Home » Intelligent Design » Fixing Feser’s Fifth: Why his up-to-date version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way fails as a proof, and how to make it work

Fixing Feser’s Fifth: Why his up-to-date version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way fails as a proof, and how to make it work

Above: Ludwig van Beethoven in 1804.
Below: The opening of Beethoven’s Fifth.

Among St. Thomas Aquinas’ celebrated five proofs of the existence of God, the Fifth Way holds a special place: it is the only one which explicitly attempts to show that the cosmos is dependent on some Intelligent Being, Who directs all natural objects towards their built-in ends. In this post, I’m going to critically analyze Aquinas’ Fifth Way – or more specifically, Professor Edward Feser’s reconstructed version of this argument by Aquinas. On Feser’s account, the argument proceeds from a set of very simple facts about the natural world, and then demonstrates that the only way to explain these facts is by positing an intelligent being (or beings) guiding the behavior of natural objects towards their characteristic effects. But Feser doesn’t stop there: he maintains that the conclusion of the Fifth Way is not merely that there is an intelligent being guiding Nature, but rather, an Intelligence Who sustains Nature in being. Moreover, this guiding Intelligence can only be a Being Whose essence is identical with its very act of existence – in other words, an Intelligence Who is Being itself, and Who can therefore be identified with the God of classical theism. And there can only be one such God: an Intelligence Who is Being itself is necessarily unique. Feser contends that Aquinas’ argument (when properly understood) is a valid proof, which can provide us with absolute certitude that God exists, making Intelligent Design theory redundant. On Feser’s view, the existence of an Intelligent Creator of Nature can be rationally demonstrated without arguing that the cosmos had a beginning, or that its laws are fine-tuned, or that neo-Darwinism is false.

I would like to say at the outset that Professor Feser’s reconstructed version of the Fifth Way is by far the most detailed formulation of Aquinas’ argument that has been put forward by any Thomist scholar. Feser has done an excellent job of attempting to elucidate the underlying logic of the Fifth Way – and in this regard, he has (I believe) gone further than any other Thomist scholar. I think Feser deserves to be commended for this noble effort, even though I happen to think that the argument he puts forward doesn’t work.

Whereas Professor Feser sees the Fifth Way as the jewel in the crown when it comes to proofs of God’s existence, I regard it as more of a rough diamond, which needs a lot of cutting and polishing in order to bring out its hidden beauty. What I intend to argue in this post is that the basic thrust of Aquinas’ Fifth Way is correct, but that the argument requires substantial revision: key premises of the argument need to be amended, and several steps in the argument’s logic need to be filled in. I shall also contend that while Feser’s reconstructed version of the Fifth Way is an exegetically plausible account of Aquinas’ argument, it fails if it is taken as an argument that is meant to convince 21st century atheists of the existence of God. In a nutshell, the reason why I think Feser’s argument cannot succeed against 21st century atheism is that it is too metaphysically top-heavy, relying as it does on no less than twenty metaphysical assumptions, some of which (I shall argue) are either wrong or highly contentious. Most modern-day skeptics are very leery of metaphysical claims, full stop. If someone wishes to try and convince modern skeptics of God’s existence on philosophical grounds, then they had better make sure that their metaphysical assumptions are so airtight that they cannot be intelligibly denied, and in addition, they had better limit those assumption to no more than a handful. The reason why I added the latter condition is that the modern-day skeptics I have debated tend to be highly distrustful of the reliability of human thought processes regarding matters metaphysical. While they might be prepared to concede that each of the premises in a metaphysical argument for God’s existence appears unassailable when taken singly, they will argue that the truth of the entire set of premises in such an argument is open to doubt – especially when there are twenty of them. Perhaps, they will suggest, a “metaphysical blind-spot” on our part prevents us from recognizing what’s wrong with one or other of these premises. On this view of human reason, any argument with a large number of metaphysical premises is inherently dubious.

Professor Feser has made a laudable attempt to “flesh out” the unstated premises in Aquinas’ (very brief) Fifth Way. Nevertheless, I would maintain that even Feser’s reconstructed version of the argument still contains major logical and metaphysical gaps that need to be plugged.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: What’s wrong with Feser’s argument – and how to fix it

Continue here.

