The First Cause and the Origin of Distinction

Earlier we discussed why there is something rather than nothing. We then considered why some things are distinct from another, but only with respect to formal distinctions. And even the discussion of formal distinctions did not really get to the root of the question, since it was based on the idea of opposites, and opposites are already distinct from one another.

The real question about distinction is why it exists at all, whether formal or material, and why reality is not simply one in every way, as Parmenides held.

Previously we discussed the order of the concepts distinctionunitywhole and partmanyfirst and secondorigin, and cause. Some things that follow from these discussions:

  1. When two things are distinct, each of the two is in some way one.
  2. The two things themselves exist in some way as a whole and as one, and each of the two is a part of that whole.
  3. The two in some way have an order of first and second.
  4. The second is in some way from the first.

But it does not follow that one of the two is the cause of the other. The reason for this is that causality adds explanation, and the order of first and second in step four here may simply be arbitrary. I have two hands, and one of them must be first when I count them. But I could count them in the opposite order and nothing would be lost. Thus the specific order here does not add to understanding my hands, and so one hand is not a cause of the other.

We can consider possible answers to the question about distinction:

First, someone could say that since distinction is a being of reason, it does not exist in reality. Therefore every statement involving distinction is false: it is false that the chair in my room is not the table, and true that the chair is the table. This would basically be the position of Parmenides, and violates common sense in the deepest possible way. The violation of common sense is sufficient reason to reject this explanation.

Second, someone could say that since distinction is a being of reason, it has nothing positive in itself, and therefore it needs no explanation. This position would admit that it is true that one of my hands is not the other hand, but would assert that there simply is no reason why it is not. This would be somewhat akin to Bertrand Russell’s position that there does not need to be any explanation for the world. This position seems rather unlikely. It makes some sense that there could be a necessary being that is intelligible in itself, and this is necessary to respond to the question of why there is something rather than nothing. But this answer to the question about distinction implies that there is non-being which is either intelligible in itself, or intelligible in no way, yet truly is present in the world. This makes much less sense, and would likely result in depriving the world first of intelligibility in general, and consequently of other kinds of meaning such as purpose and the good.

Third, someone could admit that distinction requires an explanation. This implies that distinction has causes. The material cause, of course, is the beings themselves that are distinct, while the formal cause is the not-being-the-other that each of them possess. But in order to get a full explanation, we need an efficient cause and a final cause. And since two distinct beings seem to be distinct by their very nature, the only way to get an efficient cause is for at least one of the two beings to have an efficient cause itself.

These answers seem to be exhaustive. Either distinction is truly present in the world or it is not; and either it needs an explanation or it does not. The third answer seems by far the most reasonable one.

It is easy to see that accepting this third answer implies accepting that there is one first efficient cause which is the cause of everything else in reality, and corresponding to this, one ultimate end of all things. For we have already argued that causality always implies a first. But if first efficient causes are many, then they will be distinct from one another, and by this argument at least one of them will have an efficient cause, which is a contradiction. Therefore first efficient causes are not many; and thus there is only one.

It should be noted that if one makes this argument in the context of Catholic theology, the first cause that the argument arrives at would not be God the Trinity, but the person of the Father. For the argument explains all distinction, and therefore it would also explain the distinction between the persons of the Trinity. This also has some bearing on the different terminology used by the East and the West in relation to the divine persons. St. Thomas discusses this difference:

The Greeks use the words “cause” and “principle” indifferently, when speaking of God; whereas the Latin Doctors do not use the word “cause,” but only “principle.” The reason is because “principle” is a wider term than “cause”; as “cause” is more common than “element.” For the first term of a thing, as also the first part, is called the principle, but not the cause. Now the wider a term is, the more suitable it is to use as regards God, because the more special terms are, the more they determine the mode adapted to the creature. Hence this term “cause” seems to mean diversity of substance, and dependence of one from another; which is not implied in the word “principle.” For in all kinds of causes there is always to be found between the cause and the effect a distance of perfection or of power: whereas we use the term “principle” even in things which have no such difference, but have only a certain order to each other; as when we say that a point is the principle of a line; or also when we say that the first part of a line is the principle of a line.

