Feser has recently responded to my IJPR article. I will respond to his post in a series of blog posts. This post is Part 6, which deals with everything Feser says in his section ‘Theoretical vices’. I have now collected all the parts together in a comprehensive response to Feser’s blog post, which you can read here.
Feser writes: “This naturally brings us to Schmid’s claim that EIT enjoys several “theoretical virtues” (i.e. virtues of a kind that a good theory ought to possess). He starts his discussion in this section of the paper by suggesting that the reason things exist at all may be that it is metaphysically necessary that something or other exists. And in the same way, he suggests, the reason things persist in existence may be that it is simply metaphysically necessary that they do so. EIT thus provides an explanation of a familiar fact of our experience, viz. that things persist.
To see what is wrong with this, consider the following dialogue:
Bob: Why did Ed start to drink that martini?
Fred: Hmm, maybe it was metaphysically necessary that he do so?
Bob: Wow, that’s an interesting explanation! And why do you think he kept drinking it once he started?
Fred: I’ve got it – maybe that was metaphysically necessary too!
Bob: Brilliant! You should write a paper.
I take it you agree with me that Fred’s explanation is not in fact that brilliant. For why on earth would anyone think it even prima facie plausible that it is necessary that I start to drink a martini? True, my nightly routine might for a moment make you wonder, but after a moment’s reflection you’d realize that there are many factors that would prevent it from being necessary – I could run out of gin, or the kids could hide the bottles, or I could opt for a Scotch instead, or whatever. And if it is not prima facie plausibly necessary that I start drinking, it is hardly any more prima facie plausible that I will of necessity keep doing so.”
But that is not what I suggest. Let’s read what I say in the paper on this point:
I am quite clear here that I am seeking to explain a contrastive fact: “why do objects, once in existence, persist in existence instead of being instantly annihilated or annihilated at random, arbitrary points during their existence?”, and “objects persist rather than succumb to instant or random annihilation because…”, and “explains why objects persist rather than chaotically being annihilated” (emphasis added in each).
But Feser has here characterized me as explaining persistence simpliciter. But that is to subtly under-describe what I’m doing. I am not seeking to explain, in the passage, mere persistence simpliciter. I’m contrasting two situations: one in which things uniformly and reliably persist absent sufficiently destructive causal factors, and one in which things annihilate at seemingly chaotic or random points in their lives without some sufficiently destructive causal factor operative. And I go on to try and show how EIT nicely explains why we see the former rather than (as opposed to, instead of) the latter.
And I take EIT to have a clearly satisfactory explanation of this contrastive fact. Consider that in debates surrounding the PSR and various causal principles [like those adduced in cosmological-type arguments, such as the Kalam], defenders of such principles will say something like ‘why is it that we see a uniform, regular, intelligible reality rather than things just chaotically popping into and out of existence uncausedly and inexplicably? Why isn’t there chaos instead? Why doesn’t Beethoven, or a raging tiger, or whole swathes of photons just spring into existence without an explanation or cause? Here’s a nice explanation: these don’t happen because such unexplained, uncaused occurrences are simply metaphysically impossible. And this is just to say that the (necessary truth of the) PSR or the causal principle (variously construed) provides a satisfying explanation of the data.’
I find this to be a perfectly kosher explanation. And yet the explanation is structurally identical to mine [essentially replacing ‘EIT’ with ‘PSR/causal principle’ and ‘chaotically ceasing to exist’ with ‘chaotically ceasing and beginning to exist’], and so I take mine, too, to be a perfectly kosher explanation.
Indeed, things get even more interesting when we do a Bayesian comparison between EIT and a classical theistic timeless sustenance (CTTS) account of persistence when it comes to explaining the contrastive fact above. Let that fact be F. Now, recall F: temporal objects, once in existence, uniformly and reliably persist absent sufficiently destructive causal factors as opposed to being annihilated at other points in their lives without being subject to causal destruction. For under EIT as I articulate it in the IJPR paper, the probability of F is 1. In other words, P(F|EIT) = 1. But the probability of F is, I would argue, significantly less than 1 under CTTS. In other words, P(F|CTTS)<<1. And this is all to say that F strongly confirms EIT vis-a-vis CTTS.
