstition (St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2008), where he summarizes the thrust of Aquinas’ Five Ways:
Metaphysical arguments of the sort Aquinas is interested in … take obvious, though empirical starting points, and try to show that from these starting points, together with certain conceptual premises, certain metaphysical conclusions follow necessarily… Hence Aquinas argues that, given that we observe things that exist, undergo change, and exhibit final causes, there necessarily must be a God who maintains them in existence at every instant. (2008, p. 83, emphasis mine – VJT.)
In his book Aquinas (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009), Feser emphasizes that St. Thomas Aquinas’ Fifth Way was intended not as a probabilistic argument for the existence of God, or even as an abductive argument which concludes that the order we find in Nature is best explained by God, but rather as a deductive argument which establishes that the causal regularities we observe in Nature can only be explained by God:
[W]hile Paley and his contemporary successors claim only that the existence of a designer is probable, Aquinas takes the Fifth Way conclusively to establish the truth of its conclusion. Related to this, whereas the design argument is typically presented as a kind of quasi-scientific empirical hypothesis, Aquinas’ argument is intended as a metaphysical demonstration. His claim is not that the existence of God is one possible explanation among others (albeit the best) of the order that exists in the universe (which is how “God of the gaps” arguments proceed) but rather that it can be seen on analysis to be the only possible explanation even in principle. (2009, pp. 111-112, bold emphases mine – VJT.)
Famously, Feser contends that the existence of even one thing in the natural world which behaves in a regular fashion – say, a single hydrogen atom – is sufficient to conclusively demonstrate the existence of God. As he puts it in The Last Superstition: “Even if the universe consisted of nothing but an electron orbiting a nucleus, that would suffice for the Fifth Way” (2008, p. 116). That’s a very tall claim.
The empirical assumptions underlying the Five Ways are minimal and pretty uncontroversial: things change; things have their own natures, which make them the kinds of things they are; things come into being and go out of being; things exhibit varying degrees of unity; and things possess their own natural dispositions (e.g. table salt’s disposition to dissolve in water). Additionally, Feser makes the metaphysical claim that things which are composed of parts of any kind require an external explanation for the existence, as well as the logical claim that any series of explanations (as opposed to mere conditions) must ultimately terminate at some point. (As applied to causes, that means that even if an infinite regress of what Thomists call accidental causes were possible, an infinite regress of per se causes is impossible.) And that’s it. Feser believes that once a person accepts these modest, reasonable claims, the existence of the God of classical theism logically follows, as an inescapable conclusion.
In The Last Superstition, Feser does concede that “metaphysical reasoning is not infallible,” as “it is always possible that someone attempting a metaphysical demonstration has made a mistake somewhere” (2008, p. 83). But it’s pretty clear from what he has written that Feser is convinced his argument for God is absolutely airtight. And in a recent combox comment, he insists that metaphysical demonstrations are fundamentally different from probabilistic arguments, even if their premises are philosophically controversial:
…[I]f a philosopher’s purported demonstration embodies philosophical assumptions that other philosophers would challenge, it doesn’t follow that this attempted demonstration is really just a “probabilistic” argument after all.
(b) My view on Feser’s claims, and why I believe they deserve a fair hearing
In a recent post titled, “An Aristotelian Proof of the Existence of God?”, I critiqued a talk given by Thomist philosopher Edward Feser, which I interpreted as a serious attempt to provide such a proof. The argument contained some logical gaps which I exposed. Professor Feser has since contacted me, however, and informed me that he never intended to provide anything like a full proof in his one-hour talk, but only a partial draft, as he was talking to a lay audience. He also suggested that I consult his book Aquinas (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009), and his 2011 article, “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” (American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 85 (2):237-267), for a fuller version of his proofs of the existence of God, which are based on his reconstruction of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways. For a fuller treatment of the underlying metaphysical concepts, Feser’s more recent work, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Editions Scholasticae, 2014) was also recommended (and very kindly forwarded) to me. Since I believe that everyone deserves a fair hearing, I’ve devoted this post to a detailed examination of Feser’s arguments. (I should add that this will be my last post in response to Professor Feser for the foreseeable future.)
My own position, as I made clear elsewhere (see here and here), is that the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God are very powerful – indeed, I would say that they establish God’s existence beyond reasonable doubt to any genuinely open-minded person, but I would not go so far as to call them “metaphysical demonstrations” which “conclusively … establish” the existence of God as “the only possible explanation” for the existence of the natural world, as Feser claims the Five Ways do (Aquinas, 2009, pp. 111-112). I think that’s too strong a claim, at the present time: the logic of the Thomistic arguments needs to be tightened. What I would maintain instead is that the scientific enterprise presupposes the existence of a law-governed cosmos, and that if the laws of Nature are not the product of a Mind, then scientists’ faith that these laws will continue to hold is unwarranted. Finally, I certainly would not argue that all of the attributes of the God of classical theism can be rigorously demonstrated, as Feser does.
Readers will recall that I have previously spoken highly of Professor Robert Koons’ paper, A New Look at the Cosmological Argument (American Philosophical Quarterly 34 (1997):193-212), and Professor Paul Herrick’s paper, Job Opening: Creator of the Universe—A Reply to Keith Parsons (2009). Neither of these papers, however, attempted anything like a complete derivation of the attributes of the God of classical theism. Feser’s book Aquinas attempts just that: in the course of what it calls “a brief survey” of Aquinas’ arguments, it endeavors to show that God is Being Itself, and it goes on to argue that He is utterly unique, immutable, immaterial, incorporeal, eternal, infinitely powerful, intelligent, perfectly good, and simple.
Part B – The gist of Feser’s arguments
(a) A thumbnail sketch of the Five Ways
In his 2011 article, “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” (American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 2, pp. 237-267), Feser provides a useful summary of the Five Ways:
The first argues that the existence, even for an instant, of composites of act and potency presupposes the simultaneous existence of that which is pure act; the second argues that the existence, even for an instant, of composites of essence and existence presupposes the simultaneous existence of that which is being or existence itself; the third argues that the existence, even for an instant, of composites of form and matter presupposes the simultaneous existence of an absolutely necessary being; the fourth argues that the existence, even for an instant, of things which are many and come in degrees of perfection presupposes the simultaneous existence of something one and absolutely perfect; and the fifth argues that the existence, even for an instant, of finality or directedness toward an end presupposes the simultaneous existence of a supreme ordering intellect. (p. 240)
I will provide a detailed critique of the logic of each of the Five Ways below. For now, I’d like to draw readers’ attention to the fact that Feser construes each of the Five Ways as an argument from the compositeness of things to the existence of a Being Who is Pure Act (the conclusion of the First Way) or Whose essence and existence are identical (the conclusion of the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Ways, as Feser interprets them).
