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Role of Aristotle's God - the unmoved mover


To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Role of Aristotle's God: the unmoved mover
Date: 9 May 2007 10:30

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your email of 8 May, with your University of London essay in response to the question, ‘What is the role of Aristotle’s God? Is he explanatory of anything?’

A good, clear essay, at least so far as it demonstrates knowledge and reasonably good understanding of Aristotle’s unmoved mover argument.

A point that I have been trying to get across is that you must respond to the exact wording of the question. The examiner always has a motive for composing the question in a particular way.

‘What is the role of Aristotle’s God?’ That’s a funny question to ask, in itself. Do Gods have roles? what does that mean? Then the examiner helpfully suggests one possibility, ‘Is he explanatory of anything?’

Well, that’s one role - or is it? Aristotle distinguishes four ‘causes’, formal, efficient, final and material. Each cause ‘explains’ in a different way. So, for Aristotle, we would expect to find three explanatory roles for God rather than one: as formal, efficient and final cause. (We can rule out material cause which might be true of Spinoza but not Aristotle.)

How good is the argument for an unmoved mover? One obvious objection that comes to mind, given that Aristotle has allowed an infinite series A, B, C... of one thing ‘moving’ another is why we can’t just project the series back to infinity? This is an issue that comes up with discussions of the cosmological argument for the existence of God. Just say, ‘things have always moved’ and leave it at that. No need for anything to start things off.

Aristotle would reply that insofar as we are talking about efficient causation, to say that C moved because of B, and B moved because of A, and A moved because of... to infinity is not to give ANY explanation but merely to postpone the explanation to infinity. Just as if you were looking at a beautiful chandelier hanging on a chain extending up into the clouds, and you asked, ‘What is the chain attached to?’ and received the reply, ‘The chain is not attached to anything, it just goes up for ever!’

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle defines his subject as the study of ‘being qua being’ and also as ‘theology’. The study of ultimate being is the study of God. This looks, potentially, like another role for God as the ultimate subject matter of our inquiry, rather than merely some explanatory principle. God is all we are interested in: philosophy starts in wonder and ends in God.

But this is a philosopher’s God, rather than the God of religious belief. God is the ultimate explanatory principle of the universe. On second thoughts, God is good, ‘an object of love and desire’ as you say in your essay. How on earth did that come about? How do you get goodness out of the unmoved mover argument? Why can’t the unmoved mover be bad, or just indifferent to good or bad?

This is something the examiner wants to know (as I read the question). We naturally assume that God is worthy of worship by definition. That’s just how the ‘God’ word is used. But if you are approaching from a philosophical angle this is something that needs to be proved. (It would be OK to briefly mention Xenophanes, as he raises the question of what makes a god or gods worthy of worship and answers that there can only be one such God.)

The answer, so far as goodness is concerned, is that by definition when one chooses, the object of one’s choice is presented as ‘good’. This is even true of a masochist who finds it ‘good’ to be whipped or a satanist who finds it ‘good’ to behave in a way which others call ‘evil’. By being the ultimate good, God provides the ultimate teleological principle for all goal directed behaviour.

Plato in the Republic talks about the ultimate form of the Good. In the Timaeus he describes the myth of a ‘demiurge’. But that is so far as he goes in describing anything remotely resembling God. Aristotle goes considerably further. Yet this is still a long way from the entity that the theologian would recognize today as a personal God. Aristotle’s God has no trace of personality, does not intervene in the world through wonders and miracles, does not reward or punish, and for all its ‘goodness’ remains sublimely indifferent to what actually goes on here below.

All the best,