Monday, April 23, 2012

On Aquinas and the Cosmological Argument


In debating religion, I've run across a claim that has been made recently that the cosmological argument is the strongest argument out there for the existence of god.  And not just any cosmological argument, the one put forward in Thomas Aquinas' First Way, part of his Quinquae viae.  This may come as a surprise to those of you who thought that the cosmological argument had long since been soundly refuted.  But, as I've been told, none of the refutations, not a single one, have ever dealt with the real argument that Aquinas made.  Apparently, the way it's been interpreted for the past eight centuries is wrong.  Ed Feser makes this claim, but I'm afraid I don't currently have access to his book on Aquinas.  I intend to get to it in time, because I'm told it's very important.  In the meantime, this blog has been presented to me as an example of how the argument is supposed to work.  I've thought about it a good bit, and have decided to devote a little time to refuting it.

To sum up, here's the quick and simple version of the argument:

  1. Some things are being actualized
  2. Whatever is being actualized is being actualized by something else
  3. An essentially ordered chain cannot be infinitely long
  4. Therefore, there is something of pure actuality

Let's go ahead and take a look at the argument in detail.  In the first two sections of the post, we simply get a history lesson, describing the problem of change presented by Parmenides, and the division of things that exist into actual and potential by Aristotle.  It's simple, clear, and to the point, and I have no quibbles with how it begins.  I may not agree with the way the Greeks set it out, but it does its job at framing the space in which the argument is being made.

Regarding point III, however, we come to my first objection.  The distinction is made between an accidentally ordered series and an essentially ordered series.  An accidentally ordered series is one in which the causes of the events in the series need not currently exist; in an essentially ordered series, the causes must exist in the present with the effects.  But is this a meaningful distinction?  The fact that we live in a universe where there is time makes the distinction between an accidentally ordered series and an essentially ordered series questionable. Let's start by defining the present, something that we can do today in terms far more accurate than Aquinas could in the 13th century.  What we call "the present" can be divided into tinier and tinier slivers of seconds, down to (theoretically) Planck time. The Planck time is the time required for light, in a vacuum, to travel one Planck Length, which is really short: 1.616199(97)x 10−35 meters.  This makes the Planck time roughly 10−43 seconds.  And, critically, for events taking less than Planck time, no change can be detected; that's part of the definition of Planck time. For events taking more than Planck time, the information that the event has occurred can propagate no faster than the speed of light, and thus cannot actually cause any change until at least some time has passed. All causes, by our current understanding of the laws of physics, must be in the past10−43 seconds in the past may not seem like a lot, but it is the past. In "the present", i.e. any given instant in which the Planck time has not elapsed, nothing is changing. Change is always measured over time.  But the concept of an essentially ordered series depends on things changing in the present; if I push on an object, so the idea goes, the force that I am exerting on the object in the present is causing the change that moves the object.  In reality, that's not how the world works; the force I exerted an instant ago is carried across the distance between my hand and the object at no faster than the finite speed of light and affects the object, and the force I'm exerting at this instant hasn't gotten there yet, because even if I'm only the Planck length away, the information that I'm exerting force cannot have yet traveled the distance.  It appears that all series must be accidentally ordered series, and since this is admitted to not be proof of a god, the argument falls flat before we even finish the definitions.  That's a pretty good refutation, I think.  But I can do better than that.

Let's look at the three premises in the simplified argument above.