Why do I say P(F|CTTS)<<1? Consider that for an object to persist for about 116 days is for it to persist approximately 10000000 seconds. And consider that there are about 1044 Planck times in one second, and hence to persist for about 116 days is to persist for about 1051 Planck times. Now, for each (potential) Plank time in an object’s life, God is free to sustain the object for that Planck time or refrain from so sustaining it, and this is true even if God has sustained the object through previous Planck times. [It’s not as though God suddenly becomes forced or compelled to continue sustaining an object, or as though some moral obligation is newly imposed on him, or whatever.] This entails that for a given world w in which an object persists for (at least) 116 days and is then causally destroyed by something, there are about 1051 worlds in which that object ceases to exist at some point earlier than w due to God’s withdrawal of sustenance. Moreover, under classical theism, God remains utterly invariant across all worlds, and hence there is no difference or variance on God’s end to which one could point in any such world to explain why it came about as opposed to some other world. Thus, conditional on CTTS, the expectation that the single world in which the object persists up to 116 days (when it is finally causally destroyed) obtains rather than any of the other 1051 worlds is very small. And hence the data of F, as applied to this 116-day-lived object, is very unlikely conditional on CTTS, where its probability is 1 conditional on EIT. And hence EIT garners very strong evidential confirmation from F vis-a-vis CTTS. Much more can be said on this line of reasoning, but that suffices for a brief sketch (and, hence, it suffices for the purposes of this blog post).
Long story short, then, it seems to me that EIT not only provides an illuminating explanation of F [just as the PSR/causal principle does with respect to the absence of chaotic beginnings and cessations] but also gains substantial evidential confirmation from F vis-a-vis CTTS. And so Feser’s protestations to the contrary — that is, his protestations that my explanation is not, after all, illuminating (or at least not adequately illuminating) — are mistaken.
Continuing back with Feser: “But the existence and persistence of everyday objects (lions, water, etc.) are in the same boat. Again, there is nothing in the essence of any of these things that entails that they exist; they are composed of parts, and thus depend for their existence on these parts being combined; they have potentialities which need to be actualized in order for them to exist; and so on.”
I doubt something’s being composite entails that it depends [metaphysically] on its parts, given whole-to-part grounding and whatnot, but I won’t pursue that here. [For those curious, you can read my chapter from my book on the Neo-Platonic proof. [A significant portion of this is also a minor R&R at a journal. So this is for personal use only, please. 🙂 ]
What I will say, though, is that I have already addressed Feser’s argument aiming to bridge the gap from ‘nothing about the essence of these things entails that they exist’ to ‘nothing about the essence of these things entails that they persist’ to ‘they don’t inertially persist, i.e., they need continuous sustenance from without in order to persist’. I addressed this (or a well-nigh identical) argument at length in Part 4.
Feser: “That is why they are contingent. So, if there is nothing more to reality than things of that sort, how could it be metaphysically necessary that there be things of that sort? And if it is not prima facie plausibly metaphysically necessary that things of this sort exist at all, how could it be any more prima facie plausibly metaphysically necessary that they must persist in existence?
Of course, that doesn’t entail that there is nothing of which it could be said that it is metaphysically necessary that it exists and persists in existence. Certainly, this could plausibly be said of something that is absolutely simple and devoid of potentiality (precisely since to be something of that sort is to lack the features that make a thing contingent). But of course, that’s precisely the sort of thing Schmid wants to avoid positing.”
But, first, I have already explained why ‘this is why they are contingent’ is false. See Part 5 [and, in particular, search “Consider the number two”]. Second, I have already addressed in Part 4 and Part 5 Feser’s conditional argument from ‘not metaphysically necessary that they exist’ to ‘not metaphysically necessary that, once in existence, they persist’.
Feser: “So, Schmid’s proposed “explanation” is really no more interesting than Fred’s. If we ask “Why does God have existential inertia?” the theist can offer a response: “Because he is non-composite and devoid of potentiality, and thus lacks the features that entail contingency or possible non-existence.” But if we ask “Why do ordinary contingent things like lions, water, etc. have existential inertia?” all Schmid can say in response is: “I don’t know, but maybe it’s just a necessary fact about them that they have it – wouldn’t that give us a cool explanation of why they persist?” (Talk about your proverbial “dormitive virtue” explanation!)
