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A common objection to Thomas Aquinas' first way, the argument from motion (which means rather something like change), is that the second premise is flawed:

It is certain, and evidence to our senses, that some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. If that by which it is moved be itself moved, then this also must needs to be moved by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover, seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are moved by the first mover: as the staff moves only because it is moved by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, moved by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.”

(Summa Theologiae - First Part: Question 2, article 3)

The flaw in the premise comes supposedly from working with an outdated physics which does not incorporate Newton's Law of Inertia (= LI). In Newton's own words the LI is stated as:

Every body perseveres in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed thereon.

Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Law I.

A lot of replies are possible to this objection. Probably the most fascinating (and to me the most convincing) would be, that one modern possible explanation for inertia relies on the quantum fluctuations of empty space. So this would be the “mover” in this case.

Anyway, if we reject the idea that spatial movement is not a kind of change or movement in the Thomistic-Aristotelian sense – which I think we definitely should –, we must find a “mover”, or, in my view, the premise is seriously put into question.

I'm not completely unsympathetic to the idea that a strong and clear-cut contradiction can put a straight-forward interpretation of an empirical finding (in this case: “There is no ‘mover’!”) into question. This is because any straight-forward or minimal interpretation of an empirical finding appeals to Occam's razor, which is itself just a principle of reason.

Still, I don't see such a contradiction in the LI or all three Newtonian axioms. Neither do I see it in the metaphysical theory that infinite change can be brought about by a finite unchanging “mover”, like the momentum which a body possesses.

The LI may not be strictly true or may be incomplete and Aquinas may then have become vindicated, but for me this would seem to be just a highly contingent outcome. So, how can we justify the suspicion that in the case of the LI we just haven't found the “mover” yet? And why should we reject the metaphysical theory that infinite change can be brought about by a finite unchanging “mover”?

PS: Yes, this question is similar on the surface. But there the premise was probed in a more abstract way. Here we put the focus on the most serious concrete counterexample.

  • Not clear... for Aristotle (and Aquinas) motion is change and change needs a cause. For Newton, inertial motion is conserved and this per se does not need a "cause": it is a fact "described" by the Law of Inertia. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 15 '17 at 9:16
  • What is the "mover" in modern physisc ? The Big Bang ??? An "initial" event that impressed motion to bodies; than the "structure" of universe (quantum ? spatio-temporal ?) is such that motion is preserved. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 15 '17 at 9:19
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA what are you trying to say? "Not clear... for Aristotle (and Aquinas) motion is change and change needs a cause. For Newton, inertial motion is conserved and this per se does not need a "cause": it is a fact "described" by the Law of Inertia." yes, that's what this question is about. – wolf-revo-cats Mar 15 '17 at 10:39
  • There is no mover in modern physics. This term does not occur. The question was, if something could be naturally interpreted as mover in Aquinas' metaphysical sense or if Newtonian physics refutes this notion. – wolf-revo-cats Mar 15 '17 at 10:41
  • "The LI may not be strictly true or may be incomplete and Aquinas may then have become vindicated" In what sense "vindicated" ? – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 15 '17 at 10:42
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I would suggest instead that in the case of rectilinear uniform motion, for a single body, we accept that it is not a change or movement in the Thomistic-Aristotelian sense. Let me be careful here. Of course, this directly contradicts Aristotelian physics itself, but we are trying to adapt the doctrine to the world that accepts Newtonian mechanics, and relativity with quantum physics on top of it. In this world we need to distinguish physical change from the pseudo-change that is entirely due to our descriptive devices. I submit that rectilinear uniform motion belongs to that latter category (and arguably so do quantum mechanical collapse, and hole transformations in relativistic gauge theories). Aristotle is unlikely to have accepted looking at an apple from a different angle as a change in the apple. If he learned of the nominal character of the rectilinear uniform motion he is more likely to have discarded his physics rather than his metaphysics, and adopted the same position.

A sign that rectilinear uniform motion is not a physical process is in the fact that it can be eliminated by choosing an appropriate reference frame, namely the one comoving with the body. This would not work with other types of motion because comoving frames introduce real physical effects, the so-called fictitious forces like the centrifugal, which are real enough to kill you. But none of that happens under the rectilinear uniform motion, all inertial frames are physically equivalent in Newtonian physics as well as in relativity. If we analogize spacetime to space "moving" uniformly amounts to choosing coordinate axes. The only "change" is that of conventions and spatiotemporal location. To make it "real" we must take the spacetime per se to be real, and indications are that such spacetime substantivalism goes against the grain of modern physics. Einstein's hole argument is directed against it:

"If one has two distributions of metric and matter fields related by a hole transformation, manifold substantivalists must maintain that the two systems represent two distinct physical systems. This physical distinctness transcends both observation and the determining power of the theory since: The two distributions are observationally identical. The laws of the theory cannot pick between the two developments of the fields into the hole."

And here is Einstein's conclusion in his own words:

"Formerly, people thought that if matter disappeared from the universe, space and time would remain. Relativity declares that space and time would disappear with matter."