(b) Feser’s derivation of the attributes of God
In his book, Aquinas (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009), Feser attempts to derive the various attributes of the God of classical theism which were listed above (headings are mine):
…[O]n Aquinas’ view there can only be one being whose essence and existence are identical, and thus which is Pure Being. Hence it is necessarily one and the same being on which all proofs converge. This would obviously entail, for the same reason, that there can only be one God… For there to be more than one such being, there would have to be … some perfection that one has but the other lacks. But as Pure Act, such a being would be devoid of all imperfections and privations, since imperfections and privations are just different ways in which something could fail to be in act or actual. (p. 121)
[Immutability, immateriality, incorporeality and immutability]
Several attributes seem to follow immediately and obviously from God’s being Pure Act. Since to change is to be reduced from potency to act, that which is Pure Act, devoid of all potency, must be immutable or incapable of change (ST I.9.1). Since material things are of their nature compounds of act and potency, that which is Pure Act must be immaterial and thus incorporeal or without any sort of body (ST I.3.1-2). Since such a being is immutable and time (as Aquinas argues) cannot exist apart from change, that which is Pure Act must also be eternal, outside time altogether, without beginning or end (ST I.10.1-2)…. (p. 122)
As the cause of the world, God obviously has power, for “all operation proceeds from power” (QDP 1.1; cf. ST I.25.1). Moreover, “the more actual a thing is the more it abounds in active power,” so that as Pure Act, God must be infinite in power (QDP 1.2; cf. ST I.25.2)…. (p. 123)
We can also conclude, in Aquinas’ view, that “there is will in God, as there is intellect: since will follows upon intellect” (ST I.19.1). Why do will and intellect necessarily go together? … In sentient beings, namely animals, [the] inclination towards the perfection of their forms is called appetite. And in beings with intellect it is called will… [A]s with our attribution of power, intellect and other attributes to God, our attribution of will to him is intended in an analogous rather than a univocal sense… (pp. 123-124)
Since something is perfect to the degree that it is in act or actual, God as Pure Act must be perfect (ST I.4.1). Given the convertibility of being and goodness, God as Pure Act and Being Itself must also be good, indeed the highest good (STI.6)…. (p. 124)
Though his possession of … something analogous to what we call intellect and will… entails that he is in some sense “personal,” … God is nevertheless not a “person” in the sense that we are, with all the limitations that expression implies… (p. 126)
For Aquinas, God is “simple” in the sense of being in no way composed of parts (ST I.3). As has been said, he is both incorporeal and immaterial, and thus cannot have any bodily parts nor be composed of form and matter. But neither does he have even any metaphysical parts. For as we have also seen, on Aquinas’ account there is no distinction between essence and existence in God. Unlike everything else that exists, he just is his own existence, and just is his own essence, for these are identical. (p. 126)
Part C – What’s wrong with Feser’s arguments, in a nutshell
For the benefit of those readers who absolutely cannot abide long posts, here is a short summary of my conclusions:
(1) God need not be as simple as Professor Feser believes Him to be. In particular, there is nothing to prevent Him from having accidental properties. For Feser, the mere fact that things have parts entails that they are contingent, from which it follows that God (Who is a necessary Being) cannot have parts of any kind, whether physical or metaphysical. But as far as I can tell, nowhere in his writings does Feser explicitly define what a part is, or what a whole is. Several definitions of “part” are possible: we could define a part as any element of a whole which is: (i) less than the whole; (ii) physically capable of being separated from the whole; (iii) capable of at least being intellectually conceived of as existing separately from the whole, even if it cannot be physically separated from that whole; or (iv) logically prior to the whole, and also contrary to some other element of that whole on a conceptual level, even if its existence outside that whole is utterly inconceivable. (The priority requirement in definition (iv) is important: without it, the three persons of the Trinity would be parts of God, which is contrary to the Christian faith.) Definitions (i) and (ii) are too restrictive: the former applies only to quantitative parts, while the latter would mean that elementary particles such as quarks cannot be called parts of the protons and neutrons they comprise, because they can never be observed in isolation. In his Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Editions Scholasticae, 2014), Feser acknowledges that some Scholastic philosophers (e.g. Scotists and Suarezians) would favor definition (iii), but adds that he rejects this definition, as a Thomist philosopher (see p. 77). I am led to conclude that Feser would prefer definition (iv) (see pp. 73-74). Defining a whole is no easy matter either: for instance, is an aggregate such as a sand-pile a whole? How about an ice crystal, then? Or what about an assemblage of interacting parts, such as an automobile? And why, exactly, is an organism any more of a whole than an automobile? Professor Feser provides some helpful clarification of these matters in an online post of his, entitled, Nature versus Art (30 April 2011), where he explains that the parts of natural objects must have an inherent tendency to function together, and that this tendency arises from the fact that they share a substantial unity: they are parts of one thing, making them a genuine whole. Artifacts, on the other hand, lack this unity: their parts have no inherent tendency to function together. In other words, the parts of a genuine whole must enhance its functionality as a unit. Thus Feser’s claim that the parts of a whole need to be kept together by an external agent and are therefore contingent, appears to be really a claim about the internal functionality of a whole. However, a thing and its non-essential properties don’t comprise a whole in the sense envisaged by Feser, since (a) a thing and its non-essential properties are no more of a whole than the thing without those properties, and (b) a thing’s non-essential properties don’t enhance the thing’s functionality as an integrated unit. Hence by Feser’s logic, then, a thing and its non-essential properties would not necessarily require an external agent to join them together. As we’ll see below, this is an important point, as Feser wants to argue that the Prime Mover, being utterly simple, has no real properties, whether essential or non-essential. (The only properties Feser is willing to ascribe to God are “Cambridge properties”, which are not really properties of God as such, but of creatures which are related to Him.) But since a thing and its non-essential properties is no more of a whole than the thing without those properties, it therefore follows that if a being were capable of generating its own non-essential properties – for example, in the way that free agents do when they make choices about the direction of their lives, and acquire certain properties in the process – then there would be no need to look for an external cause of its having those properties. One might still want to want to ask why the thing had those properties at some times and not at others; however, if the thing in question were outside time (as God is), the question would not arise. (I might add for the benefit of readers that the Catholic Church has never ruled one way or the other on the question of whether God has any accidental properties: the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 declared only that God’s “essence, substance or nature” is “absolutely simple.”)
(2) Professor Feser’s reconstruction of Aquinas’ First Way assumes that even the most elementary things in the material world are composed of a mixture of potency and act – as he puts it, “whatever the metaphysical details turn out to be vis-a-vis the structure of events and substances, they will involve the actualization of potency.” In other words, Feser maintains that potency and act are equally fundamental, in the make-up of things. However, there are good philosophical grounds for rejecting this view. For potency of any sort – whether it be a passive capacity or an active one – can only exist within something actual, which explains and grounds the capacity in question. Feser himself acknowledges in his Scholastic Metaphysics (2014, p. 38) that “a thing’s potencies are grounded in its actualities.” (Think of a boxer’s active capacity to knock a man out and his passive capacity to be knocked out: both capacities are grounded in his actually possessing a human body, made of flesh and bone, with a hard skull encasing a very delicate brain.) It is curious, then, that later in his book (see pp. 171-175), Feser feels compelled to argue that even a natural object’s essence or substantial form (which is sometimes called its “first act”) is underlain by prime matter, which is nothing but pure passive potency, totally devoid of any form. Only prime matter, he argues, can explain why different kinds of objects are limited to some locations in space-time and not others – although how something purely potential can determine an object’s actual location he does not say – and how one kind of object can change into another kind. Feser does briefly consider (pp. 173-175) the possibility of a rudimentary kind of perduring substance (or “secondary matter”) underlying all physical change, but dismisses this suggestion on the grounds that there appears to be no such perduring stuff in Nature (but what about quantum fields?) and also because we would still need to answer the question of why this stuff is still at least capable of being corrupted (Feser thinks that only an underlying potency could explain this fact, but only because he envisages corruption as akin to decomposition – which begs the question). In the end, Feser provides no convincing reason why natural substances have to be composites of potency and act. And if they are not a mix of potency and act, then they must be essentially actual in some way – which, incidentally, implies that the notion of “pure passive potency” (a.k.a. prime matter) as the ultimate substrate of change is mistaken. That being the case, it seems that the ultimate constituents of the material world could be metaphysically simple after all, contrary to Feser’s claim that contingent things are invariably composite in their essence and that only God is simple. (I’ll address the question of what grounds the contingency of things, below.)
(3) Feser doesn’t appear to realize that when his reconstruction of Aquinas’ First Way is properly interpreted, it points to the existence of a Self-Actualized First Actualizer rather than an Unactualized Actualizer. In other words, Feser’s argument fails to establish that God is Pure Act: all he manages to show is that there exists an indivisible thing that’s capable of maintaining something in existence, without needing to be activated by anything else, in either its act of existence or its operations. (Of course, God’s Being or substance is entirely actual and contains no potency, but God’s Being alone cannot explain the existence of the world, since God has to perform some creative act in order to make the world. In so doing, He timelessly actualizes Himself, as I will show.) It is a fallacy to argue, as Feser does, from “There must be an Actualizer whose power to actualize does not need to be actualized by anything else” to “There must be an Actualizer which is totally devoid of potentiality and incapable of being further actualized – in other words, a Being Who is Pure Act.” Indeed, it is easy to show that any being – call it X – which maintains another thing – call it Y – in existence is itself necessarily actualized thereby. For X’s action of maintaining Y in existence gives X the contingent property of being the cause of Y’s existence – a property which X would not have, were it not conserving Y in being. And if X’s action is a contingent one while X’s being (or existence) is necessary, then X’s action must be distinct from X’s being. Hence there can be no being which is both responsible for keeping some other thing(s) in existence and incapable of being further actualized, as Feser claims. Nor will it do to suggest, as Feser does, that the act of maintaining something in existence is a mere “Cambridge property” which entails no change in God; for the point here is not whether it entails a change in God but whether it (timelessly) actualizes Him in a way that He would not have been actualized, had He not chosen to conserve that thing in being. Thus any being X which maintains another being Y in existence must be capable of being actualized in many different ways. (Whether the actualization occurs inside or outside of time is beside the point.) To deny this conclusion, one would have to claim either that X can maintain Y in existence without performing any operation, or that the necessary operation whereby X exists is somehow identical with the contingent operation whereby X conserves Y in being. Neither alternative makes any sense, and if Feser were to seriously propose either of these alternatives (which he doesn’t), his argument would then constitute a reductio ad absurdum for a skeptic, who might then construe Feser’s argument as a proof of atheism. What Feser actually proposes, however, is something different: an ad hoc exception to his version of the Principle of Causality in the case of God. In his book, Scholastic Metaphysics (2014, p. 105), he asserts, with Aquinas (ST I.2.3) that “nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality,” and he additionally insists that this dictum applies not only to the actualization of passive powers (such as the capacity of glass to be shattered), but also to active powers (such as a hammer’s power to shatter glass) since even an active power “is incomplete relative to the activity it underlies” and thus needs actualization. But then, in the very next sentence, Feser makes an exception for God: since God is Pure Act, His active powers are not mixed with any potency, so His active powers need no actualization from outside in order to be exercised. The distinction is irrelevant, however; for if an active power is essentially incomplete relative to the activity it exercises, then the exercise of that power must actualize its possessor to some degree. An author may have the active capacity to write a novel – indeed, she may have the entire plot written “in her head” for many years – but the actual publication of her novel is what makes her actually an author; and in a similar fashion, we can say it is not God’s detailed plan for how He could or would create the world, but His (timeless) decision to create, that actualizes Him as the Author of the cosmos.
