Saturday, June 23, 2007

"Cause" for Confusion

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.


Daganev said...

Just as "cause" has the temporal connotation stuck with it, don't you think that "reason" has a sentience/brain connotation with it?

I feel that if I was someone who did not agree with first cause, then I would say that "reason" is much more biased word which then falls under a "beg the question" logical fallacy.

i.e, I would say the "reason" for the rock is, "just because"

Kylopod said...

I, personally, find the FC argument compelling, and I agree with you that the most frequent criticisms are based upon a misunderstanding of the argument. (At the same time, I don't think the argument tells us much "about" God.)

But I must say that I had trouble following this post. I understand that "cause" may be defined other than in a time-bound sense. But there are actually several variations on the classical argument, and some of them do focus on the temporal sense of "cause."

It's significant that Stephen Hawking thinks the idea that time had a beginning "smacks of divine intervention." It suggests that he finds the basic logic of the argument compelling, even if he thinks there could be alternative explanations.

Daganev said...

So I'm thinking that maybe the phrases. "Define", "what makes it what it is", or "formation" might be alternatives for "cause" or "reason"

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Daganev, then perhaps an even better term would be "determinant".

Kylopod, granted, there are arguments based upon empirical knowledge we currently have regarding the origin of the Universe in time, and they may be equally compelling.

But my objective here was to explain the classical formulation as best I could. The difficulty that we inevitably run up against in debates has to do with the preconceived notions evoked by the word "cause".

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

By classical argument, I mean as it was understood and expounded by the medieval philosophers and theologians.

Yehuda said...

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.

Sadly, I think the problem is deeper than misunderstood terminology (and I think this might be your point). Many "words" are used in these discussions which mean very little "in reality" to most people who use them. It takes years of work and practice for most of these terms to be meaningful (all the more so, meaningfully used in debate). Few people take the time to experience "form in matter" (filling their bellies with bread and meat) - terms such as cause, effect and contingent become meaningful in entities that can be grasped by the senses. Rabbi Maroof, your tremendous efforts and patience should be applauded.

Rabban Gamliel said...

If this is just off the top of your head one can only wonder what briliance emanates from you when you're using the bottom of your head as well.

Yehuda said...

Or the side of his for that matter.

XGH said...

Sorry, I'm well aware of the notion that causality does not mean temporal causality, and that the Rambam would have been okay in theory with an infinite universe existing alongside an infinite God, as long as God was the cause of the universe. I have studied this topic quite a bit. However the same objections still apply. Your notion of causality, that there is a 'reason' everything is the way it is, is of course true. And the reason is the laws of physics interacting with matter. Trace that back through the chain of causality and you end up with the basic question of why do we have matter and why do we have the laws of physics. And the answer is, we just don't know.

All these attempts to provide some kind of philosophical overlay onto reality are bound to fail, since we don't really understand reality. We have no idea what matter actually is, or how the laws of physics actually work. In the same way that an 18th century 'scientist' would be amazed (and possibly non-comprehending) of the science of today, it is very silly to assume that we have gotten anywhere substantial in Science. Our understanding of the laws of physics and matter could be 99% of the way 'there', or it could be (more likely) 0.00000000000000000001% of what is really there. Hence talking about physical vs. metaphysical is just silly, we don't even know what physical actually is! Explain causality anyway you like, it's just not convincing to anyone not already convinced. And the proof of that is almost no non theist philosophers hold of this argument, and quite a few theists don't hold of it either, including the two philosopher rabbi's I consulted in my own shul!

tayqoo said...

ailu ve'ailu...
where do we go from here?
do we tread water forever?

Daganev said...

XGH, you just want to argue ignorance of the gaps.

It sounds really silly.

If the fundamental "reality" of matter, was not based on "causation" then the forces of nature would not work the way they do.

Rabban Gamliel said...