  • Premise 1: Some things are changing. This is fine, subject to the point I elucidated above.
  • Premise 2: Whatever is changing (whatever is a mix of potential & actual) is being changed by something else. This is the key point of contention, as it is in many modern refutations of the cosmological argument. It hinges, as many things do, on the fact that we've found out a lot since Aquinas' day.  This premise isn't necessarily true, but that doesn't mean it isn't true in practice; it could have turned out to be the case, even if not logically necessary. However, the observation of uncaused phenomena in modern science does mean that it isn't true. Radioactive decay is a great example, and the most familiar that I can name.  An unstable isotope of an element doesn't look unstable; it appears perfectly fine, acting just like any other atom, right up until the very instant that it decays.  There are no precursor events, no warning signs that decay is about to occur; on the level of individual atoms, whether the atom decays at any given moment is a matter of probability, and is one of the processes that appear to be truly stochastic.  We can say that, over a given period of time, about half of the atoms of a chunk of radioactive material will have decayed, but we can't say a thing about any given atom.  Nothing actually causes the decay to happen; there are necessary conditions, but no causal event.  Aquinas couldn't have known this in the 13th century, so he can't be blamed. But we should probably move on now that the universe has shown this premise to be false.  I could stop here, too, but let's keep going
  • Premise 3: This chain cannot be infinitely long, because it is an essentially ordered series. Again, the question of whether the concept of an essentially ordered series makes sense comes into play. But even if we grant it, the unstated assumption is that there must be only one terminus to all chains. This point is addressed further on, though, and I'll come back to it. But it also ignores the possibility of cycles. If we have an essentially ordered series, where A is causing B, and B is causing C, and so on, what stops Z from causing A? If we have, say, a wheel of atoms, and one is moving (from an external push in the past, outside our EOS for this wheel), then it pushes the one ahead of it, which pushes the one ahead of it, and so on, but the one behind the first is then pushing the first. The chain may not have an infinite number of members, but it isn't clear that this means it needs to terminate in a pure actuality.

So, we've got serious problems in two of the three premises, with the second being the most problematic.  The argument appears to be just as unsound as we'd expected.  But I can still do better than that.  The post then goes on to the attributes of "pure actuality". Even if we grant that we can get there from the argument, the attributes noted are either questionable or applicable to something that we would not call god. Of note is the property of unity.  As the post says, "The only way to tell the difference between two things is if one thing has an attribute that another lacks." But that doesn't mean there couldn't be an infinite number of indistinguishable ends to the chains. And it doesn't mean that a pure actuality would necessarily have all attributes; there could be things that it might not be possible for it to be, in which case it couldn't potentially be those things, and would remain pure actuality.  It also includes an odd Thomistic concept of "good"; goodness in the Thomist view is synonymous with existence.  This is a concept that really doesn't seem to make sense; the pen sitting on my desk is good, but if I need a pen and don't have it, I'm suffering from evil? This seems to be a matter of equivocation more than reason.

But I have one more point to make, one that I think is particularly devastating.  A common claim for the cosmological argument is that it provides a "first step", a way to get not to the full concept of god (although the traits noted here for pure actuality are pretty close), but to an acceptance that a god of some sort exists.  But let's look at some of these traits, and see whether they describe a god or...something else:

  • Incorporeal: we can imagine a lot of things that are not matter or energy.  Ideas, for example, or mathematical constructs, or the laws of physics...
  • Simple: Well, many things are simple, even more simple than matter and energy.  Like the equation that describes matter and energy (E = mc2) or the Feynman path integral describing the likelihood that a particle will follow a given path through space...
  • Unity: Basically, something that is the same everywhere, where you don't have multiples, but rather a single unified description...
  • Eternal, Immutable: The same not only everywhere, but everywhen, constant at all points in time from the beginning of the universe (or even before) onward...
  • Impassable: Cannot be made to change, beyond the ability of anything to alter, like some sort of fixed natural law...
  • Omnipotent: The source of all change in the universe, and the source of all change that could possibly occur, the ultimate explanation for everything that occurs...
I'll be honest with you, I don't see god in that.  "Conscious", "personal", those aren't implied.  What do I see coming from these traits that pure actuality must have?  A limited set of necessary properties of the universe (as Lawrence Krauss and some other physicists argue for) would be incorporeal, simple, eternal, unity, immutable, impassable, and (at least by the given definition of "the source of all change in the universe, and the source of any change that could ever logically occur") omnipotent. Thanks to the Pauli exclusion principle, noting that no two particles can ever be in exactly the quantum state simultaneously, and thus any change in, say, the energy state of an electron caused by rubbing your hands together might then affect every other electron in the universe (a really weird conclusion supported by some physicists like Brian Cox, but disputed by others), it could even be said that this basic set of principles is omniscient, probably in a more direct way than the roundabout "ground of all being, doesn't have knowledge but is knowledge" sense described. Since the definition of "good" being used is the weird Thomistic way of equating goodness with existence, then the Thomist would even have to conclude that the laws of physics, since they quite evidently exist, are indeed good. I wouldn't say so, but then, I think that's a wonky definition of good.


