Thursday, January 06, 2005

First causes


I was reading a book on Chinese medicine, and stumbled across this quote :

"Conceptions are not subsumed under one another but placed side by side in a pattern, and things influence one another not by acts of mechanical causation, but by a kind of 'inductance' ... The key-work in Chinese thought is Order and above all Pattern ... Things behave in particular ways not necessarily because of their prior actions or implusions of other things, but because their position in the ever-moving cyclical universe was such that they were endowed with intrinsic natures that made behaviour inevitable for them ... They were thus parts in existential dependence upon the whole organism."
-- Joseph Needham

This brought home to me something about the "proof" of God from the principle of first causes - specifically why I find it completely unconvincing, and at the same time perhaps why Aquinas found it extremely convincing.

Essentially, it is the role of intrinsic versus extrinsic causes for behaviour. The Chinese conception here demonstrates that change is coming from within the thing, whereas in Aquinas' thought, change always came from without. Speaking mechanically, every event has an antecedant, but today we see mechanical action as the playing out of the laws of physics, rather than the result of some particular cause.

In a philosophy which views all change as being extrinsic, one is led inevitably to a primal cause - God. A philosophy which is unable to grasp the conception of a universe consisting only of intrinsic properties is equally unable to entertain the notion that God does not exist. It is precisely this problem which continues to be confusing to many people considering the start of time. When you ask, "What came before time?", you are doing two things. The first is confusing temporal order with logical order. Time traced backwards to the origin of the universe follows a curve, not a straight line. A time traveller attempting to reach the origin of the universe would face the same problems now facing those who attempt to travel at the speed of light - those of relativity. The second is more forceful - by what right does the universe exist, and why are its' properties so? The conception of the universe surrounded by void is one which conjours up a multiverse of universes, some mental fantasy where they, in some sense of the word, are still present "in" something.

The Chinese philosophy is much more at home with the concept of the universe defining itself, and containing within it both laws by which actions are restricted, and actions by which change is made.



Blogger Brandon said...

I'm not sure what you mean when you say that "in Aquinas's thought change always comes from without", particularly since an Aristotelian view also sees the behavior of things 'because their position in the ever-moving cyclical universe was such that they were endowed with intrinsic natures that made behaviour inevitable for them', in Needham's words. The tendency to appeal to a first moving cause in Aristotelianism largely arises from the difficulty of accounting for the intrinsic natures of things that at first don't exist and then come to exist; one can't explain the existence of this thing in terms of its particular possession of an intrinsic nature if the intrinsic nature doesn't exist yet.

This is very different from a mechanical causation view of the world, which is much, much later.

1/12/2005 07:30:00 AM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Aquinas thought that all of motions, natures, morals etc came from divine command. Because he thinks everything must come from something else, he is convinced there must be some divinity by which things recieved their initial condition.

Morality is certainly a property of humans, but he believes it was a property with which we were endowed by some external cause.

I haven't read the text you quote, so it may be that I'm missing something, but what I have been told about the principle of first causes, as well as the argument from design, is suggestive of the following : that things are so because of some cause. Insofar as a rock has a nature, it is still something which has been given it. Why? Nihilo ex nihilo - nothing comes from nothing. The existence of the rock per se becomes evidence of its creator...

1/12/2005 08:27:00 PM  
Blogger shulamite said...

Dear Melborne Philosopher,

I will concede that that there are two predominant ways of looking at action in the universe: one that sees all action as immanent within the various natures, and another that sees no immanent activity in various natures. Perhaps you are right that Chinese philosophy is an example of the first belief, but I beg you to reconsider whether Aquinas is an example of the second belief- or whether he is rather a advocate of the truth of both kinds of causality. You are right to see that in the philosophy of Aquinas God is an extrinsic cause of nature, but in this he is the cause of a thing existing as a real cause. Though God does cause nature, what he causes is something whose definition is "an intrinsic principle of motion and rest...etc."

Aquinas also defines life as "self motion" (the living thing moves by itself) and he also claims that matter and form are causes which are both quite clearly intrinsic causes of things (form proceeding from the potency in matter)

This idea of "everything acting from no immanent cause" is not the doctrine of Aquinas, but rather of Mechanism- it is Descartes or Newton. A sign of this is that you found it so fitting to descibe the doctrine of no immanent causes in terms of mechanism. You were right to do so, and I think your example should be extended to oppose Chinese philosophy to mechanism, but to allow for thomism as a synthesis and harmony of both.

1/18/2005 09:54:00 AM  
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