According to our treatment the Greeks were right in wishing to use the term “cause.” Cause is indeed narrower than principle, but only by implying explanation, and this is found in the Trinity. It does not imply diversity of substance, while the meaning of “dependence” in St. Thomas’s text here is unclear. Nor does causality, according to our discussion, imply a distance of perfection or power. It is true that the first part of a line is not necessarily the cause of the line, but only insofar as the fact that it is first lacks explanatory value. Insofar as it has such value, as by being a material cause, it also has causality.

Final Causes in Nature

We get the idea of final causes from the goal seeking nature of our own activities, as hunting is for the sake of eating, and eating is for the sake of health. But the nature of a final cause, as was said earlier, is to be the formal aspect of an efficient cause: why or how it causes. Every case of an efficient cause will have such a final cause, since otherwise the efficient cause itself would be unintelligible. However, final causes will not have entirely the same character in every case.

Thus for example the final cause of the form of the human hand is surely to grasp and manipulate objects. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection implies that this form developed because people with more usefully shaped hands were more likely to survive and to have offspring than people with less usefully shaped hands. This account is sometimes used to suggest that we can say that the hand therefore has no final cause. But in reality this does not follow, for even if this happened, it happened not randomly, but with exactly the pattern of promoting hands that could grasp and manipulate objects. Thus this is the correct way to understand the process that actually happened; this is the “form” that the process took.

It was shown earlier that it is necessary that a world measured by place and time should have mathematical laws of nature. This very demonstration gives us a final cause of the fact that such laws exist: namely, in order to have a world at all. It is more difficult to explain why some concrete law has the exact form that it has. But even the exact form of the law will have a final cause, unless the law itself is a first cause, which is very unlikely, since a mathematical law is something abstract.

Intelligence Doesn’t Always Help

Suppose X is some statement, and you currently think that there is a 50% chance that X is true, and a 50% chance that it is false.

You ask two people about X. One says that it is true, and the other says that it is false. The one saying that it is true is somewhat more intelligent than the one who says that it is false. The evidence contained in these claims will surely not balance out exactly. At this point, then, is it more likely that X is true, or that it is false?

It is reasonable to say that at this point it is more likely that X is true. In fact, if we discovered that on average it would be more likely that X is false in such a situation, we should rename the thing we were calling “intelligence” and call it “unintelligence”, since it would not promote understanding but the lack of it.

But this is a question about what is true on average. It will not always be true once other factors are taken into account. And since belief is voluntary, and people believe things for other motives besides truth, under many circumstances intelligence can actually hinder the search for truth. For we can expect that a more intelligent person will on average be somewhat better at finding a way to attain his goals than a less intelligent person. Thus to the degree that those goals happen to hinder the search for truth, the more intelligent person will actually be less likely to come to the truth.

For example, several of the goals that people often have in believing things, or at least continuing to believe what they have believed in the past, is maintaining the appearance of stability, since instability is often seen as bad, and avoiding the shame of admitting that one was wrong. To the degree that a person has these goals, a more intelligent person will be more capable of finding ways to avoid changing his mind, even when his current position happens to be false. He will be more capable of finding subtle ways to defend his position, more capable of finding reasons to dismiss opposing arguments, and more capable of finding ways to avoid stumbling upon evidence against his current position.

Even apart from these two particular motives, there are of course any number of other motives which are potentially opposed to the search for truth in concrete cases. And to the degree that such motives are involved, intelligence will not be a help to the truth, but a hindrance.

Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence

Marcello Truzzi states in an article On the Extraordinary: An Attempt At Clarification“An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.” This was later restated by Carl Sagan as, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This is frequently used to argue against things such as “gods, ghosts, the paranormal, and UFOs.”