Congratulations, Thomists.  If you accept the cosmological argument, as presented in Aquinas' First Way, as a valid argument, it would be perfectly reasonable for you to conclude that the "first cause" is not god, but a limited, simple set of logically necessary laws of physics.  If you happen to be interested in what those logically necessary laws of physics might be, I recommend A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss or The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.  Both argue quite nicely that the universe did not need a god to get it started, or to keep it running currently, but rather that the laws of physics alone suffice.

Edit: Updated my brief diversion on the Pauli exclusion principle.  The science isn't quite as conclusive as I'd originally presented it.

10 comments:

  1. >It appears that all series must be accidentally ordered series

    This is a severe misunderstanding. I have been playing around with ways to explain this to avoid confusion. The point being made here is abstract. A causes C, via instrument B. B has no power to cause C, and is only passing it along from A. Remove A, and you remove C.

    Consider a stone on your kitchen table. It begins to move. You know that stones can't move themselves, so something else must be moving it. You see that a stick is pushing the stone. Do you know what is moving the stone now? No, because the same reasoning applies to the stick: sticks can't move themselves either, so a third thing must be pushing the stick (which is pushing the stone).

    You see a pair of tongs grasping the stick. Now do you know what is pushing the stone? You don't, because tongs also don't have the power of self-movement. So something else must be pushing the tongs, which are pushing the stick, which is pushing the stone.

    Whatever it is, it must be something that is capable of pushing without having to BE pushed by anything else. An unpushed pusher. If there is no unpushed pushers, and the entire series consists of pushed pushers (i.e., more sticks, tongs, and the like), then the stone won't be going anywhere. As long as the stone is moving, one member of the series must be an unpushed pusher.

    So if you see X doing A, and you know that X can't do A by itself, then you reason that there is a Y that is doing A to X. But if the same thing applies to Y, then you know that somewhere up the line there must be something capable of generating A without having to have A passed to it by anything else.

    >Nothing actually causes the decay to happen; there are necessary conditions, but no causal event.

    The first problem is that QM is in the business of describing, not interpreting. There is the Copenhagen interpretation, and the many worlds interpretation, and about a dozen others. Whether there is a cause or not will depend on which interpretation turns out to be true, and we are far from knowing the answer to that. So QM cannot provide an objection to the 2nd premise.

    In fact, it furnishes a good example of premise 1 from the Fifth Way. It is just in the nature of certain atoms to decay, and they do this with regularlty. So even if they DO provide a counterpoint to one premise of the first way, that in turn only confirms the 1st premise of the fifth way.

    >But it also ignores the possibility of cycles.

    The point of an essentially ordered series is that EVERY member of the chain is instrumental. Take the above example and put the stone, stick, tong, another stick, etc into a circle. Would they move? No, because none of them are capable of self-movement.

    (cont)

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    1. >Consider a stone on your kitchen table.

      Oh, not the stick pushing the stone thing again. That still doesn't work, because it's based in Aristotle's flawed physics. It assumes that rest is the basic state of nature, and that an object that isn't being moved by some kind of force will stop moving. But that's not the case. Motion is the basic state of nature; the world is a dynamic mess of jiggling things, as Feynman put it. And of course, once you stop applying a force to an object, it will just keep moving unless another force is applied to stop it. Aristotle didn't know these things, nor did Aquinas, so we can't blame them for being wrong. But they were wrong, and we know better these days.

      >Whatever it is, it must be something that is capable of pushing without having to BE pushed by anything else. An unpushed pusher.

      There is absolutely no reason that this criterion is not met by objects that are capable of spontaneous motion. Like elementary particles. Which everything is made of.

      >So even if they DO provide a counterpoint to one premise of the first way, that in turn only confirms the 1st premise of the fifth way.

      Brilliant! "Well, yes, that might cause a problem for this argument. But I happen to have this other argument that you'll now have to refute!" That's how it always seems to go, when people are defending a ridiculous idea for which they have no supporting evidence.

      >The point of an essentially ordered series is that EVERY member of the chain is instrumental.

      It's that every member of the chain is instrumental at all times. Which isn't necessarily the case. Put all those things into a circle in a frictionless environment, apply a force, and then don't apply any other forces. They'll move, and keep moving forever, even though the thing that started them moving is no longer a part of the cycle.