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25 Responses to Fixing Feser’s Fifth: Why his up-to-date version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way fails as a proof, and how to make it work

  1. On Feser’s view, the existence of an Intelligent Creator of Nature can be rationally demonstrated without arguing that the cosmos had a beginning, or that its laws are fine-tuned, or that neo-Darwinism is false.

    I’d have to agree with him there.

  2. Hi vjt,

    I’ve been asking you to cover the Five Ways for some time now, so I REALLY appreciate this post.

    Assuming I wanted to go back to the source, where in Aquinas’ writings do I find the Five Ways, and why do you suppose he placed his argument where he did in the corpus of his writings? To whom was the argument addressed?

    To your knowledge was his argument addressed by Francisco Suarez, and if so, where?

  3. Aquinas’ argument is intended as a metaphysical demonstration

    Perhaps a little background information on metaphysical demonstrations would be appropriate?

    For example, I have a book entitled Metaphysical Demonstration of the Existence of God

    Now, according to Wikipedia, Suarez followed Aquinas by some three centuries, but apparently the “metaphysical demonstration” was still in place even then.

    Was this some invention of Aquinas, or was he following convention? And how and why did this convention survive more than three centuries?

  4. For the record.

    Salvador:

    No wonder Jerry Coyne wanted to shut down Richards debut of Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian Institute.

    The Privileged Planet annihilates the YEC position. No wonder why Sal shuts down debate in his threads.

    here

  5. Hi Mung,

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed reading my post. I’ve only got time for a few quick comments right now. Very briefly:

    1. Suarez didn’t like Aquinas’ First Way (the argument from motion). He was inclined to deny the Aristotelian premise that whatever is in motion must be moved by another. To his credit, Professor Feser has done a great job of fortifying Aquinas’ First Way against philosophical and scientific objections that might be raised against it, in his article, “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways.” Feser construes the argument more broadly, as arguing for an Grand Actualizer that does not need to be actualized by anything else.

    2. Suarez referred to Aquinas’ First Way as a physical proof of God, because it took as its starting point an premise about motion. In contrast, he tried to develop arguments for God’s existence that would not be vulnerable to empirical falsification: hence his term, “metaphysical proof.”

    3. If you want some good online books about Suarez’s philosophy, here are a few I’d recommend:

    (a) The Philosophy of Francisco Suárez edited by Benjamin Hill and Henrik Lagerlund. Available here: http://books.google.co.jp/book.....38;f=false

    Scroll down to Helen Hattab’s article in chapter 6, “Suarez’s last stand for the substantial form.” It does an excellent job of describing Suarez as a bridging character between the medieval Scholastic philosophers (of whom he was the last) and the new modern philosophers (especially Descartes). Fascinating reading.

    (b) A history of philosophy: volume III: Ockham to Suárez by Fr. Frederick Charles Copleston. At the moment, only one chapter on Suarez can be viewed online: Chapter XXII. That’s quite a helpful chapter, however. See here: http://books.google.co.jp/book.....38;f=false

    (c) Collected Studies on Francisco Suárez, S.J. (1548-1617) by John P. Doyle at http://books.google.co.jp/book.....38;f=false.

    Scroll down to the chapter, “The Suarezian Proof for God’s existence” which starts on page 110. (The first two pages of the chapter are missing.) The article explains why Suarez rejected Aquinas’ First Way: on empirical grounds, the premise that anything in motion is moved by another seems doubtful. Suarez also defended a teleological argument of sorts, based on the harmony of the cosmos, which he used to argued that the Maker of the Cosmos must be One being and not many beings.

    Well, that’s about all I’ve got time for, at the moment. Hope that helps, Mung. Enjoy!

  6. In my view, this whole argument is a reductio ad absurdum of the dualist position. It requires the notion of prime matter to be complete. To me, this notion is basically meaningless—some kind of substance or substrate that has no attributes. Its sole purpose is to allow us to imagine that there is a material world “out there”, separate from us and from God.