(4) A Self-Moved First Mover – or more precisely, a Self-Actualizing First Actualizer -could still be (timelessly) actualized by the creatures it maintains in existence, if it chose to endow creatures with the power to actualize their Creator. I have argued that Aquinas’ First Way points to the existence of a Self-Moved First Mover – a Being that’s capable of maintaining something in existence, without needing to be activated by anything else – rather than an Unmoved Mover. Such a Being would still be capable of (timelessly) actualizing itself, through its contingent operations. However, I see no reason why such a Being could not give the things it maintains in existence the power to (timelessly) actualize it, by communicating information about their “comings and goings” back to their Creator. It may be objected that this would render the First Mover passive, as this Being would need to be actualized by other beings in order to be informed about their activities. Nevertheless, the First Mover would not need to be activated by other beings in order to perform the vital activity of maintaining those beings in existence, so I see no difficulty here. This is highly relevant in connection to the question of God’s foreknowledge: although Feser rejects the view that we are literally characters in a story that God has invented, he nevertheless maintains that God foreknows our free choices in much the same way as the author of a novel knows what the characters in her story will do: as he puts it, God’s being the Ultimate Cause is “no more incompatible with human freedom than the fact that an author decides that, as part of a mystery story, a character will freely choose to commit a murder, is incompatible with the claim that the character in question really committed the murder freely.” Feser thinks this kind of causality is compatible with libertarian freedom, whereas the action of a mad scientist who controls people’s choices by some electronic device implanted in their brains would manifestly be incompatible with genuine freedom. However, I maintain that there is no significant difference between the two scenarios, for in both cases, the agent in question (the author or the mad scientist) knows what his subjects will do by controlling their choices, and if my choices are determined by circumstances beyond my control, they are not free. To illustrate my point, ask yourself this: would it make any sense for author J.K. Rowling to reproach Voldemort for performing his dastardly deeds? Of course not: she made him do them. I might add that Feser’s “author” metaphor for God’s ultimate causation of human choices would make God the author of every foul thought, word and deed hatched by the mind of man. (Molinism is another theory which claims to reconcile God’s foreknowledge with human freedom while leaving God purely active, but I don’t think this solution makes us any more free, as a God Who knows what I would do in every possible situation and Who then decides to actualize a particular situation and place me in it, thereby determines my choice and thus negates my freedom.) The solution to the problem of how God knows our choices which I endorse is the Boethian one: that God is (timelessly) informed of my free choices by His creatures, in what theologians call knowledge of vision (scientia visionis) – rather like a watcher on a high hill, except that God, being outside time, can view the past, present and future at once. (This is also the solution adopted by most rank-and-file believers, who tell their children that God “sees” everything, even though He is incorporeal.) Feser evidently thinks that it would be contrary to God’s sovereignty for Him to need to be informed by His own creatures of their activities; whereas I would argue that if God has freely chosen to give creatures the power to inform Him of their activities in this way, then there is no loss of sovereignty on God’s part. Also, the classical theist doctrine of God’s impassibility need not be interpreted as meaning that creatures have no power to causally influence their Creator; on a more sensible interpretation, it simply means that creatures have no power over God’s Being, His actions or His reactions. Another advantage of the proposal that God is capable of being informed by His creatures is that would resolve the problem of qualia (the irreducibly subjective properties of our experiences, such as the redness of a tomato or the sour taste of lemon): for if God’s knowledge were entirely active and in no way passive, then He could know qualia only by objectifying them, which is by definition impossible. But if God can somehow see the world “through our eyes” (or for that matter, directly experience the world Himself) then the problem disappears. In other words, what I’m claiming is that God must be capable of subjective experiences, because if He weren’t, either He would not be omniscient (which is contrary to classical theism), or human beings would lack both subjectivity and libertarian freedom (which is contrary to everyday experience).
(5) Even if we were to grant that Feser has demonstrated the existence of a Being Who is Pure Act, Feser’s argument (Aquinas, 2009, p. 121) that a Being Who is Pure Act lacks no perfection and must therefore be all-perfect commits two elementary fallacies. First of all, it confuses the mere absence of a perfection with an imperfection, which is the lack of a perfection where it ought to be present. A sheep missing a leg is imperfect and defective; but the absence of legs in a fish is no defect. Second, the argument merely establishes that the First Cause (Who is Pure Act) contains no imperfections within its being – which is quite different from establishing that the First Cause contains all perfections. To be fair to Feser, he has another argument up his sleeve: Thomistic Thesis II, which states that “Act, because it is perfection, is not limited except by Potency, which is capacity for perfection,” from which it follows that Pure Act “is unlimited and unique.” In his work, Scholastic Metaphysics (2014, p. 37), Feser illustrates this point with the example of a rubber ball, whose constituent matter (which receives the form of “roundness”) prevents it from having a perfectly round shape. But what Feser overlooks is that even perfect roundness is inherently limited: for example, something which is perfectly round cannot be omnipresent, and its roundness also renders it capable of being decomposed into parts. There seems to be no reason in principle, then, why something could not be purely actual, and yet limited. Such a being could conceivably instantiate some perfections, but not others. A purely actual being need not be an infinite being.
(6) Aquinas’ second, third, fourth and fifth ways, on Feser’s reconstruction, are seriously weakened by the fact that they all make the controversial assumption (disputed even by many Scholastic philosophers) that there is a real distinction between a thing’s essence (or what it is) and its act of existence, coupled with an additional assumption that it is meaningful to characterize God as Pure Existence. (As far as I can discover, St. Augustine was the first to characterize God in this way.) Feser offers an arguments for the first assumption in his book, Aquinas, but it is inconclusive: the famous “phoenix” argument (I can know what a phoenix is without knowing whether it exists or not) does not show that there is a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence, but merely establishes that there’s a difference between asking “what” and asking “whether.” The question as to whether I exist or not can be represented as a simple binary variable: true or false; but my act of existence is certainly much more than a yes-no affair. In his book, Scholastic Metaphysics (2014, pp. 241-243), Feser puts forward two additional arguments for a real distinction between essence and existence: first, the essence of a natural object has a mere potential for existence (as shown by the fact that natural objects come into existence and go out of existence), whereas existence itself is something actual; and second, if the essence of a natural object were not really distinct from its existence, then it would have existence by its very nature, and thus would not be contingent (as natural objects are) but necessary. But the first argument only makes sense if one (absurdly) conceives of the essence of an as-yet-nonexistent natural object as literally waiting to have existence “breathed into” it; while the second merely shows that “existence” is not an essential property of natural objects, in the way that being a quadruped or a mammal is an essential property of being a cat. In support of his second assumption – that we can meaningfully characterize God as Pure Existence – Feser argues (Aquinas, 2009, p. 30; Scholastic Metaphysics, 2014, pp. 36-37) that a thing’s actuality can only be limited by its built-in potencies, and that a being devoid of potency would therefore be unlimited. He then goes on to argue (Aquinas, 2009, p. 121) that there can only be one being for whom essence and existence are identical – for if there were two such beings, they would have to be distinguished by virtue of their forms. But Feser’s first argument fails to consider the possibility that certain kinds of actuality might simply be intrinsically limited – think of roundness or squareness, for instance – without the need for any potency to limit them, while his second argument merely demonstrates that there can only be one being, at most, whose essence is Pure Existence, without any formal constraints. What needs to be established, however, is the legitimacy of characterizing anything as “Pure Existence” in the first place. There are powerful prima facie philosophical arguments for why a skeptic might regard the notion of “Pure Existence” as utterly meaningless: first (as skeptic Jonathan M.S. Pearce has argued), “Pure Existence” has no properties; second, the concept of “existence” conveys no information whatsoever, which is why the sentence “There is a being” tells us absolutely nothing, while the sentence “There is a dog” is genuinely informative; and third, the attempt to substitute “Being” or “Pure Existence” into religious utterances about God results in unintelligible nonsense – for a few examples, try these: “Pure Existence created the world”; “Pure Existence spoke to Moses 3,300 years ago and struck the Egyptians with ten plagues”; “Pure Existence wants you to go to church on Sundays”. [Let me be clear: I am not denying that we can legitimately speak of God as “Pure Existence”; what I’m arguing is that we cannot meaningfully speak of God in this way until we’ve addressed the question of what it means for God to exist in the first place – a topic I discuss in paragraph (9) below.] It is also very odd to speak of God’s “conjoining” an essence to its act of existence, as Feser does: for the conjoining A and B surely presupposes that A and B already exist. Now, Feser has previously insisted that his argument for God’s existence does not depend on there being a real distinction between essence and existence: he thinks he can argue for God from the concept of a Being Who is Pure Act. In his own words: “I do not think one needs to argue for the essence/existence distinction in order to show that things require a sustaining cause. I think act/potency can do it by itself.” Since, as we have seen, Feser’s reconstruction of Aquinas’ First Way (which uses the act-potency distinction to argue for the existence of an all-perfect Being Who is Pure Act) is invalid, it seems that Feser has to fall back on philosophically controversial assumptions about essence and existence, and about the notion of Pure Existence, in order to argue for the existence of God, since Aquinas’ second, third, fourth and fifth ways, as interpreted by Feser, are all based on these unproven assumptions. That being the case, Feser’s reconstructions of Aquinas’ second, third, fourth and fifth ways cannot be regarded as metaphysical demonstrations, since key premises in these arguments lack adequate argumentative support.
