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Essay/Term paper: Ancient philosophy

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Philosophy

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As Aristotle viewed the world around him, he observed that things are moving and changing in certain ways. Aristotle discovered that certain things cause other things, which in turn cause something else. Aristotle believed that an infinite chain of causation was not possible, thus, a prime mover of some kind must exist as the first cause of everything that changes or moves.

The first evidence that Aristotle viewed was the world around him. He observed that everything is in motion, and that one motion causes another motion and so on. Much like billiard balls on a pool table. One ball hits another ball, that ball moves, hits a third ball, and the third ball moves. Like A causes B to move causes C to move etc. After careful observation, Aristotle noticed that everything is in motion, even the planets, and thus, there was a chain of causation. Aristotle believed that something can not come from nothing, that is, a thing can not pop in and out of existence, thus, there must either be an infinite chain of causation or a first cause/prime mover. Aristotle dismissed the possibility of infinite causation and instead attempted to prove that there is a prime mover or first cause. Aristotle also believed the universe was situated in a certain way. Aristotle believed that the heavens began just above the bottom of the moon and the everything above the lower portion of the moon wa
s the heavens. In the heavens, Aristotle observed that everything was in a cyclical motion, and that the planets moved about each other in circles. If the planets moved about in circular motion then there must have been a cause to bring about their motion, thus, there must also be either an infinite chain of causation for heavenly bodies or a prime mover/first cause of the heavenly bodies.

For Aristotle "local motion is the primary type of motion and the primary type of motion is circular motion' For Aristotle this means that everything is moving, and the best form of movement is movement in a circular motion because a circle is the perfect form of movement. It has no beginning and no end, it is continuous and everlasting. Aristotle saw this motion in everything, even the human existence is that of a cycle. We are born, reproduce and die, in a continuous existence just as the heavenly bodies begin at one point and move around until they are at the beginning point again. Aristotle stated his point as the following:

"If, then, the same thing always exists in a cycle something must always remain actually operating in the same way, And if there is to be a coming to be and perishing, then there must be something else that actually operates in one way at one time and in another way at another time. The <second mover>, then must actually operate in one way because of itself, and in another way because of something else, and hence either because of some <third mover> or because of the first mover. <prime mover>"

It is necessary, here, to explain what Aristotle called potentiality and actuality. Potentiality is the faculty something has, and actuality is the realization of that faculty. One has the ability to be musical, that is, one has the potential to be musical. If one decides to be musical then one has actualized their potentiality, that is, one has caused themselves to become musical. So then when Aristotle says "the second mover operates in one way because of itself,' it means the second mover has acted upon its potential and actualized it. For Aristotle things do not simply act on their potential because of nothing, there has to be a cause of the actualization, thus, when he said "...The <second mover>, then must actually operate in one way because of itself, and in another way because of something else." He meant that thing A has the potential to move by itself, but it does not simply move for absolutely no reason, thus, A moves because of its potential, and because of cause B. Aristotle said "It is al
so evident...by saying that motion is in the thing moved. For it is actuality of the thing moved, brought about by the agency of the mover." The last part of Aristotle's statement, "and hence either because of some <third mover> or because of the first mover. <prime mover>," Means that the cause of A moving is A's potential and B is either a third mover or is a first mover C.

The best way to summarize the statement made above by Aristotle is to use the example of billiard balls. Imagine there are 4 billiard balls labeled A, B, C, and D. Ball B has the potential to move but needs a reason to move. Ball C moves and caused ball B to move, thus, Ball B is caused to move by its potential and by ball C. Ball C also has the potential to move, but needs a reason. The reason ball C moved is because ball C has the potential to move, and was caused to actualize its potential by ball D, thus, ball B moves because of ball C and ball C moved because of ball D and ball D moves because of ball A. This example would work if there were millions, or even infinite numbers of billiard balls on the table. The cause of all the balls movement can be traced back through the empirical knowledge of cause and effect. It is also possible that all the balls on the table move in a cyclical motion. Ball B may bounce around hitting ball A, which hits ball D and so on. So the whole chain of causation
becomes a cyclical motion each causing the other to move and indirectly causes its own motion.