Now suppose someone said: “Hey, let’s not be too quick to dismiss Fred’s explanation. Consider its theoretical virtues, such as parsimony…” Would you stick around to listen? Probably not. There’s no point in considering such theoretical virtues if the “explanation” is already independently known to be a non-starter. That’s true of Fred’s explanation, and (for all he has shown) it is, for the reasons I’ve given, true of Schmid’s as well.”
But I have already explained why this is not true of the propositional necessity understanding of the second IJPR account, and I have already explained why the explanation is, indeed, illuminating. What’s more, the propositional necessity understanding of the second IJPR account is significantly evidentially confirmed by the data [namely, F]. So I won’t pursue all that again. I will note, though, that Feser hasn’t, so far, raised an objection to my paper that hasn’t been met.
Feser: “There are other problems with Schmid’s discussion in this section of his paper. For instance, commenting on my example in Five Proofs of the existence of the water in a cup of coffee being explained in terms of the existence of its parts, he notes that it could plausibly be said instead that the parts in fact depend for their existence of the whole. Indeed, as he notes, that is what I myself have said elsewhere. He insinuates that there is, accordingly, an incoherence in my position.
But there is no such incoherence, and Schmid ignores what should be clear from the context of that discussion in Five Proofs, viz. that I am speaking there in a “for the sake of argument” way. As I said in the book and in my previous post on Schmid, there are several possible ways one could spell out the metaphysics of the water as it exists at a time t: (a) in terms of substantial form and prime matter, after the fashion of Aristotelian hylemorphism, (b) in terms of essence and existence, as a Thomist would, (c) as an aggregate of particles, as a reductive naturalist might, or (d) in yet some other way. It doesn’t matter for the specific purposes of the argument, and for the sake of ease of exposition and the naturalistic scruples of many readers, I went with (c) even though my own predilection is for (a) and (b).
Schmid’s discussion ignores this, and makes it sound like I am contradicting myself. Once again, the untutored reader who has read his article (but not Five Proofs) might think he’s raised some devastating criticism, when in fact he has simply failed to read what I wrote carefully.”
There are many things I will say in response to this.
First, I do think greater clarity is called for in my IJPR paper at this point, greater clarity that I implemented in my Sophia paper but did not implement in my IJPR paper. In my IJPR paper, I said Feser treats the coffee’s molecules (and atoms and the bonds between them and whatnot) as sustaining causes. In the interim between writing my IJPR paper and Sophia paper, though, I came to think that there may be some alternative interpretations of Feser’s examples. And so in my Sophia article I made the more precise and cautious claim not that Feser treats them this way but rather that one might treat them in that way. Thus, if I could re-write the IJPR paper, I would follow what I said in the Sophia article. So there is some sense in which I agree with Feser that the IJPR article should be clarified that the specification of parts in the relevant passage is not necessarily one Feser would adhere to.
But — and this is my second point — it is not at all clear from context — at least to me — that Feser is merely proffering this in a ‘for the sake of argument’ way. [To use Feser’s expression, it is murky, from context, whether Feser is proffering this in that manner.] For one thing, he has probably already lost all or nearly all reductive naturalists in the first few pages of his chapter concerning his Aristotelian analysis of change as the transition or reduction from potential being to actual being. This makes it a bit odd — by my lights — that he is concerned to make his examples later in the chapter kosher by the lights of reductive naturalists. This would be like Alex Rosenburg running an argument against Feser’s classical theism by beginning with an atomist account of change as the rearrangement of particles in the void and then later characterizing some of his examples or points in hylemorphist terms ‘for the sake of argument’ so that such examples or points would be kosher to A-T classical theists. For another thing, there is simply no indication, in and around the paragraph where the ‘actualizers’ are being characterized as constituent parts like molecules, that this is done in a ‘for the sake of argument’ way. Consider the following pages:
This is all stated matter-of-factly, not conditionally like ‘the water’s potential to exist here and now is actualized (in part) by the atoms and their being bonded in such-and-such a way — at least according to the reductive naturalist understanding of the situation.’ At the very least, I am hardly to blame for what seems for all the world not to be a conditional, ‘for the sake of argument’ exposition.