However, this kind of argument, at least as it is usually made, neglects to take into account the fact that claims themselves are already evidence.

Here is one example: while writing this article, I used an online random number generator to pick a random integer between one and a billion inclusive. The number was 422,819,208.

Suppose we evaluate my claim with the standard that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and neglect to consider the evidence contained within the claim itself. In this case, given that I did in fact pick a number in the manner stated, the probability that the number would be 422,819,208 is one in a billion. So readers should respond, “Either he didn’t pick the number in the manner stated, or the number was not 422,819,208. The probability that both of those were true is one in a billion. I simply don’t believe him.”

There is obviously a problem here, since in fact I did pick the number in the way stated, and that was actually the number. And the problem is precisely leaving out of consideration the evidence contained within the claim itself. Given that I make a claim that I picked a random number between one and a billion, the probability that I would claim 422,819,208 in particular is approximately one in a billion. So when you see me claim that I picked that number, you are seeing evidence (namely the fact that I am making the claim) which is very unlikely in itself. The fact that I made that claim is much more likely, however, if I actually picked that number, rather than some other number. Thus the very fact that I made the claim is strong evidence that I did pick the number 422,819,208 rather than some other number.

In this sense, extraordinary claims are already extraordinary evidence, and thus do not require some special justification.

However, we can consider another case, a hypothetical one. Suppose that in the above paragraphs, instead of the number 422,819,208, I had used the number 500,000,000, claiming that this was in fact the number that I got from the random number generator.

In that case you might have found the argument much less credible. Why?

Assuming that I did in fact pick the number randomly, the probability of picking 422,819,208 is one in a billion. And again, assuming that I did in fact pick the number randomly, the probability of picking 500,000,000 is one in a billion. So no difference here.

But both of those assume that I did pick the number randomly. And if I did not, the probabilities would not be the same. Instead, the fact that simpler things are more probable would come into play. At least with the language and notation that we are actually using, the number 500,000,000 is much simpler than the number 422,819,208. Consequently, assuming that I picked a number non-randomly and then told you about it,  is significantly more probable than one in a billion that I would pick the number 500,000,000, and thus less probable than one in a billion that I would pick 422,819,208 (this is why I said above that the probability of the claim was only approximately one in a billion; because in fact it is even less than that.)

For that reason, if I had actually claimed to have picked 500,000,000, you might well have concluded that the most reasonable explanation of the facts was that I did not actually use the random number generator, or that it had malfunctioned, rather than that the number was actually picked randomly.

This is relevant to the kinds of things where the postulate that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is normally used. Consider the claim, “I was down in the graveyard at midnight last night and saw a ghost there.”

How often have you personally seen a ghost? Probably never, and even if you have, surely not many times. And if so, seeing a ghost is not exactly an everyday occurrence. Considered in itself, therefore, this is an improbable occurrence, and if we evaluated the claim without considering the evidence included within the claim itself, we would simply assume the account is mistaken.

However, part of the reason that we know that seeing ghosts is not a common event is that people do not often make such claims. Apparently 18% of Americans say that they have seen a ghost at one time or another. But this still means that 82% of Americans have never seen one, and even most of the 18% presumably do not mean to say that it has happened often. So this would still leave seeing ghosts as a pretty rare event. Consider how it would be if 99.5% of people said they had seen ghosts, but you personally had never seen one. Instead of thinking that seeing ghosts is rare, you would likely think that you were just unlucky (or lucky, as the case may be.)

Instead of this situation, however, seeing ghosts is rare, and claiming to see ghosts is also rare. This implies that the claim to have seen a ghost is already extraordinary evidence that a person in fact saw a ghost, just as my claiming to have picked 422,819,208 was extraordinary evidence that I actually picked that number.