    I believe that Berkeley’s view makes much more sense—all there is is mind, our minds and God’s. The objects we perceive are entirely and completely our perceptions of them. In other words, the world we perceive is entirely qualia. The rules that govern the operation of the “virtual reality” thus created are quite literally the working of the mind of God.

    Furthermore, everything happens in God’s mind, including us. We are made in His image and likeness as a part of Him. This is what is meant by the Oneness of All That Is. The great mystery in this point of view is how He managed to give each of us, who is a part of Him, free will. I confess that I do not understand how this is possible, but I will take His word for it that He was able to do so.

  7. The Philosophy of Francisco Suárez

    I have this one.

    A history of philosophy: volume III: Ockham to Suárez

    And this one!

    Collected Studies on Francisco Suárez, S.J.

    I was not aware of this one. thank you so much!

    Yes, Suarez stood at a very interesting point in history.

    I’m sorry, I asked about the Five Ways when I think I meant to be focused on the Fifth Way in particular. But thank you anyways for the response.

  8. VJT: When the post is an introduction pointing elsewhere, we know we are in for quite a ride! KF

  9. (vjtorley)

    Hi Bruce David,

    I completely agree with you that the notion of prime matter as a featureless “pure passive potency” makes no sense. Professor Feser evidently thinks that prime matter is required to give material things their objectivity or “otherness”. For my part, I think of things as nodes, if you will, which have been created (i.e. willed into existence) by God with the built-in ability to interact with their Creator, so that when anything happens to them, God knows automatically. Human beings are things with the additional ability to choose to obey or disobey their Creator. Thus instead of thinking of the world as like a story written by a human author, I think of it as more like an interactive novel, where God has written the broad outlines of the plot, but not the details (which are up to us), and where the characters and items in the plot have the ability to interact with – and even defy, in the case of the characters – the Divine Author of the interactive novel. The conclusion of the novel is of course in God’s hands. It is, however, a profoundly mysterious fact that God can will into existence things with the built-in ability to interact with Him.

  10. F/N: I think this skeletal form of VJT’s argument is worth clipping (noting there is a LOT of context):

    _________

    >> . . . when arguing with 21st century skeptics, it’s a good idea to keep one’s metaphysical assumptions to a bare minimum. [--> as such are suspicious of and I dare add naive about the roots of worldviews, whist too often over estimating the reach of "Science"] Feser’s argument presupposes about 20 metaphysical assumptions: mine contains about half a dozen.

    1. All natural objects – and their parts – exhibit certain built-in, fixed tendencies, which can be said to characterize these objects and circumscribe the ways in which they are capable of acting.

    (Note: Although this premise refers to objects and their tendencies and activities, it refrains from saying anything about substance vs. accidents, matter vs. form, or essence vs. existence.)

    2. In order to properly ground scientific inferences and everyday inductive knowledge, the tendencies exhibited by natural objects must be construed not merely as properties which describe these objects, but as properties which prescribe the behavior of those objects: in other words, they are rules, which define the natures of those objects. What’s more, the rules go all the way down: they are not superimposed on pre-existing objects, but actually constitute those objects, in their very being.
    (This step is a crucial premise, which I’ll defend at further length in Part Five, below.)

    3. By definition, rules presuppose a rule-maker. Thus the existence of rules in the natural world can only be explained by an intelligent being or beings who has defined those rules. Hence the rule-governed behavior of natural objects presupposes the existence of an intelligent being or beings who has defined their natures – and hence their very being.

    4. Only an actually existing being can explain an actual state of affairs; hence only an actually existing intelligent being or beings can explain the ongoing rule-governed behavior of natural objects, which defines their very natures and which constitutes them as beings. (Hence, this intelligent being or beings cannot be merely a watchmaker or absentee landlord. Rather, the intelligent being or beings must actually exist, and must continually conserve natural objects in being.)

    5. An infinite regress of explanations is impossible; all explanations must come to an end somewhere. Hence the intelligent being (or beings) who defines the rules which govern the behavior of natural objects and their parts, must not exhibit any built-in, fixed tendencies, which constrain its mode of acting. Additionally, this intelligent being (or beings) must not be composed of any parts exhibiting such fixed tendencies. We are left, then, with an intelligent being (or beings), whose mode of acting is totally unconstrained by any fixed tendencies of its own, or of any underlying parts.

