Fairies, Unicorns, Werewolves, and Certain Theories of Richard Dawkins

In A Devil’s Chaplain, Richard Dawkins explains his opposition to religion:

To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both. I am often asked why I am so hostile to ‘organized religion’. My first response is that I am not exactly friendly towards disorganized religion either. As a lover of truth, I am suspicious of strongly held beliefs that are unsupported by evidence: fairies, unicorns, werewolves, any of the infinite set of conceivable and unfalsifiable beliefs epitomized by Bertrand Russell’s hypothetical china teapot orbiting the Sun. The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t kneecap those who put the tea in first.

We have previously discussed the error of supposing that other people’s beliefs are “unsupported by evidence” in the way that the hypothetical china teapot is unsupported. But the curious thing about this passage is that it carries its own refutation. As Dawkins says, the place of religion in the world is very different from the place of belief in fairies, unicorns, and werewolves. These differences are empirical differences in the real world: it is in the real world that people teach their children about religion, but not about orbiting teapots, or in general even about fairies, unicorns, and werewolves.

The conclusion for Dawkins ought not to be hostility towards religion, then, but rather the conclusion, “These appear to me to be beliefs unsupported by evidence, but this must be a mistaken appearance, since obviously humans relate to these beliefs in very different ways than they do to beliefs unsupported by evidence.”

I would suggest that what is actually happening is that Dawkins is making an abstract argument about what the world should look like given that religions are false, much in the way that P. Edmund Waldstein’s argument for integralism is an abstract argument about what the world should look like given that God has revealed a supernatural end. Both theories simply pay no attention to the real world: in the real world, human beings do not in general know a supernatural end (at least not in the detailed way required by P. Edmund’s theory), and in the real world, human beings do not treat religious beliefs as beliefs unsupported by evidence.

The argument by Dawkins would proceed like this: religions are false. Therefore they are just sets of beliefs that posit numerous concrete claims, like assumptions into heaven, virgin births, and so on, which simply do not correspond to anything at all in the real world. Therefore beliefs in these things should be just like beliefs in other such non-existent things, like fairies, unicorns, and werewolves.

The basic conclusion is false, and Dawkins points out its falsity himself in the above quotation.

Nonetheless, people do not tend to be so wrong that there is nothing right about what they say, and there is some truth in what Dawkins is saying, namely that many religious beliefs do make claims which are wildly far from reality. Rod Dreher hovers around this point:

A Facebook friend posted to his page:

“Shut up! No way – you’re too smart! I’m sorry, that came out wrong…”

The reaction a good friend and Evangelical Christian colleague had when she found out I’m a Catholic.

Priceless.

I had to laugh at that, because it recalled conversations I’ve been part of (alas) back in the 1990s, as a fresh Catholic convert, in which we Catholics wondered among ourselves why any smart people would be Evangelical. After I told a Catholic intellectual friend back in 2006 that I was becoming Orthodox, he said something to the effect of, “You’re too smart for that.”

It’s interesting to contemplate why we religious people who believe things that are rather implausible from a relatively neutral point of view can’t understand how intelligent religious people who believe very different things can possibly hold those opinions. I kept getting into this argument with other conservative Christians when Mitt Romney was running for president. They couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him because he’s a Mormon, and Mormons believe “crazy” things. Well, yes, from an orthodox Christian point of view, their beliefs are outlandish, but come on, we believe, as they do, that the God of all Creation, infinite and beyond time, took the form of a mortal man, suffered, died, arose again, and ascended into heaven — and that our lives on this earth and our lives in eternity depend on uniting ourselves to Him. And we believe that that same God established a sacred covenant with a Semitic desert tribe, and made Himself known to mankind through His words to them. And so forth. And these are only the basic “crazy things” that we believe! Judge Mormons to be incorrect in their theology, fine, but if you think they are somehow intellectually defective for believing the things they do that diverge from Christian orthodoxy, then it is you who are suffering from a defect of the intellectual imagination.

