In my research for the next post in the series, God Is Not A Unicorn, I felt a slight detour was needed for those who are not familiar with an older view of the universe as a reality whole and unbroken. Modern particle physics experimentation has been described like this: It is like smashing an idyllic pond environment with an atom bomb and then trying to explain what a pond is from the pieces that are left over. Scientists break reality into smaller and smaller pieces, then try to reconstruct a model of the universe from those bits and pieces.
In contrast, St. Thomas Aquinas famously put forward “Five Proofs of God” in his Summa Theologiae which looked at the natural universe as a whole system. In this post we are going to look at his first proof: “argument from unmoved mover”. I must warn you that it is not an argument that is easy to understand at first. As moderns, we are unused to this way of reasoning and so often avoid it. It may take more than one attempt to understand what is being said here, but I assure you it is worth taking time to think about these ideas as they are fundamental thought about our very being.
The video below is a pretty good explanation of the first proof of St. Thomas Aquinas (Unmoved Mover). This first proof is often explained poorly (and incompletely). It also explains the context of these proofs. They are not definitive proofs of God. They are considered ways to logically infer the existence of God from reason. (I also like that they make Aquinas talk like a Monty Python Character).
This series of videos also included the modern scientific arguments against Aquinas’s first proof. In this video it is explained that the universe is not a system of interlocking moving parts and so motion must originate from the “unmoved mover.” The modern view is that motion originates through intrinsic forces or laws of nature. In essence – the universe is more like individual forces of billiard balls than a system of forces working on each other. More on that faulty thinking below the video.
Oddly, it seems that this 2nd video misses the essence of Aquinas’ argument. Aquinas argued that the first mover – or unmoved mover – would not be a “force” of the same type of natural forces in the universe. This strange omission underscores the powerful conditioning of our modern culture and the mechanistic view of the universe that exists today. It’s almost as if Aquinas argument is “overwritten” without any real consideration of what he is actually saying. Even if it is true that the “laws of nature” are intrinsic to the physical objects of the universe, this simply means that they are attributes of these objects. (Intrinsic means “belonging naturally; essential.”) That definition begs the question: Where do these intrinsic laws of nature come from? It is circular reasoning to say a thing exists because of its attributes. Avoiding the question of where these laws originate from is not an argument against the Aquinas’ first proof.
This second video also says (wrongly) that the Big Bang Theory proves (in theory) that the universe has a beginning. This conflicts with the idea that the universe is eternal as St. Thomas thought. But, that is not what most physicists think. The canonical response to the joke “What existed before the Big Bang” is “It’s turtles all the way down.” This is a reference to a Creation myth that the world is supported by a giant turtle. It’s from an older joke that when asked “What supports the turtle?”, the answer is “It’s turtles all the way down”.
The truth is that we do not know how the universe was first formed, whether it is eternal or not, or even if the Big Bang Theory is correct. (see Cosmology: Modern Science Creation Story aka The Big Bang Theory (Part 3)).
Some scientific questions stop at the door of metaphysics. There exists, especially among the intelligentsia, a mental resistance to admitting these questions exist. That attitude does not disprove the existence of God, nor does it invalidate Aquinas’ reasoning on the subject.