Nonetheless, there is a difference between the case of the ghost and the case of the number between one and a billion. We already know that there are exactly one billion numbers between one and a billion inclusive. So given that I pick a number within this range, the probability of each number must be on average one in a billion. If it is more probable that I would pick certain numbers, such as 500,000,000, it must be less probable that I would pick others, such as 422,819,208. We don’t have an equivalent situation with the case of the ghost, because we don’t know in advance how often people actually see ghosts. Even if we can find an exact measure of how often people claim to see ghosts, that will not tell us how often people lie or are mistaken about it. Thus although we can say that claiming to see a ghost is good evidence of someone actually having seen a ghost, we don’t know in advance whether or not the evidence is good enough. It is “extraordinary evidence,” but is it extraordinary enough? Or in other words, is claiming to have seen a ghost more like claiming to have picked 422,819,208, or is it more like claiming to have picked 500,000,000?

That remains undetermined, at least by the considerations which we have given here. But unless you have good reasons to suspect that seeing ghosts is significantly more rare than claiming to see a ghost, it is misguided to dismiss such claims as requiring some special evidence apart from the claim itself.

Claims and Evidence

Earlier I have mentioned the fact that when someone holds a position, this very fact is evidence for his position. Here I will consider this in more detail.

The reason to think that the claim is evidence for the position is that it seems more likely that someone would hold a position if the position is true than if it is false. It is evident that this must hold in general, or it would be impossible to learn a language, since people would be equally likely to say “the sky is blue” even if it was not blue, and therefore it would be impossible for children to learn that this sentence says that the sky is blue rather than that the sky is green.

However, someone might object that it is not true in general, and that in some cases claims either have no evidential effect, or that they are evidence that the claim is false.

What would be necessary for this to be true? Let’s take a case where the claim might have no evidential effect at all. Suppose someone says that exactly one year from today, you will eat strawberries for dessert. We might suppose this has no effect: the person has no way of knowing what you will be eating, and therefore he seems equally likely to make the claim, whether you will be eating strawberries or not.

But unless we unreasonably think that it is absolutely certain that prophetic knowledge of the future does not exist, then there is some probability that the statement is prophetic. This will make him somewhat more likely to make the statement if you will in fact be eating strawberries, unless there is a completely equal chance of his statement being anti-prophetic, that is, being made because you will not be eating strawberries. But this would equally require that he know the future, and consequently this amounts to saying that he is equally likely in general to assert or deny the eating of strawberries, even when he knows the truth. But we already admitted that this is not the case: someone who knows the truth is, in general, more likely to assert the truth than to deny it. Thus it is unreasonable to deny that such a statement is in fact evidence that you will eat strawberries for dessert a year from now.

In order for a claim to be evidence that the thing is false, we would have to have something similar: a case where someone who knows the truth is more likely to deny it than to assert it. This would not clearly be the case even, e.g. if we knew that someone was inventing an alibi. It may be that people who invent alibis include more truths than falsehoods in them, taken as a whole. But it could be the case in very concrete circumstances, and taking these circumstances into account. For example, if someone writes a novel “based on a true story,” the fact that the protagonist is called “Peter Smith,” may be evidence that in real life the person’s name was not Peter Smith.

In this case, of course, there is not even a claim that Peter Smith was the person’s name in the first place. So we actually have still not established the existence of such a claim. And if such a case is found, it will be the circumstances, rather than the general fact of the claim, which are evidence against it. Considered in itself, the fact that someone makes a claim or holds a position, is evidence for that claim or position.

Division Into Two

I pointed out in the last post that Parmenides is mistaken in maintaining the absolute unity of all being. But the refutation was simply from experience. One can still ask about the real reason for this. Why is being not absolutely one in the way he supposed?

Distinction consists in the fact that one thing is not another. But why is it not the other? We can find two kinds of distinction in things, material and formal.

Material distinction consists in the fact that one thing is not another, even though the things are of the same kind. Thus one man is not another man. Formal distinction consists in the fact that one thing is not another thing because they are different in kind, as for example a dog is distinct from a man, or as blue is distinct from green.