    6. Beings are distinguished from one another according to their different mode of acting. Hence there can only be one intelligent being whose nature is totally unconstrained. Moreover, such a being must be supernatural, for all natural objects have a constrained mode of acting. Finally, such a being must be infinite, as nothing constrains its mode of acting. Thus we arrive an an Intelligent Author of Nature, Who is one, simple, supernatural and infinite.

    The foregoing pared-down argument has much in common with Feser’s argument, especially in steps 4 to 6. But it’s considerably simpler, and much lighter on metaphysics. I also believe that Intelligent Design theory can strengthen the argument, by buttressing step 3. Not only do we find rules in Nature, which point to an Intelligent Designer; we also find codes and programs, which point in an even more obvious way to a Designer. Thus although Intelligent Design theory, by itself, is incapable of showing us the nature and identity of the Designer of life and the cosmos, I believe it can render a valuable service to proponents of Aquinas’ Fifth Way, by supplying additional empirical criteria for identifying a Designer of Nature, and thereby strengthening the teleological argument for the existence of God. >>

    __________

    We can sum this up as an argument from an orderly world from the ground up to an ordering agent at the root of that being.

    I toss into the mix the observation that beings with a beginning or other marks of contingency depend on external enabling on/off factors [as a fire depends on fuel, heat, oxidiser and combustion chain reaction), which points to a key implication for a being independent of such: it has no beginning or end, it is eternal. And such an entity would either be or be directly connected to a necessary root of being that grounds the contingent world we inhabit.

    A second point is ropes vs chains in argument, i.e. chains of deduction must work at every step, but a cumulative, interactive case can have strengths complementing weaknesses yielding the result that a refutation effort must break a critical mass to trigger collapse.

    When I deal with evidence and arguments pointing to God, I like to start with worldview grounding, the inevitability of unprovable first plausibles defining a faith-point, and the consequent point Craig stresses, worldviews at best are reasonable faiths, and add that alternative sets of first plausibles should be compared on comparative difficulties across empirical scope/adequacy, coherence [logical and dynamical — a worldview has to account for a dynamic world), and explanatory power/elegance.

    In that context, skeptics need to ask themselves searching questions concerning the cumulative commitments required to reject all the serious arguments pointing to God. In this case from VJT, involving the grounding order of the cosmos and more particularly the things that are in it.

    (Which of course also puts cosmological fine tuning enabling of C-Chemistry, aqueous medium, cell based, algorithm and code-using life very much on the table. As Sir Fred Hoyle so pointedly noted with his famous monkeying with physics remarks.)

    KF

  11. F/N 2: I also like this excerpt from the Catholic Church’s Catechism:

    __________

    >> Part One, Section One, Chapter One of The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the proofs of the existence of God in the following terms (emphases mine – VJT):

    31 Created in God’s image and called to know and love him, the person who seeks God discovers certain ways of coming to know him. These are also called proofs for the existence of God, not in the sense of proofs in the natural sciences [--> which are inductive arguments, not deductive ones like in Geometry etc], but rather in the sense of “converging and convincing arguments”, which allow us to attain certainty about the truth. [--> moral certainty, by which it is in the end irresponsible to act as though something is false, once the cumulative warrant for it passes a reasonable threshold . . . I like Greenleaf on this, whom I am summarising] These “ways” of approaching God from creation have a twofold point of departure: the physical world, and the human person [--> straight out of Paul in Rom 1:19 ff.].

    32 The world: starting from movement, becoming, contingency, and the world’s order and beauty, one can come to a knowledge of God as the origin and the end of the universe [--> Knowledge as warranted, credibly true belief, in context held to be to moral certainty] …

    33 The human person: with his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom [--> beware the denial of genuine though limited freedom of action] and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness [--> somewhere, the shade of C S "Jack" Lewis is smiling], man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the “seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material”, can have its origin only in God. [--> eternity in our hearts]

    34 The world, and man, attest that they contain within themselves neither their first principle nor their final end, but rather that they participate in Being itself, which alone is without origin or end. Thus, in different ways, man can come to know that there exists a reality which is the first cause and final end of all things, a reality “that everyone calls God”. >>
    ____________

    A very interesting summary indeed.

