There’s a long tradition in the history of philosophy, going back at least to Aristotle, of arguing for the existence of a prime mover. If there are things that move, and there are, then there are other things that made them move. And the things that made things move must themselves move, and so must be moved by other moving things. This is a regress and it can only be stopped by a prime mover, a mover who is not itself moved by another.
Another way of characterizing a prime mover is as something non-physical that can move a physical thing. If you hold that the mind is not a physical thing, then you are a prime mover. When you raise your hand to answer a question in class, you have formed the intention to raise your hand, and then you raised it. You prime-moved it. While we can, within limits, directly prime move parts of our bodies, we can’t directly move other objects. We can raise a glass by raising our arm when we are holding a glass. In Meditation 6 of his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes remarked on the close connection of mind and body. Though he took mind and body to be completely distinct substances, he emphasized and attempted to explain the special relationship a mind has to its associated body, and it alone. This episode has us imagine a possible world in which there is a person who is a prime mover in this extended sense: He can directly move objects the way we can move some parts of our bodies.
The issue raised here is similar in some respects to that of “Mr. Dingle, The Strong.” There we imagined someone possessing a power not normally possessed. In that case it was sheer physical strength. And we saw that not only could such powers be abused, but that it was all but certain that they would be abused. In “The Prime Mover” the possible world we imagine is one where the difference in the possession of a power is not just a matter of degree, but one of scope. If someone had the power to directly move not just parts of his or her body, but other objects as well, how would such a power be used?
Mr. Dingle used his new found strength for himself. Here, a “Jimbo Cobb” has the power, but he serves simply as the agent of his friend, Ace Larsen, in the exercise of his special talent. He’s a prime mover in the service of another. Jimbo knows that Ace is using his powers in the service of his gambling addiction, but he accedes to Ace’s demands, for as long as he can. As Rod Serling puts it: “Some people possess talent; others are possessed by it.” Here the person possessed by it is not the person who possesses it. Jimbo’s inability, or unwillingness, to challenge the bad shots that Ace calls shows that even a prime mover can make the wrong moves. It’s one thing to possess a power, and quite another to act on it from the right reasons. In fact, when Ace is calling the shots, Jimbo isn’t the prime mover; Ace is.