It is quite difficult to understand the existence of material distinction, and I will not try to explain it at this time. But formal distinction always happens because of some opposition between the forms in question. And opposition results from things that are opposite to one another, while opposites come in pairs. Consequently formal distinction always results first into a division into two, although the things which are divided into two may possibly be divided again.

We can illustrate this with the way that St. Thomas divides a text into parts. For example, in his commentary on the Gospel of St. John, discussing the wedding at Cana, he says:

Above, the Evangelist showed the dignity of the incarnate Word and gave various evidence for it. Now he begins to relate the effects and actions by which the divinity of the incarnate Word was made known to the world. First, he tells the things Christ did, while living in the world, that show his divinity. Secondly, he tells how Christ showed his divinity while dying; and this from chapter twelve on. As to the first he does two things. First, he shows the divinity of Christ in relation to the power he had over nature. Secondly, in relation to the effects of grace; and this from chapter three on. Christ’s power over nature is pointed out to us by the fact that he changed a nature. And this change was accomplished by Christ as a sign: first, to his disciples, to strengthen them; secondly, to the people, to lead them to believe (2:12). This transformation of a nature, in order to strengthen the disciples, was accomplished at a marriage, when he turned water into wine. First, the marriage is described. Secondly, those present. Thirdly, the miracle performed by Christ. In describing the marriage, the time is first mentioned. Hence he says, “On the third day there was a wedding,” i.e., after the calling of the disciples mentioned earlier. For, after being made known by the testimony of John, Christ also wanted to make himself known. Secondly, the place is mentioned; hence he says, at Cana in Galilee. Galilee is a province, and Cana a small village located in that province.

Every division here is into two except when he talks about the description of the marriage, saying, “First, the marriage is described. Secondly, those present. Thirdly, the miracle performed by Christ.” But it is easy to see that he divides into three here in order to omit a distinction that would not be very helpful, namely the division between describing the background to the miracle and describing the miracle itself. The background is then divided once again into the marriage and into those present.

Thus, in theory every formal division is into two. But in practice in can happen that it is sometimes useful to divide into three, and in rare cases larger numbers. This happens first of all when some divisions are obvious and can be skipped over, as is the case here with St. Thomas. Second, the division into beginning, middle, and end is usually best left as a division into three, even though in principle the beginning can be divided against the rest. Finally, cases which consist of a list are best left as such, as when I mention seven interesting things that happened to me yesterday. Basically such cases are cases of material distinction, not formal; here is one interesting thing, here is another, and here is still another.

For additional illustration, we may divide the above paragraph:

  1. Statement of the theoretical principle: every formal division is into two.
  2. Discussion of practical exceptions.
    1. General statement regarding exceptions: sometimes it is useful to divide into larger numbers.
    2. Consideration of various cases.
      1. Consideration of cases which in fact contain formal distinction.
        1. The general case in which some divisions are omitted.
        2. The special case of beginning, middle, and end.
      2. Consideration of cases in which material distinction is involved instead.
        1. Description of such cases: situations where we basically have a list.
        2. Explanation of such cases: the fact that they consist in material distinction.

Someone may argue that such an explanation of a text is artificial, and that the author was not thinking of such a breakdown of his text, and consequently that it cannot be a true explanation. But the reality is that it does not matter whether he was thinking of it or not. If his text is in fact coherent, it will have such an explanation, and one that is basically most correct, in comparison to others which are less correct or incorrect.

This is true not only of texts, but of any whole which is coherently divided into parts based on formal distinctions.