My point is not to say all religious belief is equally irrational, or that it is irrational at all. I don’t believe that. A very great deal depends on the premises from which you begin. Catholics and Orthodox, for example, find it strange that so many Evangelicals believe that holding to the Christian faith requires believing that the Genesis story of a seven-day creation must be taken literally, such that the world is only 7,000 years old, and so forth. But then, we don’t read the Bible as they do. I find it wildly implausible that they believe these things, but I personally know people who are much more intelligent than I am who strongly believe them. I wouldn’t want these folks teaching geology or biology to my kids, but to deny their intelligence would be, well, stupid.

I suspect that Dreher has not completely thought through the consequences of these things, and most likely he would not want to. For example, he presumably thinks that his own Christian beliefs are not irrational at all. So are the Mormon beliefs slightly irrational, or also not irrational at all? If Mormon beliefs are false, they are wildly far off from reality. Surely there is something wrong with beliefs that are wildly far off from reality, even if you do not want to use the particular term “irrational.” And presumably claims that are very distant from reality should not be supported by vast amounts of strong evidence, even if unlike Dawkins you admit that some evidence will support them.

The Actual Infinite

There are good reasons to think that actual infinities are possible in the real world. In the first place, while the size and shape of the universe are not settled issues, the generally accepted theory fits better with the idea that the universe is physically infinite than with the idea that it is finite.

Likewise, the universe is certainly larger than the size of the observable universe, namely about 93 billion light years in diameter. Supposing you have a probability distribution which assigns a finite probability to the claim that the universe is physically infinite, there is no consistent probability distribution which will not cause the probability of an infinite universe to go to 100% at the limit, as you exclude smaller finite sizes. But if someone had assigned a reasonable probability distribution before modern physical science existed, it would very likely have been one that make the probability of an infinite universe go very high by the time the universe was confirmed to be its present size. Therefore we too should think that the universe is very probably infinite. In principle, this argument is capable of refuting even purported demonstrations of the impossibility of an actual infinite, since there is at least some small chance that these purported demonstrations are all wrong.

Likewise, almost everyone accepts the possibility of an infinite future. Even the heat death of the universe would not prevent the passage of infinite time, and a religious view of the future also generally implies the passage of infinite future time. Even if heaven is supposed to be outside time in principle, in practice there would still be an infinite number of future human acts. If eternalism or something similar is true, then an infinite future in itself implies an actual infinite. And even if such a theory is not true, it is likely that a potentially infinite future implies the possibility of an actual infinite, because any problematic or paradoxical results from an actual infinite can likely be imitated in some way in the case of an infinite future.

On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that actual infinities are not possible in the real world. Positing infinities results in paradoxical or contradictory results in very many cases, and the simplest and therefore most likely way to explain this is to admit that infinities are simply impossible in general, even in the cases where we have not yet verified this fact.

An actual infinite also seems to imply an infinite regress in causality, and such a regress is impossible. We can see this by considering the material cause. Suppose the universe is physically infinite, and contains an infinite number of stars and planets. Then the universe is composed of the solar system together with the rest of the universe. But the rest of the universe will be composed of another stellar system together with the remainder, and so on. So there will be an infinite regress of material causality, which is just as impossible with material causality as with any other kind of causality.

Something similar is implied by St. Thomas’s argument against an infinite multitude:

This, however, is impossible; since every kind of multitude must belong to a species of multitude. Now the species of multitude are to be reckoned by the species of numbers. But no species of number is infinite; for every number is multitude measured by one. Hence it is impossible for there to be an actually infinite multitude, either absolute or accidental.

We can look at this in terms of our explanation of defining numbers. This explanation works only for finite numbers, and an infinite number could not be defined in such a way, precisely because it would result in an infinite regress. This leads us back to the first argument above against infinities: an infinity is intrinsically undefined and unintelligible, and for that reason leads to paradoxes. Someone might say that something unintelligible cannot be understood but is not impossible; but this is no different from Bertrand Russell saying that there is no reason for things not to come into being from nothing, without a cause. Such a position is unreasonable and untrue.

