Saturday, January 28, 2012

Students and the First Way III

I keep a sort of loose track of a number of things in my teaching to see what sort of questions and issues regularly come up among students. So, for instance, I look at what students in my ethics class choose for their virtue analysis paper, at some key questions in the discussion board, or their answers to how they would restructure the course if they had as much time or resources as they could want. One of the several things I've found handy in my intro course is keeping track of their responses to questions about the First Way. I've posted summaries of these here and here.

This past term things were a bit different than usual; I had no ordinary intro courses, just two hybrid format courses, which work rather differently. There was also a restructuring of the content that meant slightly more time was spent on Aquinas's First Way, although it was still just one class and the point was still just to give students a basic tour of how medieval, and particular scholastic, philosophers argued, rather than devoted to any close examination of the argument; and it has to be kept in mind that the hybrid format is in some ways a limiting format -- students have much more going on that has to be done on their own initiative. And as always, it's worth keeping in mind that virtually none of the students knew anything about it except for their reading -- assuming that they did, which is not always a safe bet -- and what they could remember from one class period. I gave them all at least partial credit if they (1) showed that they knew what argument was meant and (2) actually gave reasons of some kind; and full credit if they identified an actual premise and said either something genuinely creative or something that could be interpreted as at least a crude form of something that you occasionally find professional philosophers saying. The question was:

We discussed Thomas Aquinas's First Way. (1) Identify the premise of the First Way that you think is weakest. By 'weakest' I mean the one that would require the most work to defend (whether you think it actually defensible or not). (2) Explain why you think this premise is the weakest premise of the argument.

The answers were (and, as usual, since I'm only interested in answer types, these are just summary-paraphrases to get at the substance rather than exact quotations):

* "Either there is a first mover or an infinite regress of movers." It is weak because an infintie regress of movers is impossible.

* The one in which he says the first mover is God. It's like he can't think of anything else the first mover could be.

* (no premise explicitly identified). How can something be moved if it has no mover?

* (no premise explicitly identified). The world is moved around the sun by the force of the sun. This would make the sun the first mover.

* (no premise explicitly identified). He admits that some things are moved and some things are not, and it seems obvious that there can't really be a first mover if it doesn't move everything.

* That there could be a first mover. That is a contradiction in terms.

* "For moving is nothing other than drawing forth something from potency into act" Couldn't moving also be moving from no energy to potential energy? For instance, by placing a ball on a tabletop?

* "What is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot." This seems right, but I say it is the weakest because Aquinas wants to use it to argue that something cannot be both moved and mover, which is a leap.

* "What is moved is moved by another." There are some motions that are caused by physics, not by another, like centrifugal force or gravity. He also needs to explain what the first mover actually moves in order to make the argument plausible.

* "There is a first mover, unmoved by any prior mover." This doesn't seem wrong, but it seems like the argument is made just to lead the reader to God rather than consider other options.

* "For moving is nothing other than drawing forth something from potency into act, for something cannot be reduced from potency into act, save through some actual being; thus actual heat (as fire) makes wood (which is potential fire) to be actually hot, and thereby moves and alters it." How is moving that only draws something from potential making it actual. Is it only parts within the potential that completes it to become actual?

* "This is the sort of thing people understand when they talk about God". I think this is the weakest because not everyone believes in God.

* "An infinite regress of movers is impossible." Some things are moved and whatever is moved, is moved by another; this seems to show that the movers are also being moved, without end.

* Without a first mover there are no other movers. I personally agree with this but it comes back to the age old question of "if God was the first mover, who was his mover?"

* The impossibility of an infinite regress and that there must be an unmoved mover. Who's to say where the unmoved mover starts? Theologically you can say God is an an umoved mover but what made "God"? [This student added a number of other things that were not relevant to the immediate question, but, interestingly, he argued that there would have to be a material cause for any change and thus that there could not be anything merely making something actual.]

* "Either there is a first cause/first mover or else nothing needs a cause to move it." Aquinas seems to assume that any force in motion had to be put in motion by another, and drawing that out infers that if you trace it back all the way to the beginning there has to be one force that put in motion all others. But what put that first mover in motion, and why do the movements have to be traced back to only one original mover?

* "Every event has a cause." This requires an infinite regress, which he wants to deny.

* "Either there is a first mover or an infinite regress of movers," because it contradicts the next premise, which says an infinite regress of movers is impossible.

* "Either there is a first mover or an infinite regress of movers." I know he's actually ruling out that there should be an infinite regress, but this makes it sound as if an infinite regress was possible. Also, the word 'infinite' is hard to understand.

* "There is either a first mover or an infinite regress of movers." This is contradicted when it goes on to say that an infinite regress of movers is impossible.

One of the summaries of the First Way they had available put the argument in disjunctive form; notice the problem students had with interpreting the disjunction. This is an implicature problem, I think; they have difficulty seeing why one would mention infinite regress in a disjunction at all if you were not suggesting that it is a real possibility. I'll have to keep this in mind in both this unit and the logic unit of future courses. (And actually one of the reasons I keep track of this is to identify logical problems that need to be addressed more carefully, as well as how I can tighten this particular unit up.)

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