It seems to me that the only thing that comes close to legitimizing Feser’s claim that it is ‘clear from context’ that he is characterizing the situation in a ‘for the sake of argument’ way is the following footnote:
But notice something crucial in this footnote: nowhere does Feser renounce the claim that the atoms and molecules and their bonds actualize (at least in part) the water’s potential to exist. Rather, Feser only says that this way of speaking might tempt someone into thinking that the water is nothing but the atoms and molecules and their specific arrangement. And then Feser goes on to explain that he (and Aristotelian hylemorphists) would reject such a reductive view according to which the water is nothing but the aggregate of suitably-arranged atoms. But all of this is perfectly compatible with Feser still holding that it is correct to characterize the situation as one in which the atoms and molecules and bonds actualize (in part) the water’s potential to exist. This is because such a characterization does not imply that the water is nothing but an aggregate of such suitably-arranged atoms.
What’s more, Feser explicitly says that the Aristotelian hylemorphist understanding is not necessary to the argument — in which case, he takes it that the argument can succeed with the non-hylemorphist specification of the situation in the main text. But in that case, it is perfectly kosher for me to point out, as I did in my IJPR article, that Feser has merely pinpointed constituents as opposed to sustaining actualizers of existence.
Here is my third and final point: my overarching point in the IJPR paper stands regardless of whether Feser characterizes the situation in ‘reductive naturalist’ or Aristotelian hylemorphist terms. Even if Feser characterized the situation in hylemorphist terms, the form and matter are not extrinsic sustaining causes, and hence my overarching point at this stage in the paper — that “we lack any good experiential reason to affirm the existence of sustaining causes of existence—precisely what we would expect if EIT were true” — remains true.
Overall, I think it’s false that I have failed to read Feser carefully. Upon painstaking analysis, nothing in Feser (2017, ch. 1) gives me a sense of ‘oh, yeah, this is a for-the-sake-of-argument way of expositing the situation — I don’t actually accept this characterization’. Indeed, I get the opposite sense.
Feser: “Schmid suggests that another virtue of EIT over the thesis that God sustains things in being is that it better accounts for how physical objects maintain their identity over time. Indeed, he says that “it is unclear that [the latter thesis] can even account for diachronic identity in the first place,” and he goes on to devote two and half pages to developing this theme.
But who on earth ever suggested in the first place that the thesis that God sustains things in being explains the identity of things over time? Not me, and not anyone else as far as I know. That’s simply not a question that the thesis is trying to address. You might as well object “But the thesis that God sustains things in being doesn’t account for Feser’s martini habit!” Who said it did?”
But my paper’s point was not that the thesis that God sustains things in being is (or was ever proposed as) an explanation of diachronic identity. It is clear from the paper that what I was arguing is that once one accepts an explanation of persistence by appeal to Feser’s-Aristotelian-proof-understanding-of theistic sustenance, one thereby threatens diachronic identity. (And this is what I mean when I say the theistic sustenance view at hand ‘doesn’t account for’ or ‘doesn’t account well for’ diachronic identity.) I then point out that one way for the Aristotelian-proof-proponent to avoid this problem is to accept transtemporal explanatory relations [e.g., causal relations] among the successive phases of an object’s life, but that this furnishes the opponent of the Aristotelian proof with an undercutting defeater thereof: once we accept such transtemporal (say) causal relations, why postulate any additional explanatory work done by a sustaining cause? Why not hold — as per the transtemporal understanding of the first IJPR account [cf. Part 5] — that such transtemporal causal relations alone suffice? [Remember, the detractor of the Aristotelian proof need not positively justify the thesis that such relations alone suffice; they need only point out that what is said on behalf of premise (7) does not give those who do think such relations alone suffice adequate reason to abandon their position.]
Feser: “So, why would Schmid think to raise this issue? The reason is apparent from this passage:
On Feser’s account, God does not act on a previously existent concrete object to conserve it in existence, preserving its original constituents. Instead, God wholly reconstitutes concrete objects from utter non-being at each and every moment.
This makes it sound like my view is that things are annihilated and recreated at every moment. But I have never said such a thing, and it is not my view. Conserving things in being is not the same thing as recreating them after they have been annihilated. Indeed, the whole point is that God keeps them from being annihilated. And Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysicians don’t explain diachronic identity in terms of divine conservation, but rather in terms of factors intrinsic to substances, such as substantial form and designated matter. (Cf. my discussion of that issue in Scholastic Metaphysics, Oderberg’s in Real Essentialism, etc.)”
