The marriage of Joseph and Mary

Super Flumina

under the patronage of St Joseph and St Dominic

By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, remembering Zion;
on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps. . . Ps 136

St Dominic


Philosophy behind this website

Professor Solomon's Introduction to Philosophy

11th September 2001


Australia's Catholic Bishops

Australian Catholic Bishops should say

Australia's Support for Legislation Worthy of Adolf Hitler


Bill of Rights




Church's Fathers & Doctors

Church's Teaching on Divorce, Contraception and Human Sexuality

Compatible sites


David Attenborough

Defamation of Catholicism

Discipline & the Child

Dismissal of the Whitlam Government

Economic Problems

Evangelium Vitae 73



Freemasonry & the Church

God is not Material

Harry Potter



Letter of St Paul to the Hebrews

Mary MacKillop

Miscellaneous Papers



Moral Issues

Non-directional Counselling

Papers written by others


Politicians & the Catholic Church

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Leo XIII

Pope Pius XII

Popes on St Thomas



Religious Freedom

Questions for Catholic Parents in Parramatta

Research Involving Embryos Bill - Letter to the Prime Minister

Sts John Fisher & Thomas More

Science and Philosophy


Subversion of Catholic Education


Thomas Merton

Vatican II

For young readers:

Myall Lakes Adventure

© 2006 Website by Netvantage



Download this document as a PDF

Some things are so obvious we hardly need express them.  For instance, the truth that water runs downhill.  Another of the same sort is this truth—nothing (ie non-existence) does not exist.

A friend lent me recently a copy of Professor Stephen W. Hawking’s A Brief History Of Time [1].  As I worked my way through it I marvelled at the intricacy with which hypothesis was piled upon hypothesis to ground the speculative assertions we are so familiar with, curved space and black holes, and all the rest.  While I was doubtful of the truth of many of the things I read, one thing in particular struck me as plainly in error, Hawking’s acceptance of the view that space is a void, a place where nothing exists.

The current theory of quantum mechanics accepts that light may be comprised either of waves or particles without insisting on one theory or the other.  If light is comprised of waves, and space is empty of any matter, in what do the waves travel?  How could we see the sun or moon, let alone the stars, if there was not some medium through which light travels?  How could scientists detect, through radio and micro wave receivers, the sounds emitted by stars and galaxies incomprehensible distances away if between us there was no medium in which those waves could travel?

The admission of some form of material medium throughout what we call ‘space’ is a necessary deduction from principle.  To put it in syllogistic form using light as an example:

            Every effect must have a cause;
            But the transmission of light through space is an effect:
            Therefore, the transmission of light through space must have a cause.

            A cause cannot be nothing (and therefore is something);
            But the transmission of light through space has a cause:
            Therefore, the cause of the transmission of light through space cannot be nothing (and therefore
            is something).

What, then, is the nature of this cause, this ‘something’?

If we continue with light as an example, the first thing to be noted about it is that it is not a cause per se of light’s illumination.  It does not cause the incandescence, but is the means whereby the light so produced reaches the subject.  Such a cause operates per accidens and is called a condition, by definition, the removal of something prohibiting [2]>.

The great philosophers of the past gave this ‘something’ a name, aether and its use continued until relatively recently when it was still common to read or hear of scientists, especially those involved with the propagation of radio waves, referring with complacency to ‘the ether’.

In a remarkable paper published in The Thomist in 2004, American metaphysician Christopher A. Decaen of Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, California, exposes the ancient teaching of Aristotle, endorsed and enlarged upon by St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, on this mysterious substance which permeates the heavens. [3]>   Aristotle called the substance aether, from the Greek aei thein, ‘always running’, which Decaen thinks he may have derived from Plato’s Cratylus, where Socrates tells Hermogenes, ‘this element is always running in a flux around the air’.  I summarise here their teachings on the subject as reported by Decaen and add one or two thoughts of my own, but I recommend the reader to study Decaen’s paper in full.

According to Aristotle and St Thomas, although it is material, aether does not share a common matter with other material things.  Matter and form in aether are not applied univocally to (ie, do not signify exactly the same thing as) matter and form in other material substances.  The terms can be used here only analogously [4]> .  Therefore aether does not share the physical attributes of any other material thing.  Substantial form and prime matter in aether are, according to St Thomas, so perfectly united that the one exhausts completely the potency of the other such that aether possesses a certain total and universal perfection that fulfils its potency for existence.  In practical terms this means that aether lacks the tendency, present in every other material substance, to become something else.

