Posted by: dacalu | 31 August 2010

The Unmoved Mover

Several people have asked me to express my thoughts on the Unmoved Mover argument succinctly in one place. This is my attempt to do so.

The argument revolves around causality and posits that every usual thing has a cause.

[I’m going to use the word usual here as something of a placeholder. If you are a materialist, you may replace usual with “material.” If you are an (ontological) naturalist, replace it with “natural.” Interestingly, if you are a (Platonic) realist, you can replace it with “ideal” and the argument will be equally valid. The point of the argument will be to prove the existence of an unusual object.]

The Temporal Argument

Now, look around you. Think of all the things you encounter on a daily basis – people, desks, chairs, lamps… Each of these things has a cause. We can say that people come from other people. Furniture is made by artists (and/or machines). Even rocks, crystals, mud, fire and other inorganic objects have their own physical causes. In truth, all objects may be said to have multiple causes (material, formal, efficient, and final, if we are following Aristotle). Even at the common sense level, I can say that a person is caused both by her parents and her DNA and her social environment. It is not necessary to specify exactly what cause or how many. We need only note that all usual objects (and events) have at least one cause. So we have our first statement:

(1) All usual things have causes.

If everything has a cause, then every cause must have it’s own cause. I can say that the war was lost because a battle was lost, the battle was lost because the king fell off his horse, the fall was caused by a loose horse shoe, the shoe was loose because it was missing a single nail, the nail was missing because the smith was out of iron, and so on and so on. There exists a chain of causation.
Now, set (1) aside for a moment. There is a principle in logic that says an object and it’s negation cannot both be true. (We have to watch out for false dichotomies, but as long as we talk strictly about A and not A, it can be said:

(2) A or not A must be true and both cannot be true. [A V ~A]

We find ourselves with a dilemma.

(3) Either the causal chain has a first link, or it does not.

A first link would be a cause that was not caused. Philosophers have called such a link a first cause or an unmoved mover. I call this a dilemma, because neither option appeals philosophically.
Let us first assume the positive.

(3a) There exists a thing (object or event) that has no cause.

Such an even would have to be unusual. As far as we can observe, all physical objects have physical causes. Everything came from somewhere. Humans are made of heavy atoms. Heavy atoms come from stellar fusion. Stellar fusion comes from gravitation acting on hydrogen (and rare helium) atoms. Primordial hydrogen comes from cooling after the big bang. The big bang came from… Well that’s the question. We can say that the big bang came from a fluctuation in quantum field, but that just begs the question of where the quantum field comes from.

Likewise individual humans come from human parents. Those parents came from human parents, and likewise all the way back to the beginnings of the human race. Let us for the moment assume evolution. The first humans came from ape ancestors. Apes came from mammal ancestors. The first mammals came from ancestral reptiles, and so on all the way back to a common ancestor of all organisms. But where did that organism come from?

Neoplatonic philosophers claimed that there must exist some entity that is not usual – an entity that can cause without being caused. Everyone was aware that the first cause must violate the rules of the universe as we know them. The unmoved mover must be unusual. In fact, we’ve invoked it precisely because we need something unusual to avoid the alternative:

(3b) There does not exist a thing (object or event) that has no cause.

If we only allow usual things in the universe we find ourselves with limited options. The neo-platonists primarily assumed linear time such that no first cause would result in an infinite regression in time, with causes stretching out forever. Some thinkers, including Aristotle concluded that this type of eternity must be the case. The greater number of thinkers, however, shy away from infinity, feeling that an appeal ad infinitum is more a refusal to deal with the problem than any kind of solution. It simply pushes the problem so far back in time that it has no practical import.

Alternatively, one might conceive of causal loops such that all things were caused by other things in unbroken, circular chains. Causal loops have the benefit of short-circuiting the temporal question by making time relative. Alas, even if we consider the temporal argument compelling, the substantial and set theory arguments will still fail (see below).

At present, it is not my intention to convince you that (3a) is preferable to (3b). I freely admit that the existence of an unusual thing is challenging. I simply wish to present that (3b) is equally troubling, because it requires an appeal to infinity. Neither position is forced by empirical observation and logic.