(7) Aquinas’ Fifth Way is the only one of the Five Ways that explicitly argues for God’s intelligence: natural objects, contends Aquinas, have to be guided by an intelligent being towards their built-in goals. (On Feser’s interpretation, this is because these goals are future, as-yet-unrealized states, and natural objects lack foresight.) However, Feser’s reconstruction of Aquinas’ Fifth Way, while ingenious, is open to the fatal objection that the intelligent being who guides natural objects towards their built-in ends might itself need to be maintained in existence by a second Being Whose essence and existence are identical (the God of classical theism). In that case, it would need to be established that this second Being is also intelligent. Unfortunately, Feser makes no attempt to do this: in his book Aquinas (2009, p. 118), he blithely asserts that “there would have to be a higher intelligence” guiding the first intelligent being, but fails to explain why such a being would require guidance of any sort: all it would require, it seems, is something to conserve it in existence. Thus Feser’s argument fails to show that God is intelligent. I might add that Feser’s argument, when taken to its logical conclusion, would appear to preclude natural objects from having active powers, which Feser himself insists that they possess. For if natural objects need to be guided by an Intelligence to their respective ends, then it is hard to see how they can be said to possess an active, built-in tendency to reach those ends, as Feser contends they do. Additionally, Feser’s claim that all natural objects have a built-in tendency to move towards future states appears doubtful: as I explain below, one can account for their behavior equally well by assuming (more modestly) that they are oriented towards the present states that they realize.
(8) In my opinion, the assertion that the behavior of natural objects is governed by prescriptions provides a far better foundation for the argument that these objects require intelligent guidance in order to attain their built-in ends. As I have argued elsewhere, if the laws of Nature are purely descriptive in content, then scientists have no good reason to believe that these laws will continue to hold at all times and places. I also believe Feser is absolutely correct in construing laws as statements about things’ causal powers: to speak of laws themselves as causing anything smacks of Platonism. In conforming to laws, then, things are obeying rules (prescriptions) and behaving as they ought to behave. Prescriptions, or “ought-statements,” must therefore be part of the warp-and-woof of natural objects themselves – a very odd state of affairs which makes no sense unless natural objects are the product of some Intelligence. On the view I am proposing, this Intelligence is not required in order to guide natural objects towards their built-in ends but in order to issue the prescriptions in the first place, and to continue to “utter” them, as it were – for to speak of a prescription as remaining in existence in the absence of any Prescriber is unintelligible. Finally, if natural objects embody prescriptions, then we can properly speak of them as having active powers. It might be objected that this view fails to explain why individuals belonging to the same natural kinds are distinct. My reply is that because they have different spatiotemporal locations, they differ in degree of power they exert on one another.
(9) As I see it, the root of the metaphysical problem regarding essence and existence is that we don’t really know what it means for something to exist in the first place. Feser (following Aristotle and Aquinas) construes existence as a dynamic activity: instead of saying that a thing is, we should speak of it as “izzing,” if you like. This is correct far as it goes. But what kind of activity is it? Dr. William Dembski has recently argued in his book, Being as Communion (which I have not yet read), that in order for a thing to be real, it must be able to communicate with other things. That being the case, the reality of things is grounded in their ability to interact with other things – including their Creator, as I suggested in (4) above. Specifically, Dr. Dembski suggests that things can be said to be real by virtue of the fact that they communicate information with other things. I would add that the information in question needs to be fully specified at all levels. (For instance, it would not be enough for God to create Adam from dust merely by saying, “Dust, become a man,” as that fails to specify what kind of man Adam is to be – how tall, what blood type and so on.) That leaves us with the question of what it means for God to exist. The activities which are traditionally regarded as characterizing God – namely, knowledge and love – can be viewed as acts whereby God continually communicates with Himself – which is why the doctrine of the Trinity is of central importance (God the Son and God the Holy Spirit being God’s knowledge and love of Himself, respectively, as St. Augustine originally wrote). God’s necessity cannot be grasped by us, but if Mind (which is characterized by knowledge and love) is the Ultimate Reality then a Being Whose essence is defined by nothing else could not fail to exist. We can also see why the Ultimate Reality has to be a Mind, as it makes no sense to speak of information in the total absence of mind. The contingency of created things may therefore be rooted in the fact that they are not capable of receiving information about everything, but are limited by their specific forms (which are effectively information filters). Thus the internal complexity and law-governed mathematical behavior of material substances, coupled with the fine-tuning of the laws and constants of Nature, can all be seen as reflections of the contingency of the cosmos and all that is in it. As perceptive readers will have noticed, this is not unlike Aquinas’ claim that a thing’s existence is limited by its form. What differentiates the claim being made here, however, is that it actually attempts to address the question of what it means for a thing to exist. Without proof that the speculative answer given to this question is the correct one, however, it would be quite inappropriate to speak of any argument for God’s existence which is based on this answer as a metaphysical demonstration.
I might add that the foregoing analysis of existence also explains why mathematical objects (such as triangles) are not real, and why fictional characters are not real either. The reasons why triangles are not real are that: (a) they don’t exchange information with one another: they just stand in splendid isolation; and (b) they don’t have any power to interact with their Creator. And the reasons why fictional objects are not real are that (a) they cannot be called true objects, since they are not fully specified by their human authors (to see why, just ask yourself this: what color is the house where Harry Potter lives, and how big is it?); and (b) they are incapable of interacting with their human creators (Draco Malfoy can startle Harry Potter, but he can’t startle J.K. Rowling).
What I’m suggesting, then, is that the world is not like a book authored by God, in which the characters have no freedom. Instead it is more like an interactive video game. God is the game creator.
Part D – Feser’s valuable work in expounding Aquinas’ philosophy
I have on previous occasions described Professor Feser as a matchless exponent of the thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas. I would add that although I disagree with some of its conclusions, Feser’s book Aquinas (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009) is as good an account of Thomistic philosophy as readers are ever likely to see during their lifetimes. And I seriously doubt whether anyone could possibly do a better job of revamping Aquinas’ Five Ways for a 21st century audience than Feser does, in his book.
The book, however, does not express any of Aquinas’ Five Ways in the form of a logical syllogism. That omission is remedied in Professor Feser’s 2011 paper, “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” (cited above), which is written as a critique of the view, held by some philosophers, that the natural world does not need God to maintain it in being, once He has created it. On this view, the world has a built-in tendency to remain in existence, without any need for God to conserve it in being. This view is commonly known as the existential inertia thesis. Feser’s paper, “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways,” upholds the traditional view, held by Jews, Christians and Muslims down the ages, that the world could not in principle continue to exist for even an instant, without the conserving action of God – a view which is often referred to as the Doctrine of Divine Conservation. Feser contends that each of Aquinas’ Five Ways can be understood as a logical syllogism which directly implies the truth of the Doctrine of Divine Conservation, and he chides defenders of the existential inertia thesis for failing to effectively address these arguments contained in these syllogisms. In the course of elaborating his argument, Feser also responds to the arguments of writers like Mortimer Adler, John Beaudoin, J. L. Mackie, and Bede Rundle, who have defended the existential inertia thesis.
Let me state up-front that I fully agree with Professor Feser that the existential inertia thesis is utterly false, as well as being contrary to the principles of Thomism (and for that matter, classical theism). I, like Feser, accept the Doctrine of Divine Conservation: things could not remain in existence, even for an instant, without the conserving activity of God. But in his 2011 paper, Feser goes further: he attempts to show that each of the Five Ways, when properly understood, can take us all the way to the God of classical theism, although they converge on this conclusion from different directions. In other words, the Five Ways point not just to the existence of a mysterious First Cause (whatever that might be), but to the existence of a Being Who is fully actualized, and Who is incapable of being further actualized: a First Mover Who is not only unmoved but also unmovable. Such a Being contains no potency of any sort: it is Pure Act. Since it is utterly devoid of potentiality, this Being must be an absolutely simple entity, without any parts that can be assembled or separated from one another: in other words, it has no matter that is capable of being divided, and no properties either (for its attributes are identical with its substance). What’s more, this Being is not just any old being: it is Being Itself, which means that its essence is inseparable from its act of existence. That in turn, according to Feser, implies that the Being is infinite – for a thing is limited only by its essence, and a Being Whose essence is Existence Itself would contain no limitations of any kind. Moreover, since this Being directs things towards their built-in ends in a reliable manner, it can be fittingly described as intelligent, and since it steadfastly maintains the world in existence and enables the creatures in it to flourish, this Being can also be said to be benevolent. The terms “intelligence” and “benevolence” can be predicated of God only in an analogical sense, however, as God’s intelligence and benevolence utterly transcend ours.