    KF

  12. F/N 3: This too, on Aquinas’ second teleological argument, on coherence rather than discordance — an argument from harmony amidst radical diversity — is worth pondering:

    __________

    >> readers may be interested to know that there is a second teleological argument in Aquinas’ writings, which can be found in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, chapter 13, paragraph 35 (Arguments in Proof of the Existence of God). This argument is subtly different from the first: it takes as its starting point not the regularity of Nature, but the harmony of Nature. The argument is very brief, and proceeds as follows:

    [35] [St. John] Damascene proposes another argument for the same conclusion taken from the government of the world [De fide orthodoxa I, 3]. Averroes likewise hints at it [In II Physicorum]. The argument runs thus. Contrary and discordant things cannot, always or for the most part, be parts of one order except under someone’s government, which enables all and each to tend to a definite end. But in the world we find that things of diverse natures come together under one order, and this not rarely or by chance, but always or for the most part. There must therefore be some being by whose providence the world is governed. This we call God.

    For my part, I prefer this teleological argument to Aquinas’ Fifth Way, as I would contend that the harmony between the different kinds of objects making up the cosmos is a much better indicator that there is an Intelligence directing Nature than the regularity in the behavior of natural objects.

    Even more suggestive of an Intelligent Creator, in my view, is the Cosmic Fine-Tuning Argument, as it shows that the cosmos possesses a trait – specified complexity – which is a hallmark of an intelligence at work. Only intelligent beings can reliably generate this kind of complexity. Of course, one also needs to make some metaphysical assumptions, in order to get from an Intelligent Designer of the cosmos to a cosmic Creator who maintains it in existence, and from a cosmic Creator to the God of classical theism. >>
    _________

    Again, food for thought.

    KF

    PS: Let us not forget that Aquinas passed on at was it age 49, and that Summa Theologica is not complete as a consequence.

  13. Hi kairosfocus,

    Thanks very much for your handy synopsis of the key points in my post. For my part, I’ll be very happy if it makes a few people think about the issues in a way that they hadn’t thought about them before. Thanks once again.

  14. F/N: VJT, there actually are knives with two handles, we call them drawknives, used in wood shaping. (Spokeshaves take this to the next level, with a plane iron mounted in a two handle framework, and classic carpentry scrapers have no handles — they look like steel cards, but are sharpened in a peculiar way that gives two slightly hooked cutting edges along the long “edge” of the card.) KF

  15. I would contend that the harmony between the different kinds of objects making up the cosmos is a much better indicator that there is an Intelligence directing Nature than the regularity in the behavior of natural objects.

    The Fitness of the Environment an Inquiry Into the Biological Significance of the Properties of Matter

  16. The Five Ways

    The Fifth Way:

    The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

  17. Bruce David:

    In my view, this whole argument is a reductio ad absurdum of the dualist position. It requires the notion of prime matter to be complete. To me, this notion is basically meaningless—some kind of substance or substrate that has no attributes. Its sole purpose is to allow us to imagine that there is a material world “out there”, separate from us and from God.

    You think that because you’ve misconstrued the whole notion of prime matter. Once you understand it, the concept both obvious and undeniable, even if you subscribe to some idealist notion of what matter ultimately. First of all, prime matter doesn’t exist as an actual thing. It’s an abstraction.

    Here’s a simple illustration. Let’s say you take a rubber ball. The matter making up the rubber ball is spherically shaped and solid, right? Now melt the ball down. The matter is now flat and liquid. We could go even further with this. You could modify the atomic structure of the matter and make it into something completely different.

    Note that when the matter takes on all these different forms, it takes on different attributes. In fact, when you think about it, all of the matter’s attributes depend on the form that it’s in at any given time. In other words, matter in and of itself, considered apart from any particular form it may have at a given time, has no attributes. Of course, it’s possible to consider the matter apart from any particular form: that’s how we’re able to say that the same matter has changed from a solid rubber ball to flat liquid puddle.

