Schmid on Existential Inertia: A Systematic Analysis: Part I, Preliminary Remarks

I. Intro

Anyone interested in classical theism, Thomistic/scholastic metaphysics and philosophy of religion, and, in particular, the work in natural theology of contemporary philosopher Ed Feser, is most likely already aware of the absolutely prolific oeuvre of Joe Schmid also concerning the above topics. In the last few years, Schmid has produced and published a truly monumental (both in quantity and quality) array of material bearing some relation to classical theism. This material includes content from YouTube videos, blog posts, and academic papers.

A fair amount of Schmid’s work has focused on the concept of existential inertia (EI). Indeed, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that Schmid is the expert on EI, he having explored the subject with more depth and breadth, and with more original contribution, than anyone else I’m aware of. And it is of this subject which I wish to speak on here.

II. The (Tentative) Plan

The present post is the first in what I hope to be an extended series, in which I shall endeavor to systematically examine Schmid’s work on EI. The sheer volume (not to speak of complexity and depth) of material means that this series, in order to be adequate, must necessarily be quite lengthy. My plan is to go through pretty much everything Schmid has produced on the topic, assessing each at least one by one (in other words, my plan is to give each item of content — e.g., each video, post, or paper — at least its own post, if not many). I can’t promise that I will actually complete this immense task, nor that the output will be anything like regular or frequent, mainly because I’m set to begin my PhD in the next month, which will of course be my primary focus.

The idea here is to engage with Schmid with as much rigor (and, crucially, charity and respect) as his work deserves. In short, I take Schmid and his work quite seriously, and so intend to offer as serious an engagement as I am able. That means, among much else, entering into the details and minutiae of the argumentation, which is why I will be considering each piece of content on its own.

This planned method has certain ramifications which need to be addressed up-front. I’m going to go through the repertoire somewhat (though perhaps not exactly) chronologically. Schmid himself has stated that his views on EI have developed significantly over time, which means that what is said in earlier work might not be how he would say things now (or even what he would say now). So, for instance, suppose Schmid says X at an early point, but then later changes his mind entirely, and at a later point says X’, or even ~X. Or suppose he says X because of Y, but then later discovers that, actually, there is much more to be said on behalf of X, and so now says X because of Y and Z. Now, as I journey through the material, and come across Schmid saying X, I may not be aware that his thoughts on X develop significantly towards X’ or ~X. And so I assess, at that point, only X. Or I see that Schmid argues X because of Y, and am unaware that later he also argues X because of Y and Z. If this occurs, it should not be thought that I am straw-manning, or intentionally only interacting with earlier, perhaps weaker points, or that I am intentionally ignoring what Schmid has to say later. The idea is that I will come to, and acknowledge and assess, these later developments as I systematically work through the material. So, while one can of course point out in response that Schmid has updated his account of X in later material, I entreat that this fact not be taken as a fault in my engagement. It is, rather, a necessary feature of the chosen method.

Another ramification is that much of what I say, might already have been said (and said better) by those who have already engaged with Schmid on EI. I’m aware of a number of Thomists and classical theists who have addressed the subject, including recently Feser himself. Which raises the question: why should I add another voice, at risk of superfluity or worse, to an already crowded conversation?

III. The Reasons/Motivation Behind the Project

The primary motivation behind the project is simply personal interest. One of my favorite personal research areas is the metaphysics of causation and its relation to natural theology, and so I’m naturally fascinated by EI discussions. However, the quantity of material produced on the topic recently, in conjunction with work and other duties and events, has meant that I haven’t been able to follow and digest everything. This project is a way for me to finally do precisely that, and to “think through” everything for myself. So even if I end up repeating what others have already said, it will not be in vain, at least for myself.

But, based on what I have been able to consume of the material so far, I do think I have some contributions to add which have not already been stated, at least not in the way I plan to explicate them. I hope, then, that this project will be of benefit not only to myself, but to others interested in these issues as well. At the very least, perhaps it will be beneficial as a summation and organization of the whole EI discourse. Of course, it goes without saying that Schmid (or anyone else) is under no sort of obligation to respond or even read any part of this project. But, if he chooses to do so, the overall benefit will only increase exponentially.

Beyond personal interest, EI is also actually quite a significant subject for classical theism and Thomistic metaphysics, for at least two reasons. First, it represents one of the most formidable metaphysical challenges to central theses of classical theism and Thomistic metaphysics put forth in recent times (at least in my view). Anyone who wants to assert or defend these positions must therefore engage with EI as a serious objection/conflict. Second, Schmid’s defense of EI also represents one of the more fruitful recent interactions between analytic philosophy of religion and scholastic thought. As I am a proponent of putting analytic and scholastic philosophy into conversation, the EI debate offers a chance to illustrate how this might be profitably done.

IV. Overview of EI and My Position

To conclude these preliminary remarks, and before actually beginning the project itself, I’d like to briefly give a very general overview of what EI is, and what my own current position is regarding it.

EI is, very roughly, the thesis that (at least some) objects do not require a concurrent sustaining efficient cause of their continued existence, but rather without such a cause tend to stay in existence once in existence, until acted upon by some external factor (think Newtonian inertia about motion, but for existence itself). In subsequent posts more precise and technical definitions shall be offered, as well as why EI poses a challenge for classical theism and Thomistic metaphysics.

My own position at the beginning of this project, as a Thomist, is that the EI thesis is false. Very broadly, I take the conjunction of the following theses (to be explained and defended in due course) to be inconsistent with EI (and hence, their own correctness to falsify EI):

  1. The existential act thesis (EAT): “existence” designates a real act intrinsic in things by which they exist.
  2. The existential dependence thesis (EDT): all objects (with one possible exception) are existentially dependent on sustaining efficient causes.
  3. The simultaneous causality thesis (SCT): all per se efficient causality is necessarily simultaneous.

Again, this is meant just as a very rough, simplistic overview of what I intend to argue. These theses will be clarified, nuanced, expanded, etc. in the future, and will most likely undergo significant development over time.

V. Conclusion

Really the only thing left to say here is that I find Schmid’s work (in general, not only with respect to EI) incredibly impressive and inspiring, and hope that my own can reach to some fraction of the same level.

As one final note, I might also make corresponding YouTube videos for this project, since YouTube seems to be a more popular medium and is one which Schmid himself utilizes. But writing is much easier for me, so my priority will be blog posts, not videos.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, then, in which I plan to begin by examining the “dialectical context” of Schmid’s work on EI.

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