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In Five Proofs of the Existence of God, Edward Feser mentions the principle of proportionate causality:

whatever is in some effect must in some way or other be in the cause, even if not always in the same way. For a cause cannot give what it does not have to give

Then he defines the ways in which what in the effect might be in the cause by some examples:

Suppose, for example, that I give you $20. The effect in this case is your having the $20, and I am the cause of this effect. But the only way I can cause that effect is if I have the $20 to give you in the first place. Now there are several ways in which I might have it. I might have a $20 bill in my wallet, or two $10 bills, or four $5 bills. Or I may have no money in my wallet, but do have $20 in my bank account and write you a check. Or I may not have even that, but I am able to borrow the $20 from someone else, or work for it, so that I can go on to give it to you. Or perhaps I have a friend who has a key to the U.S. Treasury printing press and I get him to run off an official $20 bill for me to give to you. Or to take an even more farfetched scenario, suppose that in order to guarantee that you get that $20 I somehow convince Congress to pass a law which permits me personally to manufacture my own $20 bills. These are all various ways in which I might in theory give you $20. But if none of these ways are available to me, then I can’t do it. Again, these are different ways in which the cause may have what is in the effect. When I myself have a $20 bill ready to hand and I cause you to have it, what is in the effect was in the cause formally, to use some traditional jargon. That is to say, I myself was an instance of the form or pattern of having a $20 bill, and I caused you to become another instance of that form or pattern. When I don’t have the $20 bill ready to hand but I do have at least $20 credit in my bank account, you might say that what was in the effect was in that case in the cause virtually. For though I didn’t actually have the $20 on hand, I did have the power to get hold of it. And when I get Congress to grant me the power to manufacture $20 bills, you might say (once again to use some traditional jargon) that I had the $20 eminently. Because in that case, I not only have the power to acquire already- existing $20 bills, but the more “eminent” power of causing them to exist in the first place. When it is said, then, that what is in an effect must in some way be in its cause, what is meant is that it must be in the cause at least “virtually” or “eminently” even if not “formally”.

And then proves the first cause of all things who causes them to exist at any moment has intelligence.

the effects (everything) must exist in the cause in something like the way thoughts exist in us. So, what exists in the things that the purely actual cause is the cause of preexists in that cause in something like the way the things we make preexist as ideas or plans in our minds before we make them. These things thereby exist in that purely actual cause eminently and virtually even if not formally.

Now let's say that two colors (red and yellow) were mixed to give us a new color (orange). In this case, the cause of the new color (the effect) is the mixed two colors (the cause). The two colors didn't have what's in the effect formally (they weren't an instance of the new color) nor virtually (as it wasn't somewhere and the two colors got hold of it), so the cause, in this case, had what's in the effect eminently (the two colors caused the new one to exist). Looking at this example, although the two mixed colors had what's in the effect eminently, they weren't intelligent; they didn't have the new color in a way like we have things in our thoughts! Now you might say that the cause wasn't the two colors but rather the one who mixed them, but for the sake of this question, the colors got mixed by no intelligent agent.

It seems Feser's proof of the intelligence of the first cause of all things is flawed. How can "eminent" necessarily imply "intelligent"?

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  • It shouldn't surprise you that Feser's "proofs" are flawed. His method is to set up some "principles" designed to get the conclusions he wants, but vague enough to muddle why anyone should believe them. The arguments are then equally vague to make tracking their validity next to impossible.
    – Conifold
    May 2, 2021 at 3:46
  • Your color analogy is not quite true. There are three primary colors, red, green, blue. Yellow is not a primary color. There are 2 ways that colors 'mix' - additive and subtractive. Most people when they think of color mixing are thinking of subtractive, as in the mixing of paints. The mixing of light is additive. Red and green light yields yellow. May 2, 2021 at 4:46
  • According to the Mahayana Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, the first 'cause' is pure Consciousness, 'it' is neither intelligent nor is 'it' unintelligent, 'It' simply 'Is'. 'It' is the material and efficient cause of the universe, but in reality 'it' is not the cause. One can say that a desert is the 'cause' of a mirage; but in reality, the mirage is caused by the observer, not by the desert. May 2, 2021 at 5:13
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    @Conifold Which of Feser's principles are flawed?
    – Geremia
    May 13, 2021 at 19:42
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    @Geremia "Whatever is in some effect must in some way or other be in the cause" is a typical example. It can mean anything one wishes. As if "cause" and "effect" weren't vague enough already.
    – Conifold
    May 13, 2021 at 20:29