Christians (Jews, and Muslims) have primarily believed that an unmoved mover (3a) was the more compelling position, assigning to God the role of prime mover. This makes God explicitly an unusual object, not subject to the normal rules because God is the cause of the rules. Thus a natural (physical, material) cause can never replace a Creator, because a Creator is considered necessary to the existence of any natural system. Along these lines a Creator must not be confused with a normal cause, as this would require demoting the reason for all causes to a simple cause.

[Some readers will here object that an unmoved mover need not be equated with a personal God. I agree completely (as would many neo-platonist Christians and many Deists). This is a tangential issue. It need only be said here that when Medieval Christians say of God that God is Creator, they are invoking the idea of the unmoved mover. They do not mean a really big usual cause.]

Since the Enlightenment, Atheists have tended toward eternalism (3b), noting the strong historical connection between theism and the unmoved mover.

The Substantial Argument

The same argument can be made in terms of existence rather than in terms of causes. Thus the propositions would be:

(1) All usual things exist dependently.

This is somewhat harder to express in contemporary terms. I might say that a definition that does not exclude the non-object isn’t very useful. One could say that I exist in the context of my family. My family exists in the context of the US. The US exists in the context of Earth, Earth in the context of Sol System, Sol System in the Context of the Milky Way, the Milky Way in the context of the Universe. Things must be defined by their boundaries.

(2) A or not A must be true and both cannot be true. [A V ~A]

(3a) There exists a thing (object or event) that is independent.

Paul Tillich referred to this thing as the “ground of being,” that which gives other things reality and context. Earlier theologians claimed that God was the only truly necessary thing; every other thing was contingent upon, subordinate, and consequent to the existence of God.

(3b) There does not exist a thing (object or event) that is independent.

Here one must imagine a knot that could never be unraveled (even by cutting it and rejoining the ends). The universe becomes undifferentiated in a profound (ontological) way. I find this position extremely uncompelling and pragmatically useless. If we cannot differentiate one thing from another objectivity evaporates along with empiricism and systematic thinking. Nonetheless, process theology uses this approach.

Incidentally, any of you who have heard the “Turtles all the way down” joke. It attempts to make the substantial argument. There is either some form of super-turtle on which the world rests, or the tower of turtles goes all the way down to infinity. We tend to miss the point of this argument because we no longer feel a need for the Earth to rest on something physical. This does not negate, however, the need for an ontological foundation.

The Set Theory Argument

Finally, and even more obscurely from our 21st century perspective, one can make a set theory argument.

(1) All usual things exist as a subset of the Cosmos (the set of all things).

(2) A or not A must be true and both cannot be true. [A V ~A]

(3a) There exists a set (object or event) that cannot be contained by any greater set.

Aquinas claimed that all superlatives might be said of God. God is biggest, best, most good. One might also say that God is superlative with regard to existence. Electrons are real. Common matter is more real – it endures in time in a way that electrons may not, is tangible, and measurable (without significantly impacting it’s properties). God is most real. All other things are real only insofar as they participate in the reality of God. This superlative-ness applies for all good attributes or “excellencies.” Similarly Anselm’s makes his “ontological argument” for God (it is better to be real than not, therefore God, possessing all excellencies must have realness). God cannot be exceeded in breadth, width, or depth; in duration or agency. It’s silly when you try to imagine an incredible hulk God (an obscenely strong version of the original). It makes sense when you think of it in terms of ideal predicates. “God is that which greater than, not.”

(3b) There does not exist a set (object or event) that cannot be contained by any greater set.

Here, 3b is logically impossible. For any set X, we may imagine a
greater set, X united with not X. And yet, we can easily conceive of the universal set (S). So we say that not S is meaningless because it could not be populated even theoretically. To place an object in not S would be to deny that S is S. S must be an unusual set.


In conclusion, I would say that one could aver that infinite regressions exist and that fundamental reality and the universal set are nonsense. I simply find this to be very uncompelling and no more reasonable than an unusual object, here called God.



  1. My head hurts. 🙂
    But that was excellent. Thank you.

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