In his 2011 article, Feser’s main concern was to show that the Doctrine of Divine Conservation could be adequately defended, by a proper understanding of the chain of argumentation contained in Aquinas’ Five Ways. And it would be fair to say that Feser has succeeded admirably in accomplishing this objective: he has definitely put the traditional doctrine “on the map,” while making a very powerful case for God’s existence. But there is a big difference between a powerful case and a rigorous demonstration – and as we’ve seen, Feser thinks he has accomplished the latter. Now, I have repeatedly argued in previous posts that the existence of God can be established beyond reasonable doubt. However, I would also maintain that the existence of God cannot be established with the degree of ironclad certainty that Feser believes it can. I feel obliged to point this out, because tall claims warrant rigorous scrutiny, and if Feser’s proof turns out to be a failure, then it would be better for him if a fellow-believer (such as myself) pointed this out than if an unbeliever did.
What I’ll be arguing in this post
I have argued on a previous occasion that Professor Feser’s metaphysical assumptions are not as modest as they may at first appear, and that when they are fully unpacked, it turns out that his interpretation of Aquinas’ Five Ways hinges on up to twenty different assumptions, and that the truth of some of these is by no means obvious. But I won’t be taking that tack in this post. Instead, I intend to take Feser’s empirical, metaphysical and logical assumptions listed above as given, and argue that even so, Feser’s arguments still fail to establish the truth of classical theism. The only metaphysical assumption Feser explicitly makes which I’ll be calling into question is the Thomistic claim that there is a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its act of existence. Feser himself thinks that he can demonstrate God’s existence even without this assumption: in a recent combox comment, he stated:
I do not think one needs to argue for the essence/existence distinction in order to show that things require a sustaining cause. I think act/potency can do it by itself… (See “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” and Scholastic Metaphysics.)
As we’ll see below, however, no less than four of Aquinas’ Five Ways, as reconstructed by Feser, hinge on this tenuous distinction between essence and existence. Only the First Way refrains from making this assumption; consequently if it fails, Feser’s arguments can no longer be considered demonstrative.
Without further ado, let us have a look at Feser’s construal of Aquinas’ Five Ways.
Part E – The First Way
[N.B. Quotes below are taken from Professor Feser’s 2011 article, “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” (American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 2, pp. 237-267) unless indicated otherwise.]
The First Way is otherwise known as the argument from motion to an Unmoved Mover, where by “motion” Aquinas means change of any sort and where by “change” he means the reduction of potency to act (or potentiality to actuality)…But I would suggest that the heart of the argument … can be expressed exclusively in the language of act and potency… [T]he thrust of the argument is best understood in terms of substances rather than events. For the occurrence of an event ultimately presupposes (for an Aristotelian like Aquinas, certainly) the existence of a substance or substances; and the existence of a natural substance involves, no less than the events it enters into does, the reduction of potency to act. (2011, p. 241)
To account for the reduction of potency to act in the case of the operations or activities of the hand, the muscles, and so on, we are led ultimately to the reduction of potency to act vis-a-vis the existence or being of ever deep and more general features of reality; for “it is evident that anything whatever operates so far as it is a being” (QDA 19). (Aquinas, Oneworld, Oxford, 2009, p. 75.)
Feser’s reconstruction of Aquinas’ First Way
1. That the actualization of potency is a real feature of the world follows from the occurrence of the events we know of via sensory experience.
2. The occurrence of any event E presupposes the operation of a substance.
3. The existence of any natural substance S at any given moment presupposes the concurrent actualization of a potency.
(The idea here, as Feser writes, is that “whatever the metaphysical details turn out to be vis-à-vis the structure of events and substances, they will involve the actualization of potency, and that this presupposes the operation of that which is pure act.”)
4. No mere potency can actualize a potency; only something actual can do so.
5. So any actualizer A of S’s current existence must itself be actual.
6. A’s own existence at the moment it actualizes S itself presupposes either (a) the concurrent actualization of a further potency or (b) A’s being purely actual.
7. If A’s existence at the moment it actualizes S presupposes the concurrent actualization of a further potency, then there exists a regress of concurrent actualizers that is either infinite or terminates in a purely actual actualizer.
8. But such a regress of concurrent actualizers would constitute a causal series ordered per se, and such a series cannot regress infinitely.
( By way of explanation, Feser writes: “T]he idea … is that if A’s existence depends on the concurrent existence and actualizing activity of some further actualizer B, and B’s existence depends on the concurrent existence and actualizing activity of some further actualizer C, then we clearly have a series ordered per se which can terminate only in that which can actualize without itself requiring actualization — something that just is, already, purely actual.”)
9. So either A itself is purely actual or there is a purely actual actualizer which terminates the regress of concurrent actualizers.
10. So the occurrence of E and thus the existence of S at any given moment presupposes the existence of a purely actual actualizer. (pp. 241-242)
In my opinion, the argument successfully demonstrates the existence of a First Cause of change which can actualize without needing to be actualized. What it fails to show is that this First Cause is incapable of being actualized, and that this First Cause is unique.
(a) God: unmoved or self-moving? Determining or determined?
First, contrary to what Feser asserts, Aquinas’ First Way (as Feser reconstructs it) establish the existence, not of an Unactualized Actualizer, but of a Self-actualized Actualizer, capable of actualizing itself in an indefinite number of ways, depending on which things it happens to maintains in existence. Here’s why. Necessarily, every operation of a substance (or agent) actualizes it in some way. Necessarily, an agent’s act of maintaining a thing in existence is an operation of some sort. And if the thing which is maintained in existence is contingent (as Feser rightly holds natural objects to be), then the agent’s act of maintaining it in existence is a contingent action. However, the First Mover is a necessary being, so its act of existence must also be necessary. Since it is logically impossible for one and the same action to be both contingent and necessary, it follows that the agent’s operation of maintaining a thing in existence must be distinct from the agent’s own act of existence – and hence, distinct from the agent’s essence, since (as Feser argues) for the First Mover, essence and existence are identical. Since an operation which is distinct from an agent’s essence cannot belong in the category of substance, it must belong in the category of accident instead: in other words, the operation itself is not a thing, but a modification or property of a thing – in this case, the First Mover. Hence the First Mover must have accidental properties: insofar as it maintains anything in existence, it is itself actualized in some way. The point I am making here is simply that any agent is necessarily additionally actualized by any contingent operations it performs – and it makes no difference here whether the agent is time-bound or timeless. All that matters is that the agent’s operations are contingent. (I should emphasize, however, that the actualizations of the First Mover arising from its operations do not enhance or perfect the First Mover as a being, as they are merely non-essential properties of that being.)
Why does all this matter? Feser’s arguments for God’s unlimited perfection take as their starting point the premise that God is Pure Act, and that He is incapable of being further actualized. But if God is not Pure Act, then his argument collapses.
Now, Feser might attempt to reply to the above argument by contending that a being composed of substance and accident would be a composite of the two, and that beings composed of parts require an external cause to hold those parts together. But I would argue that an agent’s contingent operations (which are non-essential properties of that agent) do not need an external cause to bind them to the agent: they belong to the agent simply by virtue of the fact that they are performed by that agent. Nothing else is needed to “tie” them to their agent, as it is conceptually impossible for actions to exist without an agent.
Aquinas’ three arguments (Summa Theologica I, q. 3, art. 6) against the possibility of God having any properties (or accidents) also miss the mark, when applied to God’s contingent operations. First, Aquinas argues that there can be no potentiality in God, as there would be if he were actualized by His properties. Second, he contends that Absolute Being cannot have anything added to it. Third, he maintains that there can be no accidents (or properties) in God, as they would be logically posterior to God’s substance – “Whence as God is absolute primal being, there can be in Him nothing accidental.” However, all the foregoing arguments show is that if God has any properties, then they cannot be part of Him. An indivisible substance such as God might be “fully actual” in the sense that it requires nothing to hold it together. However, this substance might still be capable of undergoing further actualization as a result of its own choice to create a world and maintain it in existence.
(b) A Self-Actualized First Actualizer could still be (timelessly) actualized by the creatures it maintains in existence
I might add that if the First Mover is capable of actualizing itself by performing the contingent operation of maintaining a thing in existence, then there is no reason in principle why the First Mover could not endow that thing with the capacity to actualize the First Mover. This has obvious implications for the question of how God knows our free choices. If (as Feser apparently holds), God knows our free choices by determining them (as the author of a novel determines the actions performed by the characters in her novel), then it makes no sense to describe them as free. As Elizabeth Anscombe put it in her 1971 lecture, Causality and Determination: “My actions are mostly physical movements; if these physical movements are physically predetermined by processes which I do not control, then my freedom is perfectly illusory.” Anscombe’s target in her lecture was the compatibilist claim that one can believe in both physical determinism and ‘ethical’ freedom, but it seems to me that her argument works against theological determinism as well. If God determines my choices then I am not free: it’s as simple as that. But as Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange points out in Volume II of his work, God: His Existence and Nature, there really are only two options here: “God determining or determined: there is no other alternative.” (As I explained above, Molinism doesn’t offer a third way out, either: for if God infallibly knows what I would do in such-and-such a world, and then decides to create that world, instead of some other world, then He thereby determines my choices.) Consequently, if one believes in libertarian freedom – a fact which I consider to be as certain as the existence of an external world – it follows that free creatures must have the capacity, built into them by their Creator, to make God (timelessly) aware of whatever choices they make. God, then, is (timelessly) informed by His creatures, but only because He gave them the power to inform Him when He created them.
