First Cause

In Why I Am Not a Christian, Bertrand Russell says of the argument for a first cause,

Perhaps the simplest and easiest to understand is the argument of the First Cause. It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God. That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have; but, apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. I may say that when I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made God?'” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.” The argument is really no better than that. 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. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause.

There are two things going on here. The less important thing is Russell’s understanding of the first cause argument and his response to it. According to him, the argument begins with “Everything must have a cause,” and ends with the conclusion that there is a first uncaused cause which is called God. As he says, such an argument does not make sense, because its conclusion would contradict its premise. But it is unlikely that anyone ever argued for the existence of God in such a way. Consider St. Thomas’s actual first cause argument:

The second way is from the nature of the efficient cause. In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.

Note that St. Thomas does not say that “everything has a cause.” He says instead, “In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes.” This is to say that some things are efficient causes of other things, not that everything has a cause.

Russell also confuses the order of causality with the order of time. These coincide to some extent at times, but they are not the same thing, and to say that the world has a cause is not the same as to say that it had a beginning in time.

It is reasonable to suppose that Russell is in fact speaking specifically about St. Thomas’s argument, since he says “and to that First Cause you give the name of God,” which appears to be taken from St. Thomas’s text, “Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.” This suggests that Russell is being misled here by this conclusion to St. Thomas’s argument. He assumes that since it concludes to the existence of “God”, that the argument is supposed to prove that a first cause has the usual properties that we normally attribute to God. In reality, however, St. Thomas was not drawing any conclusion here beyond the fact that there is at least one uncaused cause. When Russell says, “If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument,” this is not even opposed to St. Thomas’s argument. The argument does not purport to prove that the world is not a first cause, but simply that there is at least one such cause, whether it be the world or something else.

But Russell’s misunderstanding of the first cause argument is not the most important thing in his discussion of the argument. More important is his somewhat cynical and insinuating statement, “That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have.”

The implication here is more important because it is likely to be Russell’s real reason for rejecting the first cause argument, or at least for the fact that he does not think carefully enough about the argument to avoid the errors mentioned above. And that implication is that there is no such thing as a cause. There is no first cause, because there are no causes at all.

As I have defined it, however, there will always be a cause whenever one thing is from another in such a way that understanding this relationship gives an explanation for the thing which is from another. This is true even when it is not a complete explanation, and this is precisely why there is more than one kind of cause; because things come from other things in various ways, and there are various kinds of explanation.

In order to deny the existence of causes, therefore, Russell would either have to say that nothing is ever from another, in any sense, or that understanding the origin of a thing never has any explanatory value. Denying that anything is ever from another would deny the existence of any order, including the order of time, and consequently it is unlikely that Russell would deny this. It is more likely that he would deny the possibility of explanation through the origin of a thing.

This is naturally contrary to common sense, since it is easy to give examples where we think we understand a thing through its origin, such as the example of the carpenter and the chair. And denying the existence of final causes means denying that any of our actions have any purpose, or at least that our purposes explain our actions in any way. Such a denial is even more useless than this entirely useless blog; it would be better to believe that our actions have purposes regardless of the evidence for or against this.

Let’s go back to St. Thomas’s argument:

Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false.

St. Thomas is not giving some complex reason here why there needs to be a first cause when there is a series of causes, but a very simple one. Taking away a first cause is simply taking away all causality. It is that simple, because causality implies explanation, and explanation needs to begin somewhere. I may want the chair from the carpenter in order to sit, and I may want to sit in order to avoid exhaustion, and I may want to avoid exhaustion in order to live a good life and to be happy. Perhaps there are some other reasons why I want the last thing as well. But as soon as I claim that I have a series of purposes that goes on forever, I take away the possibility of these supposed purposes explaining why I want a chair.

This is true about final causes, and it is true about every kind of cause, since cause always implies explanation. There is always a first.

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24 thoughts on “First Cause

  1. Hi,

    Could you expand on “such a denial is even more useless than this entirely useless blog” ?

    Indeed, parts of me is interested in denying this kind of explanation, and I’m having a hard time fighting against it. 😦

    Thanks in advance.

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    • Sure. The context is “denying that any of our actions have any purpose, or at least that our purposes explain our actions in any way.”

      First of all this claim defines itself (along with everything else) as pointless: a “useful” statement or action is one that is useful for some goal, so if there are no goals, there is nothing useful for anything. That is, if it were true, it would be useless, along with everything else.

      But it is also useless if it is false. How would you use it? You would need to have some goal in mind to use it for, and thinking that you had no goal would not help you to get to that goal, since normally you need to know about your goals in order to think about how to arrive at them.

      I guess, technically, you could use it for something anyway. For example you might use it to define your position in a debate, where your purpose is to win an argument with someone. But this means you are basically lying: you are saying there are no purposes while knowing that you have the purpose of winning a debate.