I agree with Feser that greater clarity is needed in the quoted passage. In particular, the passage needs to clarify what it is about Feser’s model that poses the problem. Adding the following clarification to the passage is something I would modify about the IJPR paper if I could. Here is the clarification.
This clarification — one which, again, I fully admit should have been included in the IJPR paper — derives precisely from the same disambiguation of the Aristotelian proof’s causal principle we saw in the sub-section ‘A Tension?’ of Section 3 of my lengthier blog post. In particular, it seems to me that the causal principle may be ambiguous between two different readings:
First reading: if there are a range of potentials p1, p2, … pn, only one of which can be actual[ized] (at a given time), and one of them, pi, is actual[ized] (at a given time), then there is some cause which makes pi actual (at a given time). [NB: if you don’t like talk of potentials here, substitute ‘possibilities’. Nothing hangs on this.]
Second reading: whenever there is some transition from potential being to actual being — i.e., whenever something that exists in potency is brought from its (ontologically or causally or temporally) prior state of existing in potency to its state of existing in actuality — there is an already actual cause of this transition.
Now, my diachronic identity worry for the Aristotelian-proof-understanding-of theistic sustenance is, I think, predicated on the second reading of the causal principle. For if there is some transition of an entire object from potential being to actual being at each and every moment of an object’s life, there does, indeed, seem to be a problematic kind of continual re-constitution of an object in its entirety. And this, in turn, seems to render this a case not of diachronic identity but instead a series of numerically distinct simulacra. The object seems to be brought about anew, in whole, at each moment of its existence from a (causally or ontologically prior) state of potential being into a state of actual being. So I take it that my points in the IJPR paper do, indeed, constitute a serious worry for the Aristotelian-proof-understanding-of theistic sustenance assuming the second reading.
But what about the first reading? Doesn’t that avoid the problematic ‘continual re-bringing-about of the object from total potential being to total actual being at each moment’ worry that intuitively undermines diachronic identity? Yes. I think it probably avoids the problem.
But if the first reading avoids the problem posed for diachronic identity, then why didn’t I consider it in the paper?
I have two responses. My first response is that I have already said that I should have made this disambiguation between the different readings of the causal principle in the paper. So I admit that this should have been included. There are, though, underlying reasons why I only went with the second reading. That is my second response.
To explicate this second response further, consider that it doesn’t seem that Feser (2017, ch. 1) anywhere justifies a causal principle to the effect of the first reading. Instead, Feser defends a causal principle on which every change — that is, every case where there is indeed some prior state of potential that is caused to go from that state to a state of actuality — is caused by something already actual. (Feser does take an existential turn in his proof and applies the principle to the momentary existence of an object. But that is compatible with the second reading, since the ‘prior’ in the second reading is consistent with a causally or ontologically prior state rather than a temporal one.)
For another thing — and as I’ve explained at the beginning of Section 3 in my lengthier blog post — the first reading would straightforwardly debar the inference to a purely actual being. For suppose that the unactualized actualizer is simply a necessary but non-purely-actual being, A. In that cause, it is simply false that there are a range of potentials when it comes to the very being, existence, or actuality of A, since A is necessarily actually existent. It thus has no potential pertaining to its very substantial being or existence (e.g., potentials to cease to exist, to begin to exist, or to be absent from reality altogether). Thus, if the causal principle at play in the Aristotelian proof were the one previously articulated, then the Aristotelian proof would be incapable of justifying the need for a sustaining, actualizing cause of A. (Why? Because the antecedent of the causal principle is simply false when it comes to A’s very being or existence — there isn’t a range of potentials concerning A’s very substantial existence. And so one cannot infer, solely by means of said causal principle, that A has a cause of its existence.) And if the Aristotelian proof were incapable of justifying the need for a sustaining, actualizing cause of A, then it simply couldn’t show that the unactualized actualizer is purely actual, since — for all the argument shows — A could be the unactualized actualizer, and A is not purely actual.
I would thereby cast my diachronic identity worry not so much as a worry simpliciter but rather a dilemma one of whose disjuncts is a worry. Under the first reading, the above two problems arise. But under the second reading, it seems one cannot preserve diachronic identity.
Perhaps Feser would say that the first and second readings would represent a false dichotomy. But, first — and this might be due to my lack of imagination — it’s difficult for me to see any other plausible rendition or reading of what Feser’s causal principle amounts to.