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    2. > That still doesn't work, because it's based in Aristotle's flawed physics. It assumes that rest is the basic state of nature, and that an object that isn't being moved by some kind of force will stop moving.

      But the argument is not a physical one. It isn't a quasi-scientific hypothesis. It's rather much more fundamental, and the stone illustration is simply to show that if something is instrumental, then there must be a source. You could word it like this: A is causing C via instrument B; removing A would remove C. There cannot be an infinite number of Bs, because that would in effect be the same as removing A.

      The argument does not deal with physical movement from place to place per se, but rather the actualization of potentials. So say that object X conforms to the law of inertia; if set in motion, it remains in motion unless stopped by an outside factor. So this type of object is potentially existent, and as it happens, it actually does exist. So what actualizes the potential of such objects to exist? Not themselves; they would have to simultaneously exist and not exist. So the answer is: something else. Now the same reasoning applies to that something else, and so on.

      So it is a mistake to confuse the hand-stick-stone example with a physical argument in conflict with Newton.

      >Brilliant! "Well, yes, that might cause a problem for this argument. But I happen to have this other argument that you'll now have to refute!" That's how it always seems to go, when people are defending a ridiculous idea for which they have no supporting evidence.

      That is not a rebuttal. The Five Ways need to be considered as a whole, concerning the actualization of potential. See my comment just above for how the First Way and Fifth Way are really just one argument, and the same goes for the others as well. They are sub-species of one general argument.

      >Put all those things into a circle in a frictionless environment

      Again, the argument is not physical. It is more fundamental and general than that. Ok, why is it the case that such objects exist? What makes it the case that "objects that continue to move after a force has been applied" are real, rather than imaginary or non-existent? Not themselves, obviously, and so the regress begins.

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    3. >But the argument is not a physical one. It isn't a quasi-scientific hypothesis.

      Then why use a physical example? I've heard this claim before, and it just doesn't hold water. Yes, I get that you're trying to provide an example to illustrate a concept. But if every example you come up with doesn't work in the real world, then it's not clear that your concept has anything to do with the real world either. It's not enough to describe how things could work, you have to give me a reason to think that your description is [i]true.[/i] And examples that are readily debunked by the laws of physics don't do that.

      >The Five Ways need to be considered as a whole, concerning the actualization of potential.

      I see no reason whatsoever to think that the act/potency distinction is a useful way to view the world. It is not at all helpful for describing the way things work.

      >What makes it the case that "objects that continue to move after a force has been applied" are real, rather than imaginary or non-existent?

      I'm sorry, but "Things exist, therefore god" doesn't work. Things exist, therefore [i]things exist.[i] If things didn't exist, then we wouldn't be here to discuss it.

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    4. > Yes, I get that you're trying to provide an example to illustrate a concept. But if every example you come up with doesn't work in the real world

      Of course it works in the real world. The stone on your kitchen table begins to move. You know that it can't move itself. So something else must be moving it. It's a stick. But sticks can't move themselves either, so a third thing must be moving it.

      If A can't do X to itself, then something else must be doing it to it.

      That other thing is either:

      1. Capable of doing it to itself (and hence A as well)
      2. Incapable of doing it to itself

      If 2, then you need to keep going.

      >And examples that are readily debunked by the laws of physics don't do that.

      All you seem to be talking about is the law of inertia. I have a whole article about that: http://rocketphilosophy.blogspot.com/2012/10/inertial-motion-and-first-way.html

      >I see no reason whatsoever to think that the act/potency distinction is a useful way to view the world. It is not at all helpful for describing the way things work.

      Of course it's useful. Right now you are thinking about this comment and thinking about how to reply. Your (future) reply does not actually exist yet, but it potentially does. If it didn't potentially exist, then you would not be able to write it. But clearly, you can and you will. When you are finished, that potentiality becomes reality, or actuality.

      We use this concept all the time, and could not live without it, even though we don't usually label it or think about it consciously.

      >I'm sorry, but "Things exist, therefore god" doesn't work.

      You're right, it doesn't. That's not how the argument works, though.

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  2. (cont)

    >The argument appears to be just as unsound as we'd expected.