True and False Religion

What does it mean to say that a religion is true, or that it is false? The question is not as easy as it appears at first sight. Bertrand Russell, in Why I Am Not a Christianruns up against this difficulty. In order to explain why he is not a Christian, he has to know what it means to be a Christian in the first place:

As your Chairman has told you, the subject about which I am going to speak to you tonight is “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Perhaps it would be as well, first of all, to try to make out what one means by the word Christian. It is used these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life. In that sense I suppose there would be Christians in all sects and creeds; but I do not think that that is the proper sense of the word, if only because it would imply that all the people who are not Christians — all the Buddhists, Confucians, Mohammedans, and so on — are not trying to live a good life. I do not mean by a Christian any person who tries to live decently according to his lights. I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions.

Nowadays it is not quite that. We have to be a little more vague in our meaning of Christianity. I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anybody calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature — namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ. The Mohammedans, for instance, also believe in God and in immortality, and yet they would not call themselves Christians. I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not think you have any right to call yourself a Christian.

Thus Russell reduces being a Christian to believing in God, in the immortality of the soul, and that Christ was at least the best and wisest of men. Of course there are people who call themselves Christians who do not believe one or more of these things, and do not accept that you cannot call yourself a Christian without them. And other people might well give a different list. Thus for example St. Paul has his own requirements:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Thus St. Paul says that belief in the resurrection of Christ, and therefore in a general resurrection, is required. Otherwise “your faith has been in vain,” which would certainly seem to say that your religion is not true.

Of course, St. Paul is polemically exaggerating the consequences of the position of his opponents. In the first place someone could believe in the resurrection of Christ without believing in a general resurrection. Likewise, even if Christ did not rise from the dead, it does not follow of necessity that anyone’s faith would be entirely vain, but that it would be vain in some respect, since he would still profit from it in various ways, such as by belonging to a Christian community. Similarly, even if Christians have a false belief in the immortality of the soul, there would still be more pitiable people in the world.

We can learn from these two examples. Russell says that you cannot “properly call yourself a Christian,” if you do not accept his list of three beliefs, while St. Paul says that “your faith is in vain” if you do not believe that Christ is risen. There is something common to the two. Some basic belief or beliefs are proposed, such that without these beliefs, it is not worthwhile to count yourself as a believer at all. For St. Paul, this has the form of saying that you should not bother to put your faith in Christ, while for Russell, this has the form of saying that you should not call yourself a Christian.

The basic difficulty is caused by the fact that being a Christian, considered in itself, is not a belief, but membership in a Christian community. Thus saying that “Christianity is true,” or that “Christianity is false,” ought to mean “belonging to a Christian community is true,” or that “belonging to a Christian community is false,” both of which are evidently absurd, since belonging to a community is not the kind of thing which is true or false. But since a Christian community happens to be a community of believers, we identify Christianity as a belief by saying that it is what that community believes.

But the problem is not resolved by this identification, for “what the Christian community believes” is somewhat indeterminate, since Christians believe different things. Russell and St. Paul resolve the issue in similar ways. Russell does so by saying that you cannot “properly call yourself a Christian,” unless you believe certain things, presumably because it is wrong to deceive people about your beliefs. St. Paul does so by saying that your faith is in vain if you think that Christ did not rise from the dead, presumably meaning that it is pointless for you to belong to a Christian community.

Thus both of them are saying that unless you think that such and such is true, it is a bad idea to be a Christian, that is, to belong to a Christian community.

With this analysis we can say in general what it means to say that a certain religion is true, or that it is false. If I say that Mormonism is true, I mean that there are certain true things usually believed by Mormons, which make it worthwhile to belong to a Mormon community, given that I accept those things. Likewise, if I say that Mormonism is false, I mean that there are things believed by Mormons that would make it worthwhile to be a Mormon, if they were true, but in fact those things are false, and consequently it is not worthwhile to be a Mormon. Or more directly, I mean that there are certain things normally believed by Mormons which happen to be false, and the fact that Mormons normally believe these false things, makes it not worthwhile for me to be a Mormon.