I should add that if (as Professor Feser appears to maintain, if I read him aright) God knows our choices in the way that the author of a book knows what his/her characters are doing, then that would entail that God is the Ultimate Author of all of the following:
- every human perversion ever dreamed up by twisted human individuals – for the ideas that these people had originally came from God;
- every argument for atheism that any philosopher has ever formulated;
- every fallacious argument that any philosopher has ever made;
- every evil plan that anyone has ever had;
- every badly thought-out plan that anyone has ever had;
- every immoral work of literature;
- every second or third-rate work of literature (including every rejected novel and every unfinished one);
- every dirty joke and every sick joke;
- every corny or unfunny joke, and every bad pun;
- every cruel or unkind word ever uttered by one human being to another;
- every foolish word ever uttered by one human being to another;
- every bad deed that anyone has ever done; and
- every stupid thing that anyone has ever done.
Does Professor Feser really wish to maintain that God is the Ultimate Author of all these things? I sincerely hope not.
Feser may object that my proposal that God is (timelessly) informed by creatures of their activities is at odds with the classical theistic doctrine of God’s impassibility. However, the doctrine of Divine impassibility need not be understood as affirming that creatures have no power to causally influence their Creator, as Thomistic philosophers have traditionally taught. Instead, the doctrine can be interpreted as the (more modest) claim that creatures have no power over God’s Being, no power to control their Creator’s actions or reactions, and above all, no power to make Him suffer: we cannot make God upset, for instance, and we cannot hurt God. And indeed many defenders of the doctrine have understood it in precisely this way.
(c) God’s absolute perfection
I conclude, then, that if the First Way takes us anywhere, it takes us to a very different kind of God from the one envisaged by Professor Feser. But there is more: if it is false to say that God is Pure Act, then any argument for God’s absolute perfection which is based on the premise that God is Pure Act is thereby rendered invalid. I shall critique such an argument below, in the section titled, “The equivocation in Feser’s argument for God’s absolute perfection.”
Part F – The Second Way
[N.B. Quotes below are taken from Professor Feser’s 2011 article, “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” (American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 2, pp. 237-267) unless indicated otherwise.]
Feser’s explanatory comments
…[T]he existential proof presupposes Aquinas’s famous doctrine … of the real distinction between essence and existence in everything other than God. The proof seeks to show that nothing in which essence and existence are distinct could exist even for an instant unless there is something in which essence and existence are identical — something which just is ipsum esse subsistens, Subsistent Being Itself — conjoining its essence to an act of existence and thereby maintaining it in being. (p. 244)
The argument for an Uncaused Cause, as I have interpreted it, … holds that S’s essence, and thus S itself, is merely potential until that essence is conjoined with an act of existence. But if S or S’s essence did this conjoining, then S would be the cause of itself, which is impossible. Hence the conjoining must be done by some cause C distinct from S. But the distinction between S’s essence and existence that this presupposes is as real after S first comes into existence as it was before… Hence the conjoining of S’s essence and existence by a cause distinct from S must be maintained at any moment S exists. (p. 245)
Feser’s reconstruction of Aquinas’ Second Way
1. That efficient causation is a real feature of the world is evident from sensory experience.
2. Nothing can be the efficient cause of itself.
[In his book, Scholastic Metaphysics, Feser explains why: “The reason a cause must be distinct from its effect is that to cause is to actualize a potency, and no potency can actualize itself but must be actualized by something already actual” (2014, p. 108). ]
3. The existence of any natural substance S at any given moment presupposes that its essence is concurrently being conjoined to an act of existence.
4. If S itself were somehow conjoining its own essence to an act of existence, it would be the efficient cause of itself.
[As Feser puts it in his 2011 article: “The argument … holds that S’s essence, and thus S itself, is merely potential until [its] essence is conjoined with an act of existence. But if S’s essence did this conjoining, then S would be the cause of itself, which is impossible” (p. 245).]
5. So there must be some concurrent efficient cause C distinct from S which is conjoining S’s essence to an act of existence.
6. C’s own existence at the moment it conjoins S’s essence to an act of existence presupposes either (a) that C’s essence is concurrently being conjoined to an act of existence, or (b) that in C essence and existence are identical.
7. If C’s existence at the moment it conjoins S’s essence to an act of existence presupposes that C’s own essence is concurrently being conjoined to an act of existence, then there exists a regress of concurrent conjoiners of essences and acts of existence that is either infinite or terminates in something whose essence and existence are identical.
8. But such a regress of concurrent conjoiners of essence and existence would constitute a causal series ordered per se, and such a series cannot regress infinitely.
9. So either C’s own essence and existence are identical, or there is something else whose essence and existence are identical which terminates the regress of concurrent conjoiners of essences with acts of existence.
10. So the existence of S at any given moment presupposes the existence of something in which essence and existence are identical. (pp. 244-245)
In my opinion, the argument successfully demonstrates the existence of a First Cause of the existence of things. What it fails to show is that this First Cause is the unique cause of the existence of all things, and that it is the only Being Whose essence and existence are identical.
Aquinas’ Second Way, as reconstructed by Feser, hinges on the contentious claim that there is a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence, and that the former stands in relation to the latter in the same way as potency stands in relation to act. Feser himself acknowledges as much, in his remarks on the Second Way:
The proof seeks to show that nothing in which essence and existence are distinct could exist even for an instant unless there is something in which essence and existence are identical—something which just is ipsum esse subsistens, Subsistent Being Itself—conjoining its essence to an act of existence and thereby maintaining it in being. (p. 244)
The argument …holds that [a substance] S’s essence, and thus S itself, is merely potential until that essence is conjoined with an act of existence. (p. 245)
Like most Thomistic philosophers, Feser holds that that there is a real distinction between a thing’s essence (or nature) and its act of existence. To most of my readers, the notion that a thing’s nature might be in some way distinct from its act of existence will sound very odd, so I shall illustrate the point with the aid of a concrete example: the Thylacine, or marsupial wolf, commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger, because of the striped markings on its back.
The argument (which dates back to Avicenna) goes as follows: I can understand what a thylacine is (i.e. its essence), without knowing whether any Tasmanian tigers still exist, or not. (The last one is believed to have died in captivity in 1936, but there have been claimed unofficial sightings since then.) Therefore, the argument concludes, a thing’s “whatness” (or essence) must be distinct from its actual existence. But all the argument really proves is that there is a linguistic distinction between “what” and “whether.”: “What is an X?” and “Are there any Xs?” are two fundamentally different questions. The argument fails to establish that there is a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence.
I have already discussed two other arguments put forward by Feser for a real distinction between essence and existence in his book, Scholastic Metaphysics (2014, pp. 241-243): first, that the essence of a natural object has a mere potential for existence (as shown by the fact that natural objects come into existence and go out of existence), whereas existence itself is something actual; and second, that if the essence of a natural object were not really distinct from its existence, then it would have existence by its very nature, and thus would not be contingent (as natural objects are) but necessary. However, the first argument presupposes a picture in which the essence of an as-yet-nonexistent natural object receives existence when it is generated (which begs the question); while the second merely shows that “existence” is not an essential property of natural objects. What I am maintaining, however, is that a thing’s existence is not a property of that thing; it simply is the thing itself. (What else could it be?)
If we wish to postulate any kind of distinction between a thing’s essence and its act of existence, the most economical supposition is that the distinction is merely a logical one. Indeed, many Scholastic philosophers (notably Scotists and Suarezians) take the view that there is merely a logical distinction between essence and existence, rather than a real one, as an article in the Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges. But if the distinction between a thing’s essence and its act of existence is not a real one, then we can no longer appeal to the alleged compositeness of things as proof of their contingency.
That being the case, Feser cannot legitimately claim that Aquinas’ Five Ways are metaphysically certain arguments which “conclusively … establish” the existence of God, if it turns out that these arguments hinge on a philosophical claim – that there is a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence – which even Scholastic philosophers regard as contentious. But as we’ll see below, not only Aquinas’ Second Way, but also his Third, Fourth and Fifth Way, appeal to a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence, on Feser’s reconstruction of these arguments. And since the First Way (as we have already seen) fails to demonstrate its conclusion, it follows that none of Aquinas’ Five Ways can properly be called metaphysical demonstrations, in their present form – which is not to say that they won’t be demonstrative a century from now, when the arguments have been fleshed out further.
Having said that, the fact that there is even a logical distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence still requires some sort of explanation. For what it suggests is that things are contingent: after all, if I can understand what they are without knowing whether they are, that would seem to indicate that the reason for their existence lies outside themselves. In his essay, Job Opening: Creator of the Universe—A Reply to Keith Parsons (2009), philosopher Paul Herrick proposes what he calls a Principle of Daring Inquiry to capture this philosophical intuition:
When confronted with the existence of some unexplained phenomenon X, it is reasonable to seek an explanation for X if we can coherently conceive of a state of affairs in which it would not be the case that X exists.