4 Answers 4

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Based on the example you gave, I believe that your confusion is a result of a misunderstanding of his point. This is what you said:

Now let's say that two colors (red and yellow) were mixed to give us a new color (orange). In this case, the cause of the new color (the effect) is the mixed two colors (the cause). The two colors didn't have what's in the effect formally (they weren't an instance of the new color) nor virtually (as it wasn't somewhere and the two colors got hold of it), so the cause, in this case, had what's in the effect eminently (the two colors caused the new one to exist). Looking at this example, although the two mixed colors had what's in the effect eminently, they weren't intelligent; they didn't have the new color in a way like we have things in our thoughts!

Although Feser mentions that whatever is in the effect must be found in the cause, and he gives quite a lengthy example to explain this idea, the relation between cause and effect is not in and of itself what equates to intelligence. He explains earlier in the same chapter what the essence of intelligence is:

... . And that is really the essence of strictly intellectual activity-- the capacity to have the universal or abstract form or pattern of a thing without being that kind of thing

Essentially, whatever is in an effect must be in the cause somehow, but this is only a sign of intelligence if what is found in the cause is a universal or abstract form or pattern of the effect specifically. That's where human thoughts come in: thoughts are universal/abstract patterns. You can think of making a sandwich before you actually make it and this is a way in which the cause (you) is related to the effect (the creation of the sandwich).

In the example you gave, orange (the effect) does not exist in the mixing of red and yellow (the cause) as a "universal or abstract form." Rather the mixing of red and yellow (the cause) is what physically leads to orange (the effect), and there is no abstract/universal idea involved at any point. Therefore this has nothing to do with intelligence, and neither does the example that Feser gave concerning the $20 bill. In his example, it could have been an ATM machine that gave the $20 and that would not change anything: this does not mean that the ATM is intelligent. The point of the example was simply to show how cause is related to effect in a general sense.

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Notably, it ignores all the work that has been done on the concept of emergence, I.e. the fact that composite structures are observed to have properties their part don't have, which undermines totally the argument.

The author tries to weasel his way out of it by lengthily arguing that the property exhibited by the whole must be in the parts in some way, shape or form that remains to be defined. So if I was to argue "obviously I am somewhat intelligent, but the atoms of my body are not", he can answer that, in some way, shape or form they are, but can't point us to how exactly they contain this intelligence.

The point about emergence and intelligence would seem to be a straw-man argument. Feser does not argue that the components of a thing must exhibit the properties of the composite. In fact, he elsewhere explicitly argues for the opposite in his defense of substantive form (viz. a substantive form exists in a composite when the composite possesses properties that are irreducible to those of its parts):

https://www.perlego.com/book/1284125/aristotles-revenge-the-metaphysical-foundations-of-physical-and-biological-science-pdf

The basic idea is that it seems to be essential to a thing's having a substantial form that it has properties and causal powers that are irreducible to those of its parts.

What Feser is arguing above with regard to proportionate causality is simply that in order for something to be the cause of an effect, it must have the power to produce that effect. The three kinds of causality he outlines (formal, virtual, eminent) are three ways an effect can be produced.

As to the question of the first cause being intelligent:

It seems Feser's proof of the intelligence of the first cause of all things is flawed. How can "eminent" necessarily imply "intelligent"?