The last part of Aristotle's statement also mentions a first or prime mover. If one were to place 4 billiard balls on the table, they would simply sit there and do nothing, unless something moved them, or there was a prime mover of them. Even if they each ball caused the other to move, and eventually caused its own movement indirectly, there must have been something there to set at least one ball in motion. For Aristotle the same is true of the universe, there can be no movement, circular or otherwise, unless there is a prime mover. The prime mover is also not permitted motion. If the prime mover had motion, then there would have to be a cause of its motion, and thus, it would no longer be a first/prime mover. So for Aristotle the prime mover is actuality, without potentiality. The prime mover has no potential at all, it is simply actual. If the prime mover did have potential then it would have to be acted upon to realize its potential and would, thus, no longer be a prime mover because something
would have to act upon it.

This account of cause and effect is at best problematic and troublesome. Aristotle has based all his knowledge on empirical evidence. Empirical evidence is not always perfect, and it is always possible to overlook something. Aristotle also did not show what else causation could be, nor did he consider that what he was attempting to explain may not be within our capabilities to understand.

Aristotle based all his evidence for his proof of causation on the empirical world around him. Human perception is often mistaken, or overlooks things. The human notion of causation itself is problematic. The only reason we know that C causes B to move is the observance of the 2 together. We base all our knowledge of causation on the fact that when B moves, C is usually around, thus, we infer C caused B to move, but we do not exactly know that for sure. If one day C was around, but B didn't move we would assume it to be a fluke. If it happened regularly that B no longer moved when C was around, then we would assume that we were mistaken, and would begin to look for another cause to observe. The only reason Aristotle knows that something is in motion is because he has seen it in motion before, he offers no other reason for cause and effect other than the fact it has happened in the past. Aristotle would most likely reply that there is no other way to know this. He would be correct, but the fact tha
t there is no other way to know causation, does not prove there is a prime mover. It may be that causation is infinite as far as our understanding can go. We, as humans, may be fully incapable of knowing what causation really entails, or how it can be traced back. Our faculties may not have the ability to know anything other than infinite causation. We, as humans, may not have the potential to know, truly, the chain of causation. If we do not have the potential, then we can never truly actualize the knowledge of causation. If we do not have the potential to truly know causation, then Aristotle's prime mover is nothing more than an invention of mankind, that is, the prime mover is nothing more than an invented tool. Aristotle uses because he has no other way of knowing causation. The prime mover is nothing more than a piece of framework mankind uses to understand the world around him. A second problem arising from causation is that causation is nothing more than statistical knowledge. The only reas
on we say that C causes B is because it has happened 9 out of 10 times. The only reason we know that there is any causation at all is because 9 out of 10 times two things have been observed together. If causation is nothing more than statistical probability, then there is a prime mover only 9 out of 10 times, 1 out of 10 times there is not a prime mover, and there is something else. This does not make sense, either there is a prime mover or there is not. If we know causation because of statistical probability then there can not be a prime mover because he would only be a prime mover 9 out of 10 times, and thus, he would be absent at least once, and by Aristotle's definition a prime mover can not be absent.

The other problem with Aristotle's argument is that one can infer many prime movers, not simply one of them. Aristotle states "For in every case where the results <of either assumption> are the same, we should assume a finite number <of causes>; for among natural things what is finite and better must exist rather <than its opposite> if this is possible. And one mover is sufficient" This is, perhaps, the weakest argument that Aristotle uses for his prime mover argument. If one assumes an infinite number of prime movers, then the results are not the same. If there is an infinite number of prime movers, then there is also an infinite cause of causation, and one is taken right back to what Aristotle has tried to avoid. With an infinite number of prime movers there is now an infinite chain of causation. Even if one did assume a finite number of prime movers, exactly what number would be correct? Aristotle says that one prime mover is sufficient, but it is possible that 3 prime movers are also sufficient
One mover for left to right, one mover for up and down, and one prime mover for closer and farther away. Based on empirical evidence, it makes more sense to assume that there are 3 prime movers instead of one because there are 3 ways of moving.

Aristotle makes a good case for the existence of a first cause, but it is not an infallible case. There are great problems with our ability to know what we know and how we know what we know. Our knowledge of causation is never perfect, thus, Aristotle's knowledge of causation is also not perfect. There is still debate today about how we know and realize causation. If anything, at least Aristotle is in good company, and his theory is still valid many years later.


1. Aristotle in Readings In Ancient Greek Philosophy From Thales to Aristotle edited by S. Cohen, P. Curd, C.D.C. Reed. Hackett Publishing Company Inc. United States, 1995.


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