Here was my posting on XGH's comments part of which he reproduced above:
"XGH no one is claiming that there are an endless number of particles or that we don't understand in a substantial way the basic laws. We understand that whatever underlies all reality will have a connection with our limited understanding of those laws now. Otherwise what gives us the right to say we know what we do know so confidently. RJM was saying we don't have an endless number of reasons behind things. Even if matter is made up of an endless number of particles there would not be an endless number of reasons behind things. Such a situation would mean no ultimate first cause as there would be no unified theory. String theory is meant to unify physics. It is indeed a speculation that I have had that strings maybe divisible but the motivation behind string theory is to avoid infinity. It is to stop at the strings.
"But asserting that this First Cause must be 'outside' the system is especially silly since we have no idea what the 'system' actually is!"
A cause of something is by definition out the system. The molecules and atoms in a ball can go every which way but only something outside the system can move the ball as whole. The ball taken as a system won't budge an inch except through something outside the system, outside itself.
"Also, Quantum Soup is 'outside the system'"
Real Quantum Soup is a part of the system. You said though "asserting that this First Cause must be 'outside' the system is especially silly since we have no idea what the 'system' actually is!" Now with what you call Quantum Soup you say it is outside the System. That's a contradiction.
"Science has no problem with positing theories of other dimensions, or universes, or things we can't understand. As long as they remain theories and not dogmatic truth."
Science wants to posit things as fact if it can. Science doesn’t give possibilities as permanent possibilities. It gives possibilities as possible facts. Science by definition always retests and so never officially declares something (even the theory of gravity) as fact in the absolute sense, but that's only methodology. Science is a tool and we use it to convince ourselves of facts. You reject the possibility of science verifying having within it's purview anything close to the ultimate answers in the future. If scientists felt that way they wouldn't look for a theory of everything. String theory came from the belief that there is a theory of everything. You also continue to argue on the basis of how many say something. First arguing like that would mean that scientific theories would be rejected or accepted depending on time. Can truth for us vary like that? Can Black Holes be rejected because virtually everyone opposed it? Can the Earth have been said to not go around the sun because virtually everyone and with good arguments at the time opposed it? You may say the case of the Still Earth argument was made at a time of not full acceptance of modern science but according to you it shouldn't matter as science in the modern sense wasn't believed in fully yet and so we are just left with how many say what.
Rabban Gamliel | Homepage | 06.25.07 - 12:42 am | #"

badrabbi said...

For someone to "believe" in God, it is not enough to prove that God is "the first cause". Forget about the veracity of proofs regarding FC for a moment; for a God to be worthy of worship, one must in addition to proving fc, demonstrate the following:
1. The first cause, (lets call it God) must be conscious
2. The first cause caused the cascade of events for a conscious reason and with a purpose in mind
2. God must be 'alive' after all these years
3. God must be one
4. God must still retain powers of interference with daily activities
5. God must still actually care about what we do
6. God must be good

You see, even if your FC proof had weight, it is of no meaningful value. For, your cause could easily be a singular phenomenon unassociated with any real purpose.

Unfortunately, the task of an active worshipping diest is much harder than an atheist's. The latter can merely assert a non-existence. The diest on the other hand, must prove or strongly suggest not only a prime existence, but must also prove all the above mentioned properties. Good luck with that!

cipher said...


The Buddhists would disagree with the statement "an infinite chain of dependent entities is impossible". They believe that is precisely the scenario. In their cosmology, the universe is eternal in both directions, and cause and effect run backwards into infinity. For them, there is no First Cause.

It seems counter-intuitive to us, but they have some elegant arguments backing it up, coming out of a philosophical tradition equally as sophisticated as our Western body of philosophical thought.

I've had some conversations with lamas - Tibetan Buddhist teachers - about this. They find our concept of First Cause to be counter-intuitive, even immature. Ultimately, I think that the side of the fence one comes down on is, largely, culturally determined.

Anonymous said...


It seems to me that the FC argument brings up a very compelling question -- What is the basis/cause/reason for the existence of the material world, i.e, contingent reality? It is clear that necessary truths exist by their very nature, but contingent ones (such as the existence of the world) must, by definition, have a basis that is external to them.

But it is not clear to me that the idea of a Creator solves this problem. If we are assuming that God is a necessary being, and He acts with a necessary purpose, this seems to imply (indirectly) that the creation, and thus existence, of the world is in fact necessary and not contingent. In other words, whatever the basis is for the creation of the world, if this basis is itself based on necessary truth, it also becomes necessary, thereby making making the "contingent" world necessary as well... It seems that the idea of God isn't enough to explain the existence of a contingent material reality -- either reality is in fact necessary, in which case it is unclear that it must have a Creator, or it is contingent, in which case it unclear how it could have any basis at all, including that of God.

I hope I'm explaining my question clearly...thanks very much for your time.