The First Cause and The World

Bertrand Russell, in a passage quoted earlier, affirms that if there is a first cause, it might as well be the world:

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.

As we saw at the time, Russell misunderstands the argument, since he supposes that it depends on saying that “everything has a cause.” But in any case, by the argument regarding the first cause and distinction, there is only one first cause, and that cause is not the world. It is not the world because the world has things in it which are distinct from one another, and the first cause cannot have anything within it distinct from anything else within it, since otherwise at least one of the two distinct things would have a cause. Instead, the first cause is absolutely simple. St. Thomas makes this argument, saying, “Every composite has a cause, for things in themselves different cannot unite unless something causes them to unite. But God is uncaused, as shown above, since He is the first efficient cause.”

There are two things that should be noted about this argument relative to Catholic theology. First, as was already stated, the first cause at which this argument arrives would be the person of the Father; otherwise it would be wrong to say that there is nothing in the first cause distinct from anything else within it.

Second, this argument does not prevent one from saying that the first cause is both a part of the world, and the cause of the whole world. My discussion of whole and part does not prevent any two distinct things from being taken as parts of a whole, as long as we can think of something that would include them both. And in the case under consideration, we can think of such a thing: “reality”, which which is intended to include both causes and effects. Thus the first cause is a part of reality. Nonetheless, it is also the cause of reality as a whole. This is not hindered by the fact that nothing can be the cause of itself, since a part is not the whole, and the whole is not the part. Rather, if we think of it in this particular way, the first cause causes the whole of reality by causing other things distinct from itself, and by causing them to be also in some way united with itself, in other words, by causing them to be part of the whole of reality. In a similar way the Council of Constantinople stated that “the Father is the source of the whole Trinity.”

It is not customary in Catholic theology to say that God is a part of anything else. But in order to avoid saying this, one would deal with the issue of “reality as a whole” by distinguishing between real and conceptual wholes, and saying that “reality as a whole” is a conceptual whole rather than a real whole.

I have not made such a distinction mainly because it is not clear to me what such a distinction would mean. I pointed out that distinction always involves something conceptual, but we can distinguish between real distinctions and conceptual distinctions insofar as it is one thing to say, “this thing is not that thing,” and another to say, “the concept of this is not the concept of that.” The idea of distinction leads to the ideas of parts and wholes, and the distinction between real distinctions and conceptual distinctions would allows us to distinguish between “real wholes” and “conceptual wholes” if we intended to say that a conceptual whole is something composed of parts which are conceptually distinct but not really distinct. But this does not apply to the case of the first cause and its effects, since these are really distinct from one another. Thus it is not clear to me what one would be intending to say if one asserted that “reality as a whole” is only a conceptual whole.

In any case, nothing opposed to Catholic doctrine follows of necessity from the argument. If God is a part of reality as a whole, it does not follow that reality is better than God. It does not follow that God created of necessity, nor that anything other than God is necessary or uncaused, and so on.

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6 thoughts on “The First Cause and The World

  1. It seems that certain causal chains terminate in non-explanation, or coincidence. For example, “Why did Smith kill Brown?” “Because he believed Brown cursed him with witchcraft.” “Why did Smith believe this?” “Because he became sick on the day following an argument with Brown.” “Why did Smith become sick the day after the argument?” There is no answer to this question; the event as such is uncaused, it is a coincidence. Yet this uncaused event caused further events.

    It seems that an argument akin to this could be levelled against things like the “purposes of life”, especially as related to the first cause of the universe. I’m sure there are those who would propose that the original formation of life was an accidental form, uncaused in itself, which proceeded to cause the long history of life on earth. But, this seems to imply a break in explanation between “the first cause of the universe” and “the purposes of living things”, such that explaining the actions of humans terminates before reaching the first cause. How do such accidental forms affect our explanations? And do we have a good way of telling whether a form is accidental or substantial?

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  2. The kind of series of causes that you are asking about is a series of efficient causes, i.e. A made B happen which made C happen which made D happen etc. And like you say, it’s possible for that to trace back to a coincidence. But it isn’t really true that there is no answer in principle in terms of an efficient cause to e.g. why Smith became sick that day. It’s just that the answer will be complicated and likely coincidental itself: e.g. “he became sick the day after the argument because Johnson, who was carrying the illness, visited two days before the argument and said some things that caused ideas in Smith’s mind that affected his conversation with Brown and helped lead to the argument as well as causing Smith to get sick.” Or if this seems implausible because I allowed Johnson to contribute to both, just think of it like this: we are trying to explain a coincidence, namely why A & B are together. You can often trace that back to an additional coincidence: because of C & D, which might also have been because of E & F & G, and so on.

    That seems to be getting more and more coincidental as you go on, but If you trace that back to a first cause, the coincidence will be eliminated, in a sense. That is, since reality is causally unified, you might have multiple coincidental causes in the middle of that chain, but there is only one at the beginning. So in relation the first, it is not a coincidence, like if you make a plan that has multiple chains of causality, those things might look coincidental to someone else, but not to you.

    That does NOT mean there has to be some special reason (in the sense of purpose) for Smith to get sick the day after the argument. Even in situations where there is a literal plan, you might have a reason for both things to happen but no particular reason why one has to be exactly one day after the other. But it does mean there has to be some general reason for it, i.e. minimally, he got sick the day after the argument for the same reasons the world exists at all.

    There is likely more to it as well. One possibility is that some kind of modal realism will turn out to be true. In fact this would make a lot of sense if you think of existence the way I’ve been proposing, namely in relative terms. E.g. there cannot be any absolute place or time, and these are always relative, so why would not the same thing be true of absolute existence? If this is the case, then he got sick that day because it was one of the ways that things could be, and all such ways are real. But the fact that “you find yourself in the world where he got sick that day, rather than in some other world”, from your point of view, is a pure accident that *cannot* be explained, not even by a chain like the one above, just like the fact that it is 8:23 AM right now, just because it has to be that time sooner or later. We can’t explain “what time it is right now” because it equally gets to be every time, and you couldn’t explain “which world is actual” because they all get to be actual. There still would be a general reason (even in terms of a kind of purpose) for all those worlds to exist — presumably, the correct answer would be “because it’s good to exist.” This is implicitly a secondary argument in favor of modal realism: modal realism should be true, because more good things will exist if it is.

    I’ll respond to the second part in another comment.

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  3. The distinction between substance and accident is Aristotelian and basically means, “is this a thing or a property of a thing?” Substantial form and accidental form correspond to those two, i.e. substantial form makes this thing the thing it is, accidental form makes a thing have a property it has. So asking whether we have a good way to know whether a form is substantial or accidental is basically asking whether we have a way to know whether something is a thing or a property of a thing.

    One of the things I’ve been discussing is that this question is really asking something like this: “Yes, I know you think a dog is a thing, and so is a substance, and the dog’s color is a property, and so is an accident. But do you REALLY KNOW if the dog isn’t an accident and if the color isn’t a substance?” But this question does not make sense. We think of the dog as a thing, and the color as a property, and this helps us understand the world. There is simply *no additional fact* about whether it is *really* this way or not.

    In terms of the origin of life, I agree that the local efficient causes were presumably accidental events. But this is a different meaning of “accident” than the one distinguishing substance and accident. The *living thing* that came to be is a substance (because we think of it as a thing), even if the events that brought it into being were accidental (in the sense of involving coincidences.)

    I’m not sure this answers your question, particularly about purposes. But also given that discrepancy about the meaning of accident, I’m not really sure what the question is, exactly.

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