Averroes Account of the Infinite Power Problem

A particularly succinct presentation is found in Averroes' Long Commentary on the Metaphysics, book Lambda (or Lam), comment 41.4 Averroes here summarizes his understanding of the original infinite power argument, the seal in Aristotle's proof for the existence of an incorporeal First Mover in syllogistic form. Because creation forms part of the subject of our enquiry, we may take note of an unspoken assumption of Averroes' which lies at the heart of his whole train of thought: that (0) the world is eternal, without beginning or end. From here all this follows: (1) The First Mover, moving as He does the outermost heaven for an infinite time, possesses an infinite potency or power (quwwa, corresponding to the Greek dynamis). But as (2) Every body or power (again quwwa) residing in a body is finite, it follows that (3) Therefore the First Mover is not a body, nor does it [the moving power] reside in a body.5 (The spelling out of the real conclusion of the argument—(4) that there exists a separate incorporeal First Mover, ie. God—is again in Averroes' estimation not even needed.) Averroes then brings up the difficulty he sees as central to the problem.

John the Grammarian raised a grave doubt against the Peripatetics concerning this problem, and this by saying: "If all bodies and the potencies pertaining to them are finite, and the heaven is a body and possesses finite potency, and [if] everything finite is perishable, [then] necessarily the heaven is perishable. And if it is said that [its] acquiring the absence of [ever] perishing [comes] from of an eternal, separate potency, it follows that there exists something possibly perishing (mumkin al-fasad) and eternal: and this is something whose impossibility has been demonstrated in the first book of De caelo et mundo."6

There is more, but even this short passage takes some unpacking. If this is indeed John Philoponus' (c. 490-574), or "the Grammarian's" own infinite power argument, then its main point and first phase reads like a straightforward reversal of Aristotle's original.7 If all potencies in bodies are finite, and if moving for an infinite time requires infinite potency, then the conclusion to draw may just as well be that the heavens' movements are in fact finite in duration, with a definite beginning as well as an end, after all.8 This runs counter to Aristotle's base eternalism, of course, as well as to the initial findings of Physics 8.9 As a proponent for the possibility of an absolute creation in time as well as for a finitist interpretation of Aristotle Philoponus could probably not care less.

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