Understanding “I AM” Through Natural Theology – Part 3

Written on: April 1, 2024

Article by: Tate Williams

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” Exodus 3:13-14

Why did God tell Moses his name is “I Am Who I Am?” No one knows completely and for sure. God’s nature is infinite; our understanding is finite. So, just like counting to infinity, we can approach an answer, but we can never expect to arrive at a full and complete one. Nevertheless, a true, partial answer is still progress from no answer at all. In this article series I offer a partial answer.

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In Part 1 of this series, I introduced the philosophical tradition of natural theology, which is the study of what can be known about God by reasoning backwards from creation (nature) to the being that created it. In Part 2 of this series, we examined Aristotle’s Argument from Motion, which is a particular chain of reasoning from nature to the existence of an Unmoved Mover. In this third and final part to the series we will see that the Unmoved Mover is the being we know of as “God,” and in doing so we will shed some light on the name God gave to Moses: I AM.

From Unmoved Mover to I AM – A Description of God

We must be very careful before we judge that something is God. To call any being less than the greatest being in the universe “God” has always been considered idolatry in Christian history. If I want to show that the Unmoved Mover is God, I must at least show that he has three central characteristics: (1) omnipotence,1 (2) omniscience,2 and (3) moral perfection. In what follows, I will argue that the Unmoved Mover does indeed exhibit all three of these characteristics, plus a few more. Let’s take them in turn:

  1. Omnipotence

This one is the most straightforward. Remember from Part 2 that the Unmoved Mover is a being of pure, unrestrained actuality. This is just another way of saying it has all powers to the maximum degree, because to lack in any way is to contain potential. In other words, the Unmoved Mover is omnipotent.3

  1. Omniscience

We can break this property into two: Intelligent and all-knowing.

Intelligence is a power, so this being has intelligence to the maximal degree. It has to be to the maximal degree because if a power could be greater, than it is potentially greater, and the Unmoved Mover has no potentials.

Notice also that learning is a type of change. A fact is in potency to us if we do not know it. By learning we actualize our knowledge of it. It follows that the unmoved mover knows everything.

  1. Moral Perfection

We say something is good insofar as it has actualized some virtue or skill. The unmoved mover is pure act, so it must actualize all virtues to a maximal degree and cannot be said to be bad or deficient in any way.

But wouldn’t it follow that the Unmoved Mover also actualizes all vices as well as virtues? It would if vices were something that really exist. In classical ethics, wickedness and evil are not considered to be existing things, rather, they are what we call a “privation.” Ask yourself, does a hole in a wall exist? In a certain sense it does – we can see it after all – but in the truest sense it does not exist, because what really exists is a wall, and the hole is just a part of it that is missing. In the same way, vice is the just a failure to live up to perfect virtue. This is the “privation theory of evil.”

Now, there are good reasons to believe in the privation theory of evil outside of scripture.4 However, for Christian readers, there are also good reasons from scripture to believe in the theory. In Genesis Chapter 1 God says of everything after creating it that “it is good.” Since God is the creator of everything, at face value this suggests that everything that exists is good. But then we might ask, from whence evil? The privation theory is the only answer.

So now we have shown that the Unmoved Mover is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. For many, this is enough to demonstrate he is God. However, to understand God being the I AM we need to deduce a few more.

  1. Singularity

Could there be more than one Unmoved Mover? Perhaps one to terminate every causal chain? No. Suppose that there are two unmoved movers. What trait differentiates them? Whatever trait one has to differentiate itself from the other, that trait must be something the other could potentially have. But the Unmoved Mover cannot posses any potentials. Therefore, there can be nothing to differentiate one Unmoved Mover from another. If it is not possible to differentiate the Unmoved Mover from another instance of its kind, then there can only be one Unmoved Mover.

  1. Necessity

And here is, finally, where we get to the point I have been teasing. This one always gives me the chills. In philosophy, we call a thing “contingent” if its something that could exist but also could not exist. In other words, it’s a being for whom existence is a potential. The unmoved mover is pure, unbound act. There is no potential for it to exist or not exist, it just is existence. In other words, its essence is “to be.”

Understanding I AM – The Conclusion

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

What is a name? A name is a term meant to single out one instance of a kind. There are many human beings in the world, so if you wanted to refer to the human being who authored this article you would use my name: Tate Williams.

As we’ve seen above, God is the only instance of his kind. He is a singular entity, wholly unique. So, God doesn’t need a name in the way we do; to name God we would only need to describe what he is, what in philosophy we call his essence. We’ve also shown from the Argument from Motion that God’s essence is to exist. He is pure actuality, totally unbounded and unlimited existence. In the simplest words: God is to be. Change “to be” from third person to first person, as God was speaking to Moses, and it is “I AM!”

And that is it! That is the breakthrough. To summarize, what we have shown in this article is that, If Aristotle’s Argument from Motion is correct, then it makes sense that God would name himself to Moses as I AM. If we reason backwards from nature to the source of all nature, we arrive at a being for whom the name I AM is a most true and profound description.

I don’t know whether this discovery will seem important to you, but I can testify to the feeling of amazement and wonder it gives me. That a handful of ancient Athenian thinkers could discover an unknown God. He had never spoken to them. They did not know He struck Ancient Egypt with the plagues, that He wrote His commandments to Moses on the mountain, that He would become a man to redeem the world, but they knew that He existed and explains all existence. If they could know all that two and a half millennia ago, what excuse do we have?

1 Meaning “all-powerful”

2 Meaning “all-knowing”

3 This is one of the areas that gets jumbled in the simplification. Someone might ask on the contrary, if potencies are powers, and this being has no potencies, doesn’t it have no powers? A fuller presentation of this argument would distinguish between what we call active potencies and passive potencies. Active potencies are powers to act. Passive potencies are the potential to be acted on. The Unmoved Mover is a being where all passive potencies are fully actualized. This would entail that if have all active potencies to the maximum degree, because the potential to improve a power is a passive potency.

4 The privation theory is closely woven with several contentious issues in meta-ethics and metaphysics, so it would be too much to summarize such reasons here. For an introduction and defense of the metaphysical doctrine of Essentialism which necessitates this theory, see Edward Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics, Chapter 4.