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Martin Heidegger begins his Introduction to Metaphysics with what he calls “The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics”:

Why are there beings at all instead of nothing? That is the question. Presumably it is no arbitrary question. “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?”—this is obviously the first of all questions. Of course, it is not the first question in the chronological sense. Individuals as well as peoples ask many questions in the course of their historical passage through time. They explore, investigate, and test many sorts of things before they run into the question “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” Many never run into this question at all, if running into the question means not only hearing and reading the interrogative sentence as uttered, but asking the question, that is, taking a stand on it, posing it, compelling oneself into the state of this questioning. And yet, we are each touched once, maybe even now and then, by the concealed power of this question, without properly grasping what is happening to us. In great despair, for example, when all weight tends to dwindle away from things and the sense of things grows dark, the question looms. Perhaps it strikes only once, like the muffled tolling of a bell that resounds into Dasein and gradually fades away. The question is there in heartfelt joy, for then all things are transformed and surround us as if for the first time, as if it were easier to grasp that they were not, rather than that they are, and are as they are. The question is there in a spell of boredom, when we are equally distant from despair and joy, but when the stubborn ordinariness of beings lays open a wasteland in which it makes no difference to us whether beings are or are not—and then, in a distinctive form, the question resonates once again: Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?

Long ago, Parmenides attempted to respond to the same question:

Come now, I will tell thee—and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away— the only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for it not to be, is the way of belief, for truth is its companion. The other, namely, that It is not, and that it must needs not be,— that, I tell thee, is a path that none can learn of at all. For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible— nor utter it; . . . . . . for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.

Bertrand Russell, in the passage quoted yesterday, could be said to be responding in another way when he claimed,

There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination.

The response of Parmenides is that only being can be or be thought, while nothingness cannot be. Consequently it is in virtue of the very nature of being that being exists rather than nothing. In the passage quoted, Russell is speaking specifically about the order of time, since he identifies this with the order of causality. However, we can understand his response more generally: There is no reason why there is something rather than nothing. No reason is necessary. It is simply due to the “poverty of our imagination” that we suppose there needs to be any explanation for this.

Russell would be correct, if he meant that there is no need for any explanation apart from being, since there can be nothing apart from being. Taken in this way, his response would be consistent with that of Parmenides. However, it is clear that his actual intention is to say that the existence of the world is arbitrary. It could have begun randomly without a cause; it could have existed forever, for no particular reason; and although he doesn’t mention this possibility, it might not have existed at all. No explanations for anything are needed, or even possible, since there is no such thing as a cause.

We have already pointed out the unreasonableness of this position in the previous post. Consequently one most hold a position like that of Parmenides: it is in virtue of the nature of being that beings exist rather than nothing, or rather it is in virtue of the nature of some being or beings, since not every being actually has the nature of necessarily existing.

Parmenides also claimed that “it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.” This is not quite true, since as I pointed out earlier, “not being another”, even though it can be truly predicated of things, is not a reality in things, but in the mind. It seems that Parmenides intended to deny these things when he claimed that that one cannot speak or say that which is not. This should mean that it is impossible to think or say that nothing exists, but also to think or say that one thing is not another, or even to think or say that one thing is another when it is not. It is impossible to be wrong; it is impossible to consider one thing to be distinct from another; and it is impossible for one thing to be in fact distinct from another. And it appears that Parmenides actually intended to assert all of these things, as for example in this text:

And there is not, and never shall be, anything besides what is, since fate has chained it so as to be whole and immovable. Wherefore all these things are but names which mortals have given, believing them to be true— coming into being and passing away, being and not being, change of place and alteration of bright colour.

“All these things are but names” because, according to Parmenides, it is impossible for something to change in place or in color, since this would mean that what is not begins to be, and “what is not” cannot be, be thought, or begin to be.

Evidently all of this is inconsistent, since if such things cannot be thought, neither can they be named, as Parmenides says himself when he says, “For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible— nor utter it.”

Consequently Parmenides is wrong to draw these conclusions, although they would make some sense, apart from being opposed to experience, if one supposed that every being had the nature of necessary existence. One must therefore hold that at least one being has necessary being, but not all beings do.