Fictitious change requires no mover. But while rectilinear uniform motion of a single body is physically indistinguishable from rest, rectilinear uniform motion of two bodies relative to each other is physical: there is no frame in which both are at rest. One way to deal with it is to "meta" the above reasoning. In Aristotelian physics rest is the only "baseline" state, everything else requires a mover, but this is not the case in Newtonian, let alone modern physics. They admit multiple "baseline" states known as vacua. Being in a vacuum state requires no "cause", only exciting out of it does. Nonetheless the so-called zero-point energy of vacua is positive, which means that something is going on there (in quantum field theory it is sometimes identified with incessant creation/annihilation of virtual particles). In our case we can declare systems where all bodies move rectilinearly and uniformly relative to each other to be mechanical vacua, on equal footing with the Aristotelian total rest. It would be a stretch to call the steady-state change in vacua "fictitious", but in a way it is uninteresting, vacuous, the motto then becomes that vacuous change requires no cause. It is in line with the Newtonian physics where the cause, force, is responsible for only for accelerating bodies, not just moving them.

If this is deemed unsatisfactory, we should recall that Aquinas's understanding of causes is more subtle than of those in temporal chains of events. If we do only admit the total rest as baseline it is natural to inquire how the bodies acquired those uniform velocities they display. The only way to get them starting from rest is to accelerate, which only forces ("movers") can do. Hence we still have a "mover", albeit a remote one. This still leaves the puzzle of the motion continuing after the mover stopped acting, but a solution to that was suggested as early as Philoponus, if not already Hipparchus, see Avempace, Projectile Motion, and Impetus Theory by Franco. It was that the mover impresses a force upon the body, which continues to move it even after the end of direct contact. It was needed to fix Aristotle's "theory" of projectile motion, which Philoponus mocked by pointing out that on it one could make an arrow fly by waving hands behind it. The impressed force, later dubbed impetus, was popular with Islamic Aristotelians, and with Buridan et al. in Europe soon after Aquinas. Mechanical momentum is the modern descendant of impetus, and the momentum conservation law can be interpreted as saying that changing momentum requires an intervention (external "mover"), while momentum itself is the internal "mover", the faint trace of past impressions.

  • great answer as usual. I have to read a bit deeper about Einstein's hole argument. Probably won't understand it, because I never did a course on general relativity. One simple question for now: While (at low speeds of the observer, so Galileo transformation works) the speed of a body is observer-relative, the distance between two bodies moving away from each other is observer-independent. So I don't really know if arguing this is fictitious change really works. If at t = 0 sec two bodies are at 1 m distance and at t = 10 sec they are at 20 m distance, real change occurred. – wolf-revo-cats Mar 16 '17 at 16:21
  • @wolf-revo-cats I added some thoughts on more general cases, see edit. Of course, there is a number of other objections to the first (and other) ways, that are arguably more serious than inertia, for example, Kant's "transcendental illusion". One does not have to accept his transcendentalism to take his point: on what basis the law of cause and effect, surmised from the physical (and even that perhaps hastily), is carried over into the metaphysical? One can see how "reason" might be compelled to "complete" our experience by inferring sufficient causes, but that hardly assures their reality. – Conifold Mar 19 '17 at 21:51
  • Thank you. I've seen the edit already hours ago & though about it, still mentioning my username in a post doesn't notify me :-( most obvious objection to the 1st solution: we're moving into modern causality territory. It gives us some kind of temporal order of causes, instead of the instantaneously conceived moving done by Aquinas' movers. Change brought by vacuous change prepares (like moving a meteor near the earth) the mover for finally doing the movement (the impact). And so I don't see how Aquinas' first way would still work in such a framework. I hope this was understandable. – wolf-revo-cats Mar 19 '17 at 22:02
  • the 2nd solution, which sounds really good at first, has the following problem: I don't see how the impetus itself changes. While it brings about different effects (moving a body from x to y, later from y to z) over time, the impetus is always the same and so no further mover is needed to explain its action. With impetus we reach the end of the chain of movers and we can hardly identify impetus with God. – wolf-revo-cats Mar 19 '17 at 22:09
  • @wolf-revo-cats I do not believe Aquinas's chain of movers can be instantaneously conceived, if it were so we would have to subject God to temporality as he himself is in this chain. It must rather be atemporally, "essentially" ordered. And then it matters not if the mover is moving this instant, it is enough for a mover to be metaphysically necessary (now, in the past, out of time, etc.) so that the motion can now take place. Since impetus is an impressed force it must have been impressed by a force, so the chain continues. But this does mix ideas from the first and second ways. – Conifold Mar 19 '17 at 22:41
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There is no flaw. The Aristotelian concept of "motion" implies in Newtonian terms that whatever is being moved, is moved from rest at point A to rest at point B, and thus that there are non-zero net forces acting on the object: it's pushed forward and accelerated at first, and then being held back and decelerated later on, all that by objects other than itself.

That's because, for Aristotle, "motion" always refers to finite motion from somewhere and towards somewhere. He didn't contemplate the possibility of motion either from or towards infinity, which is what nonetheless better corresponds to Newton's concept of an unimpeded object in inertial motion.

Also, though it doesn't bear on the question, St. Thomas considers God and thus the prime mover to be infinite (see Question 7, Article I).


Aristotle, Physics, Book VI, 241b8-13, translated by R. P. Hardie and R. K. Gaye

If, then, that which is in locomotion is to be changing to something, it must be capable of having changed [completing locomotion]. Consequently it's motion is not infinite, and it will not be in locomotion over an infinite distance; for it cannot have traversed such a distance.

It is evident, then, that a process of change cannot be infinite in the sense that it is not defined by limits. [emphasis mine]

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