    But why do atheists do this so often? This seems to be in complete opposition to the claim that they just "lack belief." It seems as if they are starting with a conclusion (all theistic arguments fail), and working backwards into it. It really does seem this way to me. You shouldn't expect anything (failure or success), and just calmly and rationally consider the premises.

    >But that doesn't mean there couldn't be an infinite number of indistinguishable ends to the chains.

    For another thing, Pure Act is spaceless and timeless, so you can't point to it anywhere. It makes no sense to say that there are several of them.

    >This is a concept that really doesn't seem to make sense; the pen sitting on my desk is good, but if I need a pen and don't have it, I'm suffering from evil?

    No. This too is a misunderstanding. "Good" rather would mean that, for example, a good triangle is a more triangle-like triangle: straighter lines, corners that connect, etc. A sloppy triangle is missing some things (like straight lines, etc), and that lack of something that is essential to triangleness is what is bad.

    >Ideas, for example, or mathematical constructs

    Abstract objects are defined by their causal inertness. See: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/abstract-objects/#CauIneCri

    >Like the equation that describes matter and energy (E = mc2) or the Feynman path integral describing the likelihood that a particle will follow a given path through space...

    Again, abstract objects are causally inert. So they are not a candidate.

    >"Conscious", "personal", those aren't implied.

    These are developed in later arguments that are complicated, and would require explanation of all the philosophies of mind. They simply cannot be understood ripped out of this context.

    >it would be perfectly reasonable for you to conclude that the "first cause" is not god, but a limited, simple set of logically necessary laws of physics.

    But laws are not "things." Physical laws are descriptions of the how physical things behave, but they are not things in themselves. So they are not a candidate either.

    I hope to have shown here that your critique of the argument from motion goes quite awry.

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    1. >It seems as if they are starting with a conclusion (all theistic arguments fail), and working backwards into it.

      It's a perfectly reasonable position to hold, in fact. All theistic arguments I've seen so far have failed. So when I see a new one, I expect that it too will fail, as they don't have a good track record. But I then look at the argument to see if it indeed does fail. I certainly have a hypothesis (that theism is false, and thus arguments for it are flawed), but I'm willing to test it. It just so happens that the hypothesis has yet to be falsified.

      >Pure Act is spaceless and timeless, so you can't point to it anywhere.

      That which is spaceless and timeless exists at no point in space and at no point in time. "At no point in space" is a good definition for "nowhere", and "at no point in time" is a good definition for "never". So Pure Act exists nowhere and never. "That which exists nowhere and never" is synonymous with "does not exist".

      Unless you'd like to reconsider that point.

      >"Good" rather would mean that, for example, a good triangle is a more triangle-like triangle: straighter lines, corners that connect, etc.

      Then Aquinas is doing a bait-and-switch. That version of "good" has absolutely nothing to do with the version of "good" that is used in discussions of morality. If god is "good" in the first sense, that does not imply that he is "good" in the second sense. You can be good at genocide, but genocide is not morally good. And if you lack the quality of being good at genocide, you're certainly not evil.

      >Abstract objects are defined by their causal inertness.

      Well, that's convenient. Arguing by definition is another standard response when you can't argue from evidence.

      >These are developed in later arguments that are complicated, and would require explanation of all the philosophies of mind.

      Great. They still don't follow from this argument.

      >Physical laws are descriptions of the how physical things behave, but they are not things in themselves.

      Our descriptions of the physical laws are descriptions. The actual fundamental properties of the universe, what we call the laws of nature, are not. For example, our description of the second law of thermodynamics is indeed just a description of what we observe. But what we observe is another story; it's a basic property of the universe that closed systems spontaneously evolve towards thermal equilibrium. You're falling prey to a use-mention error. The descriptions of the laws of nature are not things, but the things they describe certainly are.

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    2. > All theistic arguments I've seen so far have failed

      I once thought this (and till do about ID and other gaps theories), but now I realize that this was a product of reading too much stuff on the Internet. The place where even theists screw up the cosmological argument. I don't know why echo chambers are so easy to create, but they are.

      >That which is spaceless and timeless exists at no point in space and at no point in time. "At no point in space" is a good definition for "nowhere", and "at no point in time" is a good definition for "never".

      This, as you know, presupposes that materialism is true, which is the very view in question. But most philosophers are realists about at least numbers and similar abstract objects, which are timeless and spaceless and yet still existent. You can even look at an anti-religionist like Bertrand Russell, who defended realism.