Can the contingency of things take us to God, then? To answer that question, we need to examine Aquinas’ Third Way.
Part G – The Third Way
[N.B. Quotes below are taken from Professor Feser’s 2011 article, “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” (American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 2, pp. 237-267) unless indicated otherwise.]
Feser’s explanatory comments
…Aquinas is happy to concede, at least for the sake of argument, that matter might be a kind of necessary being. Moreover, he recognizes the existence of other non-divine necessary beings as well, such as angels and even heavenly bodies (which, given the astronomical knowledge then available, the medievals mistakenly regarded as not undergoing corruption). This should not be surprising when we keep in mind that getting to the existence of a necessary being is only the first half of the Third Way. The second half is devoted to showing that any necessary being that does not have its necessity of itself must ultimately derive it from a necessary being which does have its necessity of itself. In particular, it is Aquinas’s view that even if matter and form, angels and heavenly bodies count as necessary beings of a sort, they do not have their necessity of themselves but must derive it from an absolutely necessary being, namely God. (p. 247)
Feser’s reconstruction of Aquinas’ Third Way
1. That the particular substances revealed to us in sensory experience are contingent is evident from the fact that they are generated and corrupted.
2. Their generation and corruption presuppose matter and form, which are neither generated nor corrupted and are thus necessary.
3. But matter of itself is pure potency and material forms of themselves are mere abstractions, so that neither can exist apart from the other; and even when existing together they cannot depend on each other alone on pain of vicious circularity.
[Feser adds: “Nor will it do to suggest that any particular form/matter composite might have its necessity of itself, even apart from the fact that such composites have an inherent tendency to go out of existence. For since in purely material substances matter depends on form and form depends on matter, we would have a vicious explanatory circle unless there was something outside the form/matter composite that accounts for its existence”(2011, p. 247).]
4. So matter and form do not have their necessity of themselves but must derive it from something else.
5. Material substances are also composites of essence and existence, as are non-divine necessary beings like angels, and any such composite must have its essence and existence conjoined by something distinct from it.
6. So these other necessary beings too must derive their necessity from something else.
7. But a regress of necessary beings deriving their necessity from another would constitute a causal series ordered per se, which of its nature cannot regress infinitely.
8. So there must be something which is necessary in an absolute way, not deriving its necessity from another and (therefore) not a composite of form and matter or essence and existence. (2011, p. 248)
In my opinion, the argument successfully demonstrates the existence of a Necessary Being Whose necessity is not derived from that of any other being. What it fails to show is that this Necessary Being is unique, and that it is the only Being Whose essence and existence are identical.
Feser’s reconstruction of the Third Way hinges on there being a real distinction between a contingent thing’s essence and its existence. As he puts it:
Then there is the fact that material objects are composites of essence and existence as well, as are disembodied human souls and angels; and for reasons already stated, such composites must be sustained in being by something in which essence and existence are identical. (2011, pp. 247-248)
Feser’s construal of the Third Way is therefore vulnerable to a similar criticism to the one that was made above regarding the Second Way: if the distinction between a thing’s essence and its act of existence is not a real one, then we can no longer appeal to the alleged compositeness of things as proof of either their contingency (in the case of objects that are generated and corrupted) or their derived necessity (in the case of angels and everlasting substances).
Once again, it would seem philosophically prudent to look for another feature of things apart from their compositeness, in order to justify the powerful metaphysical intuition – and in my view, a correct one – that things which can even be intellectually conceived of as non-existent require an external cause for their existence. (The fact that things obey rules, and that the cosmos is fine-tuned and mathematically elegant are additional indicators of its contingency.) Basing an argument for God’s existence on compositeness alone amounts to putting all one’s theological eggs in a single basket.
Part H – The Fourth Way
Feser’s explanatory comments
The Fourth Way … is very widely misunderstood, perhaps even more so than the other arguments. For example, it is often assumed that Aquinas is arguing that every attribute that comes in degrees must have its fullest exemplar in God; and it is then objected that this entails such absurdities as that God must be the supreme exemplar of smelliness. But in fact Aquinas is concerned only with what the Scholastics called the transcendentals — being, one, good, true, and the like — which, unlike smelliness, sweetness, heat, cold, red, green, etc., are predicable of everything without exception. (2011, p. 249)
That in which essence and existence are distinct, and which is thus limited in being, depends upon that which just is pure existence or being. But being is convertible with goodness, unity, truth, etc. Hence that which is good only in some limited way must depend on that which is pure goodness, that which has unity only in some limited way must depend in on that which is absolutely one, and so forth. (2011, pp. 249-250)
Feser’s reconstruction of Aquinas’ Fourth Way
1. The things of our experience exhibit goodness, unity, and the other transcendentals only to some limited degree.
2. But they can do so only insofar as they participate in that which is good, one, etc., without limitation.
3. Moreover, the transcendentals are convertible with one another, and ultimately with Being Itself.
4. So there is some one thing which is being itself, goodness itself, unity itself, and so forth, in which the things of our experience participate to the degrees they do.
5. But that in which things participate is their efficient cause.
6. So the one thing which is being itself, goodness itself, unity itself, etc., is the efficient cause of the things of our experience. (2011, p. 250)
In my opinion, the Fourth Way establishes the existence of a Being Whose unity, goodness and truth are not derived from any other being (in other words, a self-existent being), but once again I think additional argumentation is required to show that such a Being is unique, let alone infinite.
Feser’s reconstruction of the Fourth Way explicitly assumes that there is a real distinction between a natural object’s essence and its existence, as he freely acknowledges:
Just as that in which essence and existence are distinct — that is to say, that which has being only in a limited way — could not in Aquinas’s view exist for an instant if it were not sustained in being by that which just is Being Itself, so too he thinks that that which has goodness, unity, etc., only in a limited way could not exist (or at least not exist qua good, one, and so forth) even for an instant if it were not sustained by that which just is supreme goodness, unity, etc. (2011, p. 250)
The second premise of Feser’s argument, that we can describe things as existing, as one, and as good, only insofar as they participate in that which is being, unity and goodness without limitation, requires further justification. If one accepts the Thomistic principle that act can only be limited by potency, then the premise makes sense; however, as I have argued above, it is by no means certain that this principle is true.
Another argument one might make is that the notion of being admits of no limitation. But a skeptic might retort that the notion of being contains nothing positive either.
Feser’s argument also assumes that one can legitimately speak of a “thing which is being itself.” But a skeptic might object that the notion of such a thing is nonsensical, since “Being Itself” can have no properties, whereas the Creator of the world must have at least some (non-essential) properties.
A more powerful objection relates to the very concept of being or existence: it might be objected that the concept is an empty one, as sentences in which the name of a kind of object is replaced with the word “being” are thereby rendered uninformative: compare “There is a dog in the park” (an informative utterance) with “There is a being in the park” or in more natural English, “There is something in the park” (uninformative). One might argue that the latter sentence tells us that the being in question has a spatiotemporal location, but the work here is being done by the words “in the park”: the sentence, “There is a being” tells us nothing at all.
I am not saying that the concept of “Being Itself” is wrong. What I am saying is that by itself, it is theologically unilluminating: we need some additional positive concept of what God is. Defining God as Pure Mind, Whose nature is to know and love perfectly, is more helpful.
Part I – The Fifth Way
Feser’s explanatory comments
Aquinas… regards teleology as immanent to the natural order, as manifest in even the simplest causal processes rather than only in complex phenomena, and as something that leads us conclusively to the existence of a supreme intellect rather than merely as a matter of probability. (2011, p. 251)
The basic idea is this. A cause cannot be efficacious unless it exists in some way. But in the case of the final cause of some unintelligent causal process, the cause in question does not exist in the natural order. For instance, the oak is the end or final cause of the acorn, and yet until the acorn develops into the oak, the oak does not actually exist in the natural world. Now with artifacts, the final cause can be efficacious because it exists (or rather its form exists) in the mind of the artificer. For example, a building is the final cause of the actions of a builder, and it serves as a genuine cause despite its not yet existing in the natural order by existing at least as an idea in the builder’s intellect. Now unless there is some third alternative, this is how the final causes operative in the order of unintelligent natural things must exist, for they have to exist somehow in order to be efficacious. But there is no third alternative, given Aquinas’s rejection of Platonism.… So, there must be an intellect outside the natural order directing things to their ends, where these ends pre-exist as ideas in said intellect. And notice that this must be the case at any moment at which natural substances exist at all, for they retain their inherent causal powers and thus their immanent finality or end-directedness at every moment at which they exist. (2011, pp. 252-253)
Feser’s reconstruction of Aquinas’ Fifth Way
1. That unintelligent natural causes regularly generate certain specific effects or ranges of effects is evident from sensory experience.
2. Such regularities are intelligible only on the assumption that these efficient causes inherently “point to” or are “directed at” their effects as to an end or final cause.