It seems to me that Feser is not equating eminence and intelligence. Rather, he is saying that the particular way the first cause relates eminently to the cosmos implies intelligence. If the first cause generates the cosmos, then it must contain the abstract form of the cosmos a priori. But containing abstract forms is precisely the proper activity of an intellect. Hence, the first cause must be intelligent.

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  • Welcome to philosophy Stack exchange! It is useful to visit the help center. philosophy.stackexchange.com/help Your answer is well formulated, so I suspect you already did! :-)
    – Dcleve
    Jul 24 at 16:38
  • Relative to the other answer you are rebutting -- Feser is copying the Aquinian approach, which is rationalist. Aquinas assumed the universe is driven by unbreakable reason, we could infer that reason by observing the world, and then we could apply that reason to discover what IS, thru deductive logic from these unbreakable laws. Kant pretty much demolished Aquinian rationalism with The Critique of Pure Reason. Our world is contingent -- it CANNOT be derived from reason. Philosophy has since elaborated on Kant, with our knowledge all being tentative, based on Popperian empiricism.
    – Dcleve
    Jul 24 at 16:48
  • Kant still held by "One True Logic", but logicians today no longer do so. See cambridge.org/core/journals/think/article/abs/…. This leaves Aquinian rationalism even more at odds with the last several centuries of philosophy, and most philosophers will find Feser's arguments presuming Aquinian assumptions to be seriously flawed.
    – Dcleve
    Jul 24 at 16:59
  • It is true that Feser tries to patch the apparent refutation of his "conservation of all X" assumptions in the face of apparent refutations from emergence, etc. His shifts the conservation to causal ability, rather than actual things or properties, and then postulates an "essence" that has this causal ability. However, the switch from the NON-conserved things and properties, to a supposedly conserved "causal ability" is not itself "proven", and per Popperian falsification, his inference of "essences" is an ad hoc and untestable kluge to try to rescue a falsified principle.
    – Dcleve
    Jul 24 at 17:05
  • Current science just accepts that laws are just regularities and they all break. Current philosophy also rejects the principle of essences. Combined with logic pluralism, there is no justification for any of the assumptions that Thomist rationalism relies upon. Feser has to overturn the last 3-400 or so years of philosophic thought, before he can even start on a "proof" of God.
    – Dcleve
    Jul 24 at 17:13
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This is an old argument the author is using way more word than is necessary to explain, probably to make it look smarter than.it actually is.

Notably, it ignores all the work that has been done on the concept of emergence, I.e. the fact that composite structures are observed to have properties their part don't have, which undermines totally the argument.

The author tries to weasel his way out of it by lengthily arguing that the property exhibited by the whole must be in the parts in some way, shape or form that remains to be defined. So if I was to argue "obviously I am somewhat intelligent, but the atoms of my body are not", he can answer that, in some way, shape or form they are, but can't point us to how exactly they contain this intelligence.

On the other hand notice how, if the universe contained intelligence in the first place, it seems paradoxical that it had to wait for billions of years of nervous systems evolution to happen in order to become visible. No intelligence has ever been observed to operate outside of a living, working brain. In fact, everything is right as we would expect it to be if intelligence was just an emerging property of complex brain systems, which is to say no brain means no intelligence and gradual upgrades in complexity yields gradual upgrades in intelligent behaviour. The idea that this intelligence was latently engrained in the universe, in a way we just can't manage to describe explicitly, seems to be a superfluous ad hoc hypothesis.

Finally, rigorously speaking, in the quoted text no argument is made at all. The author states that composites can't have a property that is not in their parts, but does nothing to demonstrate it. He provides an analogy with the $20, but analogies are not formal arguments. This is especially damning since he claims to provide proofs of God, which would require a higher standard of formality. The $20 analogy is particularly bad since a sum of money is an object I indeed can't give to someone if I don't have it in the first place. But intelligence is not an object, it's a property, and no effort is made to explain why it would be analogous to an object.

