Sunday, March 05, 2006

Aristotle on god

Aristotle’s God: First Mover and First Mind

In his masterful work, Aristotle’s Physics: A Guided Study, Joe Sachs closes his commentary on Book VIII with the following line: “Physics discovers, and abandons itself on, the doorstep of first philosophy (prote philosophia or ta meta ta phusika).” With this he implies a deep connection and move forward from Aristotle’s Physics to his Metaphysics. The Physics first “finds itself” in its discussion of god[1], its “Deduction of Motionless First Mover” and “The First Motion.” Then, strictly following this particular discussion, one could find that it “abandons itself” on Book XII of Metaphysics and its discussion of god as the “divine thought” or the First Mind. This essay will provide a synthesis of Sachs’ commentary[2] on Aristotle’s god, presenting a course of its development from the First Mover of Physics to the First Mind of Metaphysics.

In Book VIII of Physics, Aristotle makes his “Deduction of Motionless First Mover” by first pointing out Plato’s error in Timaeus that motion was created, that there was a time when things passed from immobility to mobility. He says, “[H]ow can there be any 'before' and 'after' without the existence of time? Or, how can there be any time without the existence of motion? If, then, time is the number of motion or itself a kind of motion, it follows that, if there is always time, motion must also be eternal.”

He then moves on to look at the transitions from rest (stasis) to motion (kinesis) and asks what governs the transitions from one state to the other. A creature that is resting, given its inner motions of metabolism, heartbeat, circulation, etc., is also privy to external motions – predators, the elements, etc. – that have bearing on his restful state and can move (or “cause”: aitia) him to motion. Aristotle says: “for we observe that there is always some part of the animal's organism in motion, and the cause of the motion of this part is not the animal itself, but, it may be, its environment.” But then what causes the predator, or the rain, or what moves him/it, to cause the motion of our resting-creature? How far back to do we go? Should we even make this journey if motion can be traced back ad infinitum? Sachs states quite clearly that “Where there is an external mover (kinoun) there is a first external mover.” How do we reconcile this with the eternity of motion? Here Sachs is quickly on his way to a complete articulation (logos) of Aristotle’s Physical First Mover. He concludes:

The first mover is not an event but a being, and stands first not in time but in the order of responsibility. Every such first mover must be motionless… not in the sense of being inert, but by being fully at-work, in an activity that is the same and complete at every instant.
Sachs continues by stating that “the mover can touch the moving thing without being touched by it” as in a fleshy apple that arouses our desire (or hunger, or appetite) which in turn causes us to move to pursue the apple. Then he asks, “Is there a single, altogether motionless, first source of all motion in the world?” Life is impossible without “conditions supplied by the being-at-work (energeia) of the cosmos.” But on what does the cosmos rely?

After lengthy arguments for the perpetual reversal of motion on a straight line, and for the existence of a duration of time in which to find this reversal, Aristotle concludes several things:
1. a “single unvarying cause” denotes a primary motion;
2. “a magnitude, a motion, and a time, because they are continuous, are infinitely divisible but not infinitely divided”;
3. it is the “prior existence of potencies (dunamis
[4]) in beings that holds each motion together as one and continuous”;
4. “only circular motion can be both whole and everlasting”; and
5. “no finite mover has an infinite power, and no infinite magnitude can exist all at once”

So, again, on what does the cosmos rely? Finally, Sachs states Aristotle’s conclusion and the answer to this question: “the first mover can have no magnitude at all. It must be a source outside of nature, in contact with the outermost sphere of the cosmos, responsible by its own constant being-at-work for the unvarying first motion that holds together the world.”

Now that the First Mover has been established, what exactly this might be is “a question that does not belong to physics.” Our discussion is now free to “abandon itself” on the doorstep of Metaphysics and the First Mind.

Here the cosmos can lead us to our discovery of the First Mind as well. Plants and animals secure their perpetuation through generation and the passing on of an identity held together through thinking. But Sachs points out that the cosmos holds together in a different way: “it seems to be literally and directly eternal by way of ceaseless repetition of patterns of locomotion.” Eternal motion is not created, so what could possibly “cause a motion without undergoing a motion?” Our example of the fleshy apple from Physics is useful here as well and in the same manner as before: “The desired object causes motion only as an object of thought.” Sachs concludes: “Just as the only candidate left to be the source of unity of form among the animals and plants was the activity of thinking, so again the only possible unmoved source for the endless circlings of the stars is an eternal activity of thinking.”

But is this enough to tell us “what exactly this might be,” what this First Mover, this First Mind is? We could conclude at this point that it is this being of the “self-subsisting activity of thinking.” But first, we must attend to Aristotle’s comment that “the subject of Mind involves certain difficulties.”

Aristotle explains that “Mind is to be held of all phenomena the most supernatural; but the question of how we must regard it if it is to be of this nature involves certain difficulties.” He then goes through a series of questions and answers to define how this Mind thinks and what is the object of its thought. He concludes: “Clearly, then, it thinks that which is most divine and estimable, and does not change; for the change would be for the worse, and anything of this kind would immediately imply some sort of motion.” But, Aristotle then adds a very important caveat: “thinking [of certain objects outside of itself] cannot be the supreme good.” Therefore, “Mind thinks itself, if it is that which is best; and its thinking is a thinking of thinking.”
[6] Thankfully, Aristotle then defends his seemingly cumbersome choice of words for the action of the First Mind: “[S]ince thought and the object of thought are not different in the case of things which contain no matter, they will be the same, and the act of thinking will be one with the object of thought.”

At this point, we have worked through Aristotle’s Physics and have found that his First Mover is eternal, motionless, fully-at-work, always causing, and has no magnitude. Moving
[7] to Metaphysics we found that Aristotle’s First Mind is the unmoved source of motion, eternally thinking, the most supernatural, eternally unchanging, and completely self-absorbed in, of, and about thought. After working through the difficulties involved in articulating its nature we arrive at Sachs’ concise statement of what Aristotle’s First Mind/First Mover really is: “It is the pure holding-together of the pure holdable-together, activity active, causality caused.”

[1] I use “god” with a small “g” to differentiate it from the Christian Creator-God.
[2] All quotes from Sachs concerning Aristotle’s Physics are from Aristotle’s Physics: A Guided Study, Masterworks of Discovery: Guided Studies of Great Texts in Science, Harvey M. Flaumenhaft, Series Editor, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
All quotes from Sacks concerning Aristotle’s Metaphysics are from An Outline of the Argument of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, The St. John’s Review, Summer 1981.
[3] “The stone thrown upward rises because of the thrower, but falls because of its own heaviness. Since its reversing motion cannot have a single unvarying cause, it is not the primary motion, and that is all Aristotle takes from the consideration of it.”
[4] Plural?
[5] Focusing on Metaphysics, Book XII, chapter IX.
[6] W. D. Ross uses “on” rather than “of”: it’s thinking is a thinking on thinking
[7] Pun intended

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