The First Cause Argument for God's existence has a lengthy and distinguished history. Like many of the classic metaphysical proofs, it is widely believed to have been "debunked" by David Hume and similar skeptics. However, the fact remains that many contemporary philosophers still take the First Cause Argument very seriously.
As most of the readers of this blog probably already know, I was involved in extensive blog-debates over the past couple of weeks, several of which revolved around the validity of the FC Proof. I defended the argument and maintained that most of the challenges raised against it were based upon misunderstandings of its premises. In order to clarify my position, I will present the traditional form of the proof and then offer some additional commentary. The proof runs as follows:
All material entities are dependent upon external causes that account for their existence. However, an infinite chain of dependent entities is impossible. Therefore, there must be an entity outside of the chain of material entities upon which the material chain as a whole is dependent. This entity would of necessity lie outside of the framework of space and time.
Two objections are typically lodged against this formulation:
1. It is not true that material entities all have causes. Although we see that the changes that occur to matter and energy are caused, that tells us nothing about the origin of matter itself. Maybe it was always here.
2. If we are going to posit that "something" is ultimately uncaused, why not simply say that the first material entity was uncaused? Why assume the existence of something outside of the material realm altogether?
Since I believe that I have already addressed the second objection satisfactorily in the past, I will set it aside for now and focus on the first. I may return to discuss the second issue in a future post.
The first objection is based upon a misconception that unfortunately plagues most discussions of these issues. The hidden assumption underlying #1 is that the definition of a "cause" is an agent that brings a certain object or entity into existence at a particular time. Therefore, if matter is eternal and therefore never "came" into existence, then this means that there is no need to assign it a cause.
This interpretation, however, is not what the philosophers intended when they proposed the First Cause proof. In fact, many of the thinkers who subscribed to the proof actually believed that the Universe was eternal! They simply employed the term "cause" differently than we do.
We tend to think of causes in a mechanistic, temporal sense. The bat causes the ball to fly through the air. Ingestion of the medicine causes the body to heal. This model of causality is derived from Descartes and is a product of relatively modern thought. It is not compatible with the framework in which the classical thinkers operated.
Causality, as understood in the classical context, means that upon which a thing's existence or nature depends. We are all the results of myriad "causes" that explain the fact that we exist and account for the way in which we exist. These factors may be genetic, environmental, or even cosmic in substance.
When we trace the chain of causality back far enough, we eventually hit a dead end. We come upon the most elementary entity, the basic building block that served as the cause for everything else in the Universe, yet the question remains - why does it exist and have the properties it has? By definition, in order to "explain" the first material entity's nature, we must make recourse to something beyond it.
This is why I would suggest that rather than utilizing the word "cause", we consider using the word "reason" instead. "Reason" doesn't have the same mechanistic overtones as "cause."
The proof would then run like this: Every material entity has a reason for its existence that is external to itself. That reason, in turn, has a reason for its existence. Yet an infinite chain of explanation is impossible. Therefore, we must conclude that there is a first entity whose reason for existence is inherent.
An example may clarify my point. The arrangement of molecules in a particular stone is attributable to numerous causal factors external to the stone. Those causal factors - local environmental conditions, for instance - wound up that way due to more fundamental, geological determinants that pertain to the makeup of the Earth's core. These geological determinants themselves are the product of broader astronomical determinants, etc.
But there is a limit to how far back we can trace the chain of "reasons" that account for the molecules in our stone. Ultimately, there must be a reason why the first determinant - the point from which everything else in the Universe initially emerged - existed precisely the way it did to begin with. The determinant of matter/energy itself can only be found outside of the framework of the material world.
It is important to note that, even if all of the causal factors or "reasons" existed simultaneously and from all eternity, the interdependence and hierarchical structure of the various entities would still be apparent. There would still be determining factors and determined factors. There would still be a need to account for the very first determined factor, by finding a determining factor external to space and time.
I feel that, by refining our use of language in this manner, our discussions of the First Cause Argument can proceed more thoughtfully and constructively.
Admittedly, this post is being completed off the top of my head rather late in the evening, so further installments will be necessary before any treatment of this subject can even approach comprehensiveness.
However, since I will be unable to post again until Wednesday at the earliest, I thought I should contribute something to the debate that can serve as food for thought in the interim.