Prime Mover vs God of the Bible – revision


Is Aristotle’s Prime Mover transcendent or immanent?

The question of whether Aristotle’s Prime Mover is transcendent or immanent is an interesting one. In reference to the specification, students may find need to comment upon “where” the Prime Mover is situated when comparing it to the creator God in Bible.

After searching through Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book XII, there is no clear reference to whether the Prime Mover would be seen as transcendent or immanent. Aristotle is, at best, ambiguous on this issue. Some text books refer to the PM as transcendent whereas an article by John Maylard (in RS Review) states that the PM is immanent. I would like to put forward an argument to state that the PM is most likely immanent, although I would be keen to qualify what I mean by this. A point of interest is the apparent Christianisation of the PM found in Maylard’s article and other texts which it will be argued should be fiercely resisted.

A transcendent prime mover is unlikely

After stating that I would like to argue that the PM is more likely immanent than transcendent, I begin by suggesting that the PM is not really immanent or transcendent as we would understand either term. Both terms have connotations which may be unhelpful and misleading. Traditionally if a being were described as transcendent it would be seen as outside of space and time, eternal and immutable. In one sense I can see why people might argue that the PM is all of these things. It is clear that the PM is eternal and immune from change as Aristotle demonstrates when he states “… there is something which moves without being moved, being eternal, substance, and actuality”. and later:

“The final cause, then, produces motion as being loved, but all other things move by being moved. Now if something is moved it is capable of being otherwise than as it is. Therefore if its actuality is the primary form of spatial motion, then in so far as it is subject to change, in this respect it is capable of being otherwise,-in place, even if not in substance. But since there is something which moves while itself unmoved, existing actually, this can in no way be otherwise than as it is. For motion in space is the first of the kinds of change, and motion in a circle the first kind of spatial motion; and this the first mover produces. The first mover, then, exists of necessity; and in so far as it exists by necessity, its mode of being is good, and it is in this sense a first principle.” (Metaphysics Book XII, Chapter 7)

However, the issue of whether the PM can be transcendent is challenged by the unspoken principle present in Ancient Greek thought: the belief in pre-existing matter. A God who creates out of nothing “creatio ex nihilo” would need to be outside of the spatio-temporal universe in order to create, since it would appear to be impossible for this being to create the universe if it was inside the universe. However, Aristotle’s PM does not fall foul of this problem. There is no need for Aristotle to place the PM outside of the universe in a separate sphere of existence as he is not trying to explain creation out of nothing but creation from pre-existing matter as the anthropomorphic Yahweh does in Genesis 2:4a forming man out of the dust of the ground (the Hebrew word “yasar” is used here which gives the impression of creation as a potter using hands). Moreover, if we state that the PM is not transcendent there is no philosophical reason which would dictate that the PM could not still be eternal or immutable (moves without being moved). This is mainly because the PM is not a personal being and so is not aware of creation. It can remain in a state a pure actuality for eternity immune from change.

Why it makes more sense to imagine the Prime Mover as immanent

There are a few reasons why it may make more sense to think of the PM as immanent. Firstly, it does not appear as if Aristotle has the mindset to imagine something outside of the universe in a transcendent way. This is because, for a philosopher of his calibre, he appears to miss the obvious “where does matter come from?” question even though he states “nothing can be said without qualification to come from what is not” (Physics I.8, 191b 12-13). The implication is that Aristotle did not conceive that the universe might be anything other than eternal or pre-existing. It is also clear from his three substance categories (discussed earlier in Metaphysics Book XII that the universe is subject to change through the four causes yet is still eternal. In other words Aristotle doesn’t appear to be trying to place the PM outside of the spatio-temporal universe just because it is eternal and immutable as his substance categories negate the need unlike the transcendent God of the Bible who creates out of nothing (in places).

Secondly, the PM will need to be accessible in some way for “matter” to move from a state of potentiality to actuality. The language Aristotle uses is “desire” and or “produces motion as being loved”. This seems to imply that the PM must be immanent or else we should ask the question: how can it perform its basic function of being the great attractor or the source of all change while it is outside the universe?

Thirdly, it is not clear that transcendence or immanence would have any real meaning for Aristotelian philosophy. It may be that we are applying modern ideas to his thinking trying to make it fit into a neat definitional box. Traditionally immanence would imply a being in a state of change, an everlasting God who is capable of changing or reacting to the temporal (as indicated by Wolterstorff). This is clearly not what Aristotle means, as the PM must exist in a state of pure actuality. Also, the other traditional concepts which go along with immanence are not required for the PM. It need only be accessible to matter by being in the same realm (though this does not mean that it has to be physical in any way as an immanent God need not be).

Perhaps then the labels of transcendence and immanence are ill-fitting for Aristotelian philosophy. It does seem to state that the PM in transcendent is wrong as we are left with the questions: how does the PM attract if it is not in the same realm as other “matter”?; and if Aristotle believed the PM was outside of the universe (transcendent) then why didn’t he ask the question of where matter came from given that he has already stated that nothing can come from nothing? Given the clarity of Aristotle’s thinking I wonder whether it is more likely that the notion of transcendence was not one which crossed his mind rather than Aristotle making simple errors in his works (Metaphysics and Physics) about the relationship between the PM and “matter” and the ontology of matter. I remind the reader how easy it is to judge Aristotle’s belief in pre-existing matter unfavourably given our knowledge of modern physics, hindsight is a wonderful thing. There is little doubt that Aristotle was a brilliant philosopher. Judging him for accepting assumptions of his time is too harsh.

It seems then that it is more likely that the PM is immanent, eternal and immutable since it is impersonal and does not create in the same way it is claimed Elohim does in Genesis 1 (the Hebrew word “bara” is used throughout Genesis 1 indicating “creatio ex nihilo”).

The dangers of a Christianisation of Aristotle’s Prime Mover

One final point needs mention, before I end this post, namely the dangers of Christianisation of Aristotle. I hope the post has been very clear as to why the PM is not the same as a Christian God. It is impersonal and more deistic in its nature. The confusion is found in the use of the word “love” by Aristotle: “The final cause, then, produces motion as being loved …” The important point to note here is the inclusion of the words “as being”. Aristotle appears to recognise that the PM is ineffable to certain extent. The PM is not “love” or “loved” as a Christian God might be. Perhaps the word “desire” is more accurate. But are we really to believe that Aristotle thought that inanimate objects “desire” the PM? I think it is more likely that Aristotle is struggling to find the appropriate language to use and so it is more of a non-literal tool than a statement on the ontology of “matter” (given that he has already dealt with this earlier in Book XII). The PM is the great attractor. This means that things are drawn to it, as we are drawn to things we love or desire. This is not the same as suggesting that the PM is similar to the Christian God of love or the object of love for Christians. The PM is certainly not omnibenevolent even if it is “Good”. Its benevolence is limited by comparison.

Will I lose marks if I get this wrong?

When all is said and done it is unlikely that the exam board would penalise a candidate for making the claim that the PM is transcendent instead of immanent. Yet I hope I have made clear why this view is problematic philosophically and why we should use a kind of qualified immanence instead. After all what is philosophy if not the demand of logical discipline?





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