3. So there are final causes or ends immanent to the natural order.
4. But unintelligent natural causes can “point to” or be “directed at” such ends only if guided by an intelligence.
5. So there is such an intelligence.
6. But since the ends or final causes in question are inherent in things by virtue of their natures or essence, the intelligence in question must be the cause also of natural things having the natures or essences they do.
7. This entails its being that which conjoins their essences to an act of existence, and only that in which essence and existence are identical can ultimately accomplish this.
8. So the intelligence in question is something in which essence and existence are identical.
I believe that the Fifth Way, as construed by Feser, completely fails as a demonstration. It fails to establish even the existence of a Cosmic Intelligence, and it also fails to show that this Intelligence is a Being Whose essence and existence are identical.
I note in passing that Feser’s reconstruction of the Fifth Way once again assumes a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence:
…[T]he claim is that a natural substance could not have the final cause or end it has even for an instant without some intelligence distinct from it ordering it to that end, which (it is argued) entails in turn that this intelligence must be keeping its essence conjoined to an act of existence at every such instant. (2011, p. 254)
1. The argument, if successful, proves too much. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would appear to preclude natural objects from having active powers. For if natural objects need to be guided by an Intelligence to their respective ends, then it is hard to see how they can be said to possess an active, built-in tendency to reach those ends, as Feser contends they do.
2. The key premise upon which the argument bases its claim that there is an Intelligent Being guiding Nature is that the behavior of natural objects is not only oriented towards the production of certain effects, but also that it is oriented towards future effects, at a fundamental level. This premise is open to the philosophical objection that the apparently future-oriented behavior of objects can be explained more simply, in terms of their present-oriented tendencies – e.g. the tendency of sodium and chloride ions in a crystal of table salt to dissolve when they encounter liquid water.
3. Contrary to what Feser claims, his argument does not succeed in establishing that the intelligent being (or beings) guiding natural objects towards their built-in goals (or “ends”) also endows them with their very natures. In his article, Feser argues that “since the ends or final causes in question are inherent in things by virtue of their natures or essence, the intelligence in question must be the cause also of natural things having the natures or essences they do” (2011, p. 254), which implies that an object’s built-in ends are a consequence of its nature. However, it does not follow from this fact that anything which causes a natural object to have those ends must therefore cause it to have the nature it has. To establish this conclusion, one would need to argue for the reverse: that an object’s ends determine its nature.
4. Feser’s argument also fails in its attempt to prove that the intelligent being who endows the various kinds of natural objects with their finality and form, which distinguish them from other kinds of objects, also endows these objects with their prime matter (the formless, featureless substrate underlying a substantial change, where an object of one kind changes into an object of another kind). Thus Feser is unable to establish that the intelligent being is anything more than a mere Demiurge, who generates forms but is not responsible for the existence of matter.
5. Feser’s argument fails to demonstrate that the intelligent being who endows natural objects with their matter, form and finality (i.e. the being who is the author of these objects’ essences), also sustains those objects in existence. For if (as Feser maintains) there is a real distinction between an object’s essence (or nature) and its existence, then the activity of defining an object’s formal, material, final and efficient causality – and thereby giving it an essence – is quite distinct from the activity of endowing that essence with existence – or as Feser puts it, conjoining that essence with its own act of existence. Hence, if we grant Feser’s essence-existence distinction, it no longer follows that the Intelligence which guides things towards their built-in ends and endows them with their natures (or essences) must also be responsible for keeping them in existence.
6. Feser’s argument leaves open the theoretical possibility that the intelligent being who maintains objects in existence might itself be maintained in existence by another Being Whose essence and existence are identical (the God of classical theism). In that case, it would need to be established that this latter Being is also intelligent. Unfortunately, Feser makes no attempt to do this. Thus Feser’s argument fails to show that God is intelligent.
Part J – The equivocation in Feser’s argument for God’s absolute perfection
Feser’s clearest statement of the Thomistic arguments for God’s perfection can be found in his book Aquinas (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009), where he writes:
…On Aquinas’ view there can in principle be only one being whose essence and existence are identical, and thus which is Pure Being. Hence it is necessarily one and the same being on which all five proofs converge. This would obviously entail, for the same reason, that there is and can be only one God. For there to be more than one God, there would have to be some essence that the distinct “Gods” all share, each with his own individual act of existence. But since God is that being in whom essence and existence are identical, who just is existence or being itself, there is no sense to be made of the idea that he shares an essence with anything else, or has some act of existing alongside others (S.T. I.11.3). (2009, p. 121)
In the foregoing passage, Feser makes what seems to be an illicit logical leap: assuming that there is a being whose essence is identical with its own act of existence, it does not follow that such a being is Pure Existence.
Why might Feser make such an assumption? A clue can be found in a remark he makes earlier on in his book (the passages in quotation marks are from Aquinas’ De Ente et Essentia, Chapter IV):
[For Aquinas], something whose essence is its existence would depend on nothing else (e.g. matter) for its existence, since it would just be existence or being. But there could only possibly be one such thing, for there could be no way in principle to distinguish more than one. We could not coherently appeal to some unique form one such being has to distinguish it from others of its kind, “because then it would not simply be an act of existing, but an act of existing plus this certain form”; nor could we associate it with some particular parcel of matter, “because then it would not be subsistent existence, but material existence,” that is, dependent on matter for its being (DEE 4). (2009, p. 30)
However, there still seems to be a gap in the logic in the above passage. It simply does not follow that something whose essence is identical with its existence would be to be existence or being: all that follows is that it would to be its own existence. In other words, “existence” can take various forms, depending on the kind of being we are talking about. Aquinas rejects this supposition, however, “because then it would not simply be an act of existing, but an act of existing plus this certain form.” What Aquinas is implicitly assuming here is that since the concept of “existence” contains no limitations per se, it can only be limited by something distinct from it which receives it – in this case, a thing’s form. The principle that Aquinas is appealing to is neatly encapsulated in the second of the Twenty-Four Thomistic Theses, which states: “Act, because it is perfection, is not limited except by Potency, which is capacity for perfection. Therefore, in the order in which the Act is pure, it is unlimited and unique; but in that in which it is finite and manifold, it comes into a true composition with Potency.” (Aquinas invokes this principle in his [Summa Theologica, I q. 7 art. 1, a. 2; Summa Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 43 and Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 43 q. 2].) In other words, anything actual (such as a thing’s existence) can only be limited by some potency which is distinct from it. Professor Feser invokes the same principle in his work, Scholastic Metaphysics (2014, p. 37), where he illustrates his point with the example of a rubber ball, whose constituent matter (which receives the form of “roundness”) prevents it from having a perfectly round shape. But what Feser overlooks is that even perfect roundness is inherently limited: for example, something which is perfectly round cannot be omnipresent, and its roundness also renders it capable of being decomposed into parts, since it is spatiotemporally extended.
There seems to be no reason in principle, then, why something could not be purely actual, and yet limited.
In his book Aquinas (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009), Feser argues that God’s unlimited perfection can be demonstrated from the fact that He is Pure Act:
Aquinas also gives two other reasons for holding that the being whose existence is argued for in each of the Five Ways is necessarily unique. For there to be more than one such being, there would have to be some way to distinguish one from another, and this could only be in terms of some perfection or privation that one has but the other lacks. But as Pure Act, such a being would be devoid of all imperfections and privations, since imperfections and privations are just different ways in which something could fail to be in act or actual. Hence there can be no way even in principle to distinguish one such being from another, and thus there could not possibly be more than one (S.T. I.11.3). Furthermore, the order that characterizes the world gives it a unity that is explicable only if there is also unity in its cause (S.T. I.11.3). (2009, p. 121)
The passage above contains two logical flaws which should be obvious to most readers. First of all, Feser is confusing the mere absence of a perfection with an imperfection, which is the lack of a perfection where it ought to be present. For example, having four legs is a perfection in a sheep, but not in a goldfish. Thus a fish which has no legs is not imperfect on that account. One could conceive of two fully actualized, simple beings: Being One which is characterized by a single perfection, A, and Being Two, which is characterized by a different perfection, B. Being One does not have perfection B, but it is by no means deficient on that account, for its nature requires it to possess only one perfection: A. Likewise, Being Two is none the worse for not possessing perfection A.
The second flaw in Feser’s argument is that it merely establishes that the First Cause (Who is Pure Act) contains no imperfections within its being – which is quite different from establishing that the First Cause contains all perfections. Absence of imperfections does not entail possession of all perfections.
I conclude that even if Feser were able to establish the existence of a Being Who is Pure Act, he has failed to demonstrate that such a Being must be all-perfect or unique.
Part K – Conclusion
Arguing for God’s absolute perfection is difficult. I would argue that to do it properly, we need a positive notion of what God is. Characterizing God as “Being Itself” at the very outset is (I maintain) unhelpful, as we lack a positive concept of “being.” It seems better, then, to characterize God as Pure Mind (which includes intellect and will) than as Pure Being, for at least we have some idea what these terms mean.
Professor Feser is welcome to criticize the theological position which I have defended here. If he does so, however, I hope he will concede that his own arguments are (at the present time) less than fully demonstrative. I hope that he will reconsider his views and/or further his case, and I wish him all the best for the future. I am happy to give Feser the last word in our exchange, so the ball is now in his court.