From persistence to God

Edward Feser’s book Five Proofs of the Existence of God (2017) includes his version of the Aristotelian proof, which looks at the existence of change. There is a similar proof that looks at the existence of persistence. Aristotle, with a static world-picture, wanted to explain change. Someone with a dynamic world-picture might want an explanation for persistence. As time is required for change, so a place or space is required for persistence. Below I sketch this argument by modifying some words in Feser’s text (with page references to his book):

Persistence happens. Examples are all around us. The coffee in your cup is still warm after you step away for a minute. A leaf on the tree outside your window is in the same place it was yesterday. A puddle is the same size it was ten minutes ago. You swat a fly and miss, so it keeps buzzing around.

These examples illustrate four kinds of persistence: qualitative persistence (the coffee doesn’t change temperature); persistence with respect to location (the leaf is in the same place); quantitative persistence (the puddle is the same size); and substantial persistence (a living thing keeps on living). That persistences of these sorts occur is evident from our sensory experience of the world outside our minds. (p.17)

What persistence involves is, for pseudo-Aristotle, the actualization of a potential. The coffee has the potential to stay warm. A leaf has the potential to stay in the same place. A puddle has the potential to remain the same size. A fly has the potential to stay alive. (p.18)

Persistence requires a ‘persistentizer’. We find examples all around us in everyday experience. The warm air in the room keeps the temperature of the coffee the same. The connection to the tree keeps the leaf in the same place. But the thesis that persistence requires a ‘persistentizer’ is not merely a generalization from instances like these. It follows from what persistence is: the actualization of a potential to persist. (p. 19)

In physics the potential energy is based on the position of a body relative to other bodies. For example, the gravitational potential energy of a body that persists at a position above the Earth is the product of its mass, its height above the surface of the Earth, and the acceleration of gravity. If the body is released, it will fall and the potential energy will become actualized as kinetic energy.

Consider next that series of persistences that extend across space, in what we might think of as a linear fashion. The coffee is still warm because the air in the room is warm; the air is warm because the air conditioner switch is in the off position; and so forth. (p. 20)

There is another kind of series—let us call it the hierarchical kind—which must have a first member. … Consider the coffee cup as it sits on your desk. It is, we may suppose three feet above the floor. Why? Because the desk is holding it up, naturally. But what holds the desk up? The floor, of course. The floor, in turn is held up by the foundation of the house, and the foundation of the house by the earth. (p.21, same text fits persistence)

First of all, since the cause of things is pure actuality and therefore devoid of potentiality, it cannot go from potentiality to actuality or from potentially persistent to actually persistent and is thus ever-new or inexhaustible. Since existing within space entails persistence, an ever-new cause must be transcendent in the sense of existing outside of space altogether. It neither comes to be nor passes away but simply is, spacelessly, without origin or destination. (p.29)

Let’s skip ahead to a few modifications of Feser’s more formal statement of the argument (p.34ff):

1. Persistence is a real feature of the world.
2. But persistence is the actualization of a potential.
3. So, the actualization of potential is a real feature of the world.
4. No potential can be actualized unless something already actual actualizes it (the principle of causality).
5. So, any persistence is caused by something already actual.
6. The occurrence of any persistence C presupposes some thing or substance S which persists.

19. In order for this purely actual actualizer to be capable of persistence, it would have to have potentials capable of actualization.
20. But being purely actual, it lacks any such potentials.
21. So it is ever-new or inexhaustible.
22. If this purely actual actualizer existed in space, then it would be capable of persistence, which it is not.
23. So, this purely actual actualizer is transcendent, existing outside of space.
24. If the purely actual actualizer were material, then it would be persistent and exist in space, which it does not.
25. So, the purely actual actualizer is immaterial. (p.35-36)

The main difference between this argument and Feser’s is the conclusion that God is ever-new or inexhaustible. Does that contradict Aristotle or the Bible? Not necessarily; divine newness and faithfulness are compatible, as in Lamentations 3:22-23:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Gregory of Nyssa compares God to a spring (Commentary on the Song of Songs, Homily 11):

It is just as if you could see that spring which Scripture tells us rose from the earth at the beginning in such quantities that it watered the entire face of the earth (Gen. 2:10 ff.). As you came near the spring you would marvel, seeing that the water was endless, as it constantly gushed up and poured forth. Yet you could never say that you had seen all the water. How could you see what was still hidden in the bosom of the earth? Hence no matter how long you might stay at the spring you would always be beginning to see the water. For the water never stops flowing, and it is always beginning to bubble up again.

It is the same with one who fixes his gaze on the infinite beauty of God. It is constantly being discovered anew, and it is always seen as something new and strange in comparison with what the mind has already understood. And as God continues to reveal himself, man continues to wonder; and he never exhausts his desire to see more, since what he is waiting for is always more magnificent, more divine, than all that he has already seen.