    Of course, matter never actually exists without form. All matter is always in some form or another, so prime matter isn’t something that exists as such, or even possibly can exist. But it’s possible to abstract matter apart from any particular form, as you do any time you notice that some matter has changed from one form to another (as when something melts).

    It’s really nothing exotic. All it takes to establish the legitimacy of prime matter as a concept is to accept the mundane observation that it’s possible to melt a rubber ball.

  18. 18

    But it’s possible to abstract matter apart from any particular form, as you do any time you notice that some matter has changed from one form to another (as when something melts).

    I was hoping that there would be a better answer to Vincent Torley’s critique. But as I see it, your example doesn’t quite do it. The matter in a rubber ball has certain properties. That’s why a ball falls to the ground in its round shape or melted liquid shape. But you seem to be saying that prime matter can be abstracted from the ball, but the prime matter does not have any properties. The matter in the ball, in common-sense usage is rubber and has the properties of rubber. That matter is specific to the ball. The prime matter of the ball is non-existent. It’s ill-defined and unnecessary.

    You’ve tried to make this simple, but the more I think about it, the stronger the criticism is. Prime matter is a metaphysical assumption that Mr. Feser uses, but does not prove.

  19. Deuce:

    First of all, prime matter doesn’t exist as an actual thing. It’s an abstraction.

    Of course, matter never actually exists without form. All matter is always in some form or another, so prime matter isn’t something that exists as such, or even possibly can exist. But it’s possible to abstract matter apart from any particular form, as you do any time you notice that some matter has changed from one form to another (as when something melts).

    Thank you.

  20. The matter in the ball, in common-sense usage is rubber and has the properties of rubber.

    You could burn the matter to ashes and smoke, and it would no longer have any of those properties. Yet, it would still be the same matter, but in a different form. If you accept this mundane observation, then you accept that it’s possible to conceptualize matter apart from any particular form (though of course you can’t visualize or imagine matter apart from any form), which is all that the concept of Prime Matter means.

    The prime matter of the ball is non-existent.

    I said as much, and so does Feser and every other Thomist. It’s an abstraction. Matter never actually exists without being in some form or another.

  21. 21

    You could burn the matter to ashes and smoke, and it would no longer have any of those properties.

    Ashes and smoke still have the same properties as physical substances that they were (gravitational effect, molecular weight, etc). I can’t see how prime matter is defined as a concept here.

    Yet, it would still be the same matter, but in a different form. If you accept this mundane observation, then you accept that it’s possible to conceptualize matter apart from any particular form (though of course you can’t visualize or imagine matter apart from any form), which is all that the concept of Prime Matter means.

    I don’t think I can conceptualize something that I can’t imagine. Additionally, it’s not enough to merely state that something is prime matter since you could just as easily assert that the smoke and ash is actually different matter. It’s not the same matter as you started from. Why? Because matter is defined by its properties, and when you change the properties, you have different matter.

  22. Hi everyone,

    Interesting discussion on this thread about prime matter. Just a few quick questions for people to ponder:

    (i) if there’s nothing in common between me and my (future) corpse except pure passive potency (which is all that prime matter is), then why do so many physical properties of me persist in my corpse, after my death?

    (ii) how can “pure passive potency” have quantitative properties, or be subject to laws?

    (iii) what possible action of a Deity could count as creating “pure passive potency,” whether in isolation from the form it is initially conjoined to, or in conjunction with that form?

    Any ideas?

    But enough from me; let the debate continue!

  23. .. matter is defined by its properties, and when you change the properties, you have different matter.

    By it’s properties per se or by it’s properties per accidens? Well, I guess the question answers itself!

    Have you read The Matter Myth?

  24. Should we be asking, what is in-common to any particular bit of matter, regardless of form? (Comparison and collection in a common concept at least suggest looking for an in common.)

  25. kf,

    Not really. Matter is an abstraction. It cannot exist without form. :)

    Call it “Prime Matter” to distinguish between the abstraction (matter without form) and the instantiation (matter with form).

    What is the definition of a prime number? is “Prime Number” an abstraction? I have to say I don’t understand the objection to “Prime Matter.”

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