Even the use of a loaded term like "give" is problematic, as the action to give implies a giver.

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  • I was going to post something about the money example being problematic, because there is a presupposed networked emergent precursor - fiat currency.
    – CriglCragl
    May 13, 2021 at 20:14
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    There's nothing but problems with this example. It's like if the pope said to a pilgrim "sorry mate, I can't give you my benediction: I already gave it to the guy before you"
    – armand
    May 13, 2021 at 22:58
  • This answer identifies the error. Fester assumes that unbreakable conservation laws apply to all categories of objects and properties. But our study of the physical world has shown us that all conservation principles we have studied all break. Emergence is the most blatant such form of breakage. There is no “wetness” intrinsic to elementary particles, or to water molecules. Wetness emerges under specific circumstances when one has sufficient water molecules.
    – Dcleve
    Jul 24 at 15:55
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It seems you are asking about the 5th way of proving God's existence, which St. Thomas Aquinas formulates thus (Summa Theologica I q. 2 a. 3 co., Freddoso's transl. PDF p. 69):

     The fifth way is taken from the governance of things:
     We see that some things lacking cognition, viz., natural bodies, act for the sake of an end. This is apparent from the fact that they always or very frequently act in the same way in order to bring about what is best, and from this it is clear that it is not by chance (non a casu), but as the result of a tendency (ex intentione), that they attain the end.
     But things lacking cognition tend toward an end only if they are directed by something that has cognition and intellective understanding (non tendunt in finem nisi directa ab aliquo cognoscente et intelligente), in the way that an arrow is directed by an archer. Therefore, there is something with intellective understanding by which all natural things are ordered toward an end—and this we call a God.


     Quinta via sumitur ex gubernatione rerum.
     Videmus enim quod aliqua quæ cognitione carent, scilicet corpora naturalia, operantur propter finem, quod apparet ex hoc quod semper aut frequentius eodem modo operantur, ut consequantur id quod est optimum; unde patet quod non a casu, sed ex intentione perveniunt ad finem.
     Ea autem quæ non habent cognitionem, non tendunt in finem nisi directa ab aliquo cognoscente et intelligente, sicut sagitta a sagittante. Ergo est aliquid intelligens, a quo omnes res naturales ordinantur ad finem, et hoc dicimus Deum.

It seems you are questioning the minor premise (in bold above). St. Thomas explains this more in Summa Contra Gentiles III cap. 78 "That other creatures are ruled by God by means of intellectual creatures" [3]:

the intellectual power by itself is capable of ordering and ruling; hence, we see that the operative power follows the direction of the intellective power, when they are combined in the same subject. In man, for instance, we observe that the bodily members are moved at the command of the will. The same is evident even if they are in different subjects; for instance, those men who excel in operative power must be directed by those who excel in intellectual power.* Therefore, […] other creatures be ruled by intellectual creatures.


Virtus […] intellectiva de se est ordinativa et regitiva: unde videmus quod, quando coniunguntur in eodem, virtus operativa sequitur regimen intellectivæ virtutis; sicut in homine videmus quod ad imperium voluntatis moventur membra. Idem etiam apparet si in diversis existant: nam illi homines qui excedunt in virtute operativa, oportet quod dirigantur ab illis qui in virtute intellectiva excedunt. Exigit igitur […] quod creaturæ aliæ per intellectuales creaturas regantur.

*like an architect of a cathedral directing its builders

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  • The critiques I posted relative the the answer defending Feser, all apply even more to Aquinas. Additionally, the Aquinas citations you offer here use argument by analogy as if it were actually an argument, and unjustified inference from an instance, to make an invalid universal claim. Plus he echos Plato's call for a caste system where Philosophers run everything. Citing examples of what we recognize now as both reasoning and moral failings by Aquinas, to defend critiques of Feser, are not going to help Feser much...
    – Dcleve
    Jul 25 at 3:55

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