      >That version of "good" has absolutely nothing to do with the version of "good" that is used in discussions of morality.

      Of course it does. It is good to raise your kids and not kill them, because it is in the nature of life to reproduce and make sure its genes carry on to the next generation. And like with the triangle, it is good to be as much like your nature as possible.

      >Well, that's convenient. Arguing by definition is another standard response when you can't argue from evidence.

      ??? This is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/abstract-objects/#CauIneCri


      > But what we observe is another story; it's a basic property of the universe that closed systems spontaneously evolve towards thermal equilibrium.

      Yes, that's exactly right. A physical law is a propery OF something. It isn't a "thing" in itself, and so cannot be the Pure Act that Aquinas is talking about.

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    3. >I once thought this (and till do about ID and other gaps theories), but now I realize that this was a product of reading too much stuff on the Internet.

      Well, I'd love to see an argument presented that does work. I'm afraid this one is still unconvincing. And I see no reason that convincing arguments can't be made via the Internet.

      >This, as you know, presupposes that materialism is true, which is the very view in question.

      Not at all. It would certainly be possible for an immaterial thing to exist, as it would be at the very least at some point in time. Something that exists nowhere but does exist now still exists, just not in physical space. The problem is, we know of no such things.

      >But most philosophers are realists about at least numbers and similar abstract objects, which are timeless and spaceless and yet still existent.

      Most philosophers are wrong, then. I am not a realist with regard to numbers or abstract objects, and telling me that most philosophers disagree with me is not a good reason for me to think I'm wrong.

      >It is good to raise your kids and not kill them, because it is in the nature of life to reproduce and make sure its genes carry on to the next generation. And like with the triangle, it is good to be as much like your nature as possible.

      Then it is good to rape, and spread one's genetic material as best one can. It is good to murder rivals, so as to ensure that one's own genetic material is prioritized. After all, rape and murder are in our nature. See the problem?

      >This is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

      I really don't care. It says "An object is abstract (if and) only if it is causally inefficacious." Which is an argument by definition; [i]why[/i] is it defined that way? Take the concept of triangularity. If I want to steady a wall, a great way to do so is to build a cross-beam that makes a triangle. I have to understand the concept of triangularity in order to know that; without the concept, I wouldn't know to build the beam. So it seems that the concept of triangularity, certainly as abstract as an object gets, did something like cause me to build that stabilizing cross-beam. It's not physical causation, sure, but it's something [i]like[/i] causation.

      >It isn't a "thing" in itself, and so cannot be the Pure Act that Aquinas is talking about.

      So why can the universe, with its attendant properties, not qualify? Because it's physical, and god isn't, and Aquinas is trying to shore up an idea that he accepted for some other reason than these arguments.

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    4. >And I see no reason that convincing arguments can't be made via the Internet.

      Of course they can, but the misinformation to information ratio is probably 95 to 1. It's too much noise.

      >Most philosophers are wrong, then.

      OK, but then you need a good reason to be oppositional to people who spend their entire academic lives studying such things. Do you REALLY have a good reason, or are you just trying to oppose theistic arguments?

      >telling me that most philosophers disagree with me is not a good reason for me to think I'm wrong.

      The point is not that you are wrong, but that your objection is question-begging. "Only material things exist" is not a good objection to theistic arguments. Such a postion needs evidence and argument for it, not just assertion.

      >Then it is good to rape, and spread one's genetic material as best one can.

      But then social structures fall, it takes a village to raise a child, etc. It's amazing that I see atheists so often appealing to natural law in arguing for morality, without even realizing it.

      >So it seems that the concept of triangularity, certainly as abstract as an object gets, did something like cause me to build that stabilizing cross-beam.

      What caused you to do that is the desire for a strong structure, and your knowledge of engineering. The concept triangularity itself didn't cause you to do anything. Only your awareness of it, coupled with the desire for a strong wall.

      >So why can the universe, with its attendant properties, not qualify?

      Because it is a mix of potential and actual. Essence and existence. It is composite. See my newest defense of classical theism, from the ground up: http://rocketphilosophy.blogspot.com/2012/10/a-defense-of-classical-theism-1.html

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