CT 98: Question of the Eternity of Motion

This chapter addresses an objection one might make to the conclusions of the previous chapter. I’ll let Thomas explain. (This is a long one, but at least it’s fairly straightforward.)

We might imagine that, although God can produce a new effect by His eternal and immutable will, some sort of motion would have to precede the newly produced effect. For we observe that the will does not delay doing what it wishes to do, unless because of some motive that is operative now but will cease later, or because of some motive that is inoperative now but is expected to become operative in the future. In summer a man has the will to clothe himself with a warm garment, which, however, he does not wish to put on at present, but in the future; for now the weather is warm, although it will cease to be warm with the advent of a cold wave later in the year.

This is a nice explanation. My will is to put on warm clothing if I’m cold. That remains my will, even if I’m not currently cold and have no desire to put on warm clothing at the moment. Similarly, it’s my will that my children behave themselves at all times, not simply when I have my eye on them and am thinking about it.

I’ve usually thought of my will as being whatever I’m choosing at the moment, but it is clearly much more complicated than that. I’ll have to ponder that.

Anyway, the application is clear: God might wish for some effect to happen at one time but not another.

Accordingly, if God wished from eternity to produce some effect, but did not produce it from eternity, it seems either that something was expected to happen in the future that had not yet occurred, or else that some obstacle had to be removed that was then present. Neither of these alternatives can take place without motion. Thus it seems that a subsequent effect cannot be produced by a preceding will unless some motion previously occurs.

Now, isn’t that neat. It seems that God’s not the First Cause of things produced in time…because His will is waiting on something else to happen, which is therefore the real cause of the effect:

And so, if God’s will relative to the production of things was eternal, and nevertheless things were not produced from eternity, their production must have been preceded by motion, and consequently by mobile objects. And if the latter were produced by God, but not from eternity, yet other motions and mobile objects must have preceded, and so on, in infinite recession.

But an infinite recession is impossible, and so God can’t produce things in time. So the objector says.

The solution to this objection readily comes to mind if we but attend to the difference between a universal and a particular agent. A particular agent has an activity that conforms to a norm and measure prescribed by the universal agent. This is clear even in civil government. The legislator enacts a law which is to serve as a norm and measure. Any particular judge must base his decisions on this law.

OK; and presumably God is the universal agent.

Again, time is the measure of actions which occur in time. A particular agent is endowed with activity regulated by time, so that he acts for some definite reason now, and not before. But the universal agent, God, instituted this measure, which is time, and He did so in accord with His will. Hence time also is to be numbered among the things produced by God. Therefore, just as the quantity and measure of each object are such as God wishes to assign to it, so the quantity of time is such as God wished to mete out; that is, time and the things existing in time began just when God wished them to begin.

As the creator of time, God is not bound by it. This is yet another reminder that “eternity” is not the same as “endless time”.

The objection we are dealing with argues from the standpoint of an agent that presupposes time and acts in time, but did not institute time. Hence the question, why God’s eternal will produces an effect now and not earlier, presupposes that time exists; for “now” and “earlier” are segments of time.

Right. I choose to do this now, or I choose to do it later, but if I choose to do it later I have to wait until later. But God’s different. It’s rather like the difference between a cassette tape and a compact disk. CDs can be accessed randomly, but tapes can only be accessed sequentially. God can access time at any point He chooses.

With regard to the universal production of things, among which time is also to be counted, we should not ask: “Why now and not earlier?” Rather we should ask: “Why did God wish this much time to intervene?” And this depends on the divine will, which is perfectly free to assign this or any other quantity to time.

In a sense, time is like space, to God. I can put my computer down here or there; God can put things in time now or then, just as he chooses.

The same may be noted with respect to the dimensional quantity of the world. No one asks why God located the material world in such and such a place rather than higher up or lower down or in some other position; for there is no place outside the world. The fact that God portioned out so much quantity to the world that no part of it would be beyond the place occupied in some other locality, depends on the divine will. However, although there was no time prior to the world and no place outside the world, we speak as if there were. Thus we say that before the world existed there was nothing except God, and that there is no body lying outside the world. But in thus speaking of “before” and “outside,” we have in mind nothing but time and place as they exist in our imagination.

Yes. There’s no moment outside time, and there’s no place outside space, as we are capable of understanding the terms. A moment is an aspect of time, and a place is an aspect of space. And yet, God is clearly “outside” time and space in a very real sense. Which is clearly what Thomas refers to as an analogical use of the word. Cool.

2 Responses to “CT 98: Question of the Eternity of Motion”

  1. AT says:

    You say, “Now, isn’t that neat. It seems that God’s not the First Cause of things produced in time…because His will is waiting on something else to happen, which is therefore the real cause of the effect:”

    I don’t think that follows. God is the First Cause of things but He wills to bring them about through secondary causes. So, every effect has both God and other causes bringing it about.

    On my own blog I question whether the word “cause” can be used of God’s activity. If it can’t be so used we cannot conclude to a First Uncaused Cause, but on the other hand may be able to show matter is not eternal (next section of the Compendium) rather then just saying that’s what the Catholic Faith requires.

  2. Will says:

    I was being a bit sarcastic. The sentence you quoted is my interpretation of the objection that St. Thomas is opposing in this chapter—and, of course, it isn’t true.

    I don’t see how you can get away from God being the First Cause, or from using the word “cause” of God’s activity. It’s His world; He created it. He’s the cause of the world, ultimately.