[Part of what makes things a little difficult — for me, at least — is that Feser first defends the causal principle as applied to change, i.e., some transition from a prior state of potential being to a posterior state of actual being, and then later in his chapter takes an existential turn and applies the principle [or a similar principle, or maybe a different principle?] to the very existence of a substance at a given moment. Maybe he means for his principle to be a conjunctive one, like: in the case of change, the first reading is the causal principle; but in the case of existence-at-a-single moment, the second reading [or something very much like it] is the causal principle. In any case, you can see why, since publishing my IJPR article, I want to clarify the passage at hand. Alright, end of digression.]
And, second, even if the dichotomy is not properly exhaustive, it’s going to be difficult to find another alternative that doesn’t succumb to the problems afflicting each thus-far-demarcated disjunct. If you make the principle too change-centered [a la the second reading], you’ll make the Aristotelian proof incompatible with CT on account of entailing a [causally or ontologically or else temporally] prior state of potential being [prior to creation, that is]. If you make the principle too cross-world-difference-centered, you’ll fall into the same problems as earlier [to wit, (i) the fact that Feser doesn’t justify such cross-world-difference-centered principles in (2017, ch. 1), and (ii) such principles will undermine the proof’s inference to A’s being purely actual as opposed to necessarily-actually-existent-while-having-potency-for-accidental-change-or-accidental-cross-world-variance.] This is a very fine-line to walk along, and I’m skeptical it can be done.
Anyway, let’s continue with what Feser says:
“Here too Schmid trots out the standard analytic philosopher’s hoo-hah – semi-formal exposition, oddball thought experiments, etc. – developed in the service of a gigantic red herring. The unwary reader thinks he’s being treated to a really rigorous critique of my arguments, when in fact he’s being led on a wild goose chase.”
As I hope the reader can see by now, there is no such wild goose chase. To be sure, there are some places in the IJPR article where greater clarity is needed, and as Feser is writing the passage above, he had just finished talking about one section wherein I do, indeed, need greater clarity. And I 100% take the blame for not adding such clarity into the IJPR article to begin with. But with the clarification in place, I see no goose chase.
Feser next says: “Now, Schmid does consider the possibility that I might reply by saying that the previous state of an object at t – 1 together with divine action is what accounts for its existence and state at t. But he objects that “it’s unclear that there is any independent motivation for this move apart from a prior acceptance that things require sustaining causes of their existence.”
Well, of course that’s the motivation, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Again, Schmid’s discussion here falsely supposes that divine conservation is intended to be an explanation of diachronic identity. And in that light, one might think it a good objection to ask why, if factors intrinsic to a substance explain diachronic identity, we need to bring in divine conservation.
But again, divine conservation is not in the first place being brought in to explain diachronic identity. That application is a figment of Schmid’s imagination. There are two issues here: what accounts for a thing’s identity over time, and what accounts for its persistence in being. Divine conservation is intended to deal with the second issue; again, the first issue is dealt with instead in terms of factors like substantial form, designated matter, etc. (True, God conserves those in being too, like he does everything else. But the point is that divine conservation is not brought in to explain diachronic identity per se.)”
But I have already explained why Feser is mistaken here. My point was not that the thesis that God sustains things in being is (or was ever proposed as) an explanation of diachronic identity. It is clear from the paper that what I was arguing is that once one accepts an explanation of persistence by appeal to Feser’s-Aristotelian-proof-understanding-of theistic sustenance, one thereby threatens diachronic identity. I then point out that one way for the Aristotelian-proof-proponent to avoid this problem is to accept transtemporal explanatory relations [e.g., causal relations] among the successive phases of an object’s life, but that this furnishes the opponent of the Aristotelian proof with an undercutting defeater thereof.
The point, then, is that Feser is mistaken in saying that I treat [the Aristotelian-proof’s-conception-of] divine conservation as wielded to explain diachronic identity. Of course it’s not. My point, instead, is that the Aristotelian-proof’s-conception-of divine conservation is, of course, wielded to explain persistence; but that its explanation of persistence does collateral damage — in particular, it threatens diachronic identity, as explained above in connection with the second reading of the causal principle.
In Part 7, I will address everything Feser says in ‘An argument against EIT’.
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