Among material substances, aether is that which is closest to the immaterial.  Indeed, at first blush it seems to differ from the immaterial only in the fact that it has extension—parts outside parts—the characteristic of the first of the nine accidents, quantity. [5]>   Immaterial substances, in contrast, have no parts and no material attributes whatsoever. [6]>

With the recession from metaphysics to materialism precipitated by Descartes, the Aristotelian notion of aether became debased.  Scientists such as Newton who insisted on the need for physical contact between all bodies denied the existence of a void, yet conceived aether as something material understood univocally with all other material things, albeit in a rarefied form like a gas.  So did his successors.  The celebrated Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887 which purported to debunk the existence of aether by failing to find evidence of its influence on the speed of light measured simultaneously in two directions at right angles was premised on this erroneous understanding of the nature of the thing [7]> .  Since aether has almost no observable characteristics its existence is anomalous to a discipline formed under positivist and empiricist philosophies whose imperative is that what cannot be observed by the senses simply does not exist.  Little wonder, then, that modern science should have been content to shoulder it aside.

Aether’s Characteristics
Aether’s properties are almost entirely negative.

  • It is immutable, that is incorruptible, because aether possesses a certain total and universal perfection that fulfils perfectly its potency for existence.
  • It is intangible, taking that word rigorously.  It cannot be touched, though it can, and does, touch everything.  Because it cannot be touched, it cannot be moved.  Nor is it subject to the effects of temperature or pressure.
  • It is transparent.  This is its definitive characteristic.  It is transparent by essence. [8]>
  • It transcends place and cannot be excluded from any space by extracting therefrom every other known substance.  It is not in things or between them.  The cosmos is the aether, from the sublunary regions to the periphery.  Aether has no container of its own; rather, is it the first container of everything else.
  • It transcends time since nothing in time can affect it.
  • It is a medium, indeed pure medium, and the apt vehicle for the passage of light and radio waves of every amplitude and frequency.
  • Yet it is material and there remains in aether an indicator of this materiality in the fact that the speed of light is not unlimited but determined at 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometres) per second.
  • It offers no apparent resistance to the passage through it of any physical body but would do so, conceivably, to a body whose speed approached the speed of light.

Aether’s existence is deduced by intellect, rather than arrived at through induction from observation of effects for its properties are almost entirely negative.  Two effects alone, in the view of this writer, are positive.  Both effects are taken for granted; both demand a cause; both are universal, as universal as is the presence of aether.  The first of these effects is aether’s transparency.  The second is that it is aether which determines the speed of light.  Aether is the matrix in which exist all material things.  Adopting, with due deference to the Creator, the words of St Paul, one could say that in aether we live, and move, and have our being. [9]

Christopher Decaen has performed a singular service for the philosophical and scientific communities in gathering the metaphysical teachings on the subject and contrasting with them current scientific thinking.


Michael Baker
17th March 2006

[1]  Bantam Books, 1992.

[2]  A condition is that which removes obstacles which would prohibit the cause per se of an effect from producing such effect.  [A.M. Woodbury Ph.D, S.T.D, Ostensive Metaphysics, Ontology, Ch. 60, art. 7, p.1051]


[4]  A term may be either univocal, equivocal or analogous.  A univocal term applied to two different objects signifies a character in each which is simply the same, as ‘animal’ when said of a dog, and of a cat.  An equivocal term applied to two different objects signifies something in each which is simply unsame, as ‘cricket’, when said of an insect of the order orthoptera and when said of the game played with a ball and a bat.  An analogous term applied to two different objects signifies something in each which is the same and something which is unsame, but more unsame than same.  For example the predicate ‘good’ when said of a meat pie, and ‘good’ when said of a man signify two fundamentally different realities, yet with a degree of similarity.

[5]  Metaphysics considers every material substance as comprised of substance and the accidents which inhere in it.  There are nine accidents: quantity; quality; relation; when; where; action; passion; habitus and situs.

[6]  An immaterial substance is only in the place where it operates.  The soul of man, an immaterial substance, is in his body, and an immaterial being such as an angel is only where, and there only so long as, it operates.

[7]  Cf. A Brief History Of Time, Stephen W. Hawking, Bantam Books, 1992, p. 20; also the article at

[8]  In this characteristic it exemplifies its proximity to the immaterial for, as the ancient philosophers used to say, it is matter that impedes knowledge.

[9]  Cf. Acts 17: 28