      All of that said, you shouldn’t ignore the parts of you that say there aren’t any purposes. That’s false if you take it in an overarching way, like I did in this discussion. But it’s true that you need to take your purposes with a grain of salt, and that is probably the real meaning of those “parts.” For example, people often try to come up with some overarching “true purpose” for their life that will perfectly explain every single thing they are doing. In that sense, there *isn’t* a purpose. There isn’t just one single thing that will make perfect sense of everything in your life at once. Your life is just not that sensible.

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      • I should perhaps expand more on what I meant. 🙂

        It striked me as if your only defense for final causes is a practical one.

        But this one leaves me with an empty stomach. Sure, it might be useful, but what ?

        Russell and Hume are my current boogeymen in that domain… 😦

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        • To be honest, I’m still not quite sure what your concern is, even after the expansion.

          It sounds something like this:

          “Maybe it’s pointless to say that everything is pointless, but that doesn’t necessarily prevent everything from being pointless. And if there is a point, what is it?”

          I agree that the argument we’re discussing (and that I made there) is a practical argument. That doesn’t make it a bad argument. Why do something (like saying that everything is pointless) which is pointless itself? Still, you can make a theoretical argument about this but it might be kind of technical because the point is very basic. Two relevant posts:

          https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/2015/07/27/humes-error-on-induction/

          And the most recent one (perhaps you read it first anyway): https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/2018/07/08/revisiting-russell-on-cause/

          Basically the fact that things work pretty consistently proves that they happen for reasons, not for no reason, and “reasons” for a human being are basically the same as purposes.

          If the question is “what is the purpose, exactly?” then in a way this is like the question in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “What is the answer to the question about life, the universe and everything?” The computer takes thousands of years to compute the response and then says, “42.” This of course disturbs everyone because it does not seem to answer anything. But then they realize that they forgot to ask what the question was in the first place. In a similar way, what people are usually asking when they ask about the meaning of life is not just for some concrete purpose. Instead, they are asking for an answer that will make sense of their lives as fully as possible. And to some extent, you can’t really make as much sense of your life as you would hope. Your life *isn’t* totally sensible, so there is no answer that will make it totally sensible. Post relevant to this (where the quest for meaning comes from): https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/2017/10/28/predictive-processing-and-free-will/

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          • No, that’s not it.

            My question is not “Maybe it’s pointless to say that everything is pointless, but that doesn’t necessarily prevent everything from being pointless. And if there is a point, what is it?”.

            My question is rather : “well, you’re saying that things have causes, reasons and origins, but what allows you to posit that?”.

            Take, for example, this peculiar view of reality : every object is just a collection of points/events in a 4D universe. There’s no cause, nor interactions, just a rough law that doesn’t depend on time. All you have here is what experience gives you : at a specific time, you have a specific point at a specific location, nothing more, nothing less. Why should I take a specific time or position as a final cause or efficient cause? All events are equally real, and there’s nothing that exists outside it. So, why the need for causality, cause, effect and things?

            Thanks for your answer.

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            • Ah, ok. The linked post on induction is relevant, then. Hume argues that we don’t have any reason, even a probable one, for thinking that the future will be similar to the past. This is false, and his argument does not work without starting out committed to complete certainty that the future will *definitely not* be like the past.

              What you suggested does not necessarily have the same consequence, because of the “rough law that doesn’t depend on time.” (Although I’m not sure why you say it doesn’t depend on time?) In any case, if there is any “law” at all, that implies the existence of causality, because it means it is possible to say, “X is because of Y”, at least with Y being the law. No causality means no explanation; not even by law.

              Another point. In my understanding, “Such and such a claim is true because the opposite is logically impossible,” is a case of final causality, because it does exactly what final causality is supposed to do — it provides a *reason* why the stated claim must be true. So if there is no final causality at all, there would not even be logical possibility or impossibility. In effect, there would be no meaning to any statement, including the statement of the supposed situation.

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              • Thank you for that clarification.

                One last question : let’s take the First cause. How would you reply to “why this first cause and not another”?

                I feel that the First Cause “lacks” a first cause, and it makes me unsettled. Sounds like a Brute Fact… :/

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                • Because this one can be a first cause, while another cannot be.

                  Let me explain. If you want to ask about “this possible first cause” and “that possible first cause,” you need to specify how you are distinguishing the two. If you do that, you will have to add something to one of them that is inconsistent with being a first cause.

                  I would suggest these three rules for a first cause:

                  1) It is something rather than nothing.
                  2) It is not from anything else.
                  3) It has no other properties except for the consequences of (1), (2), and (3).

                  That self-reference in (3) is disturbing but I don’t think we can avoid it. The first two are pretty much self-explanatory. If it is from something else, it is not a first cause, and if it is nothing, while then it’s not a first cause either. Why the third condition? Basically in order to avoid your “Brute Fact” problem. If the first cause has any property which is not a consequence of being the first cause, that will be something that calls out for explanation, and “calling out for explanation” is inconsistent with the idea of being the first cause.

                  If we accept these rules then “why this one rather than that one?” either cannot be asked, because we have no way to specify two different ones, or it will answer itself, because one of the two will break the rules.

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