Someone might object that this leads to relativism, since according to this analysis, it seems that a religion might be true for one person, but false for another. For example, in an interview conducted by Sergiu Hart, Robert Aumann, the author of the agreement theorem we discussed earlier, explains, among other things, why he accepts Judaism:

H [Sergiu Hart]: So that’s the Center for Rationality. I know this doesn’t belong, but I’ll ask it here. You are a deeply religious man. How does it fit in with a rational view of the world? How do you fit together science and religion?

A [Robert Aumann]: As you say, it really doesn’t belong here, but I’ll respond anyway. Before responding directly, let me say that the scientific view of the world is really just in our minds. When you look at it carefully, it is not something that is out there in the real world. For example, take the statement “the earth is round.” It sounds like a very simple statement that is either true or false. Either the earth is round or it isn’t; maybe it is square, or elliptical, or whatever. But when you come to think of it, it is a very complex statement. What does roundness mean? Roundness means that there is a point, the “center” of the earth, such that any point on the surface of the earth is at the same distance from that center as any other point on the surface of the earth. Now that already sounds a little complex. But the complexity only begins there. What exactly do we mean by equal distance? For that you need the concept of a distance between two points. The concept of distance between two points is something that is fairly complex even if we are talking about a ball that we can hold in our hands; it involves taking a ruler and measuring the distance between two points. But when we are talking about the earth, it is even more complex, because there is no way that we are going to measure the distance between the center of the earth and the surface of the earth with a ruler. One problem is that we canít get to the center. Even if we could find it we wouldn’t be able to get there. We certainly wouldn’t be able to find a ruler that is big enough. So we have to use some kind of complex theory in order to give that a practical meaning. Even when we have four points and we say the distance from A to B is the same as the distance from C to D, that is fairly complex already. Maybe the ruler changes. We are using a whole big theory, a whole big collection of ideas, in order to give meaning to this very, very simple statement that the earth is round.

Don’t get me wrong. We all agree that the earth is round. What I am saying is that the roundness of the earth is a concept that is in our minds. It’s a product of a very complex set of ideas, and ideas are in people’s minds. So the way I think of science, and even of fairly simple things, is as being in our minds; all the more so for things like gravitation, the energy that is emitted by a star, or even the concept of a “species.” Yes, we are both members of the species homo sapiens. What does that mean? Obviously we are different. My beard is much longer than yours. What exactly does species mean? What exactly does it even mean to say “Bob Aumann” is sitting here? Is it the same Bob Aumann as five minutes ago? These are very complex ideas. Identity, all those things that we think of trivially on a day-to-day basis, are really complex ideas that are in our minds; they are not really out there. Science is built to satisfy certain needs in our minds. It describes us. It does have a relationship with the real world, but this relationship is very, very complex.

Having said that, I’ll get to your question. Religion is very different from science. The main part of religion is not about the way that we model the real world. I am purposely using the word “model.” Religion is an experience, mainly an emotional and aesthetic one. It is not about whether the earth is 5,765 years old. When you play the piano, when you climb a mountain, does this contradict your scientific endeavors? Obviously not. The two things are almost, though not quite, orthogonal. Hiking, skiing, dancing, bringing up your children; you do all kinds of things that are almost orthogonal to your scientific endeavor. That’s the case with religion also. It doesn’t contradict; it is orthogonal. Belief is an important part of religion, certainly; but in science we have certain ways of thinking about the world, and in religion we have different ways of thinking about the world. Those two things coexist side by side without conflict.

Well, it is your way of putting it. Let me enlarge on it. The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful, and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society; it is about improving one’s own quality of life. For example, let’s say I’m taking a trip a couple of hours after the Sabbath. Any other person would spend the day packing, going to the office, making final arrangements, final phone calls, this and that. For me it’s out of the question. I do it on Friday. The Sabbath is there. The world stops.

In short, you can be a moral person, but morals are often equivocal. In the eighties, copying software was considered moral by many people. The point I am making is that religion, at least my religion, is a sort of force, a way of making a commitment to conduct yourself in a certain way, which is good for the individual and good for society.

In the first part, Aumann is basically saying that science gives an idealized and approximate description of the world, rather than an exact description. In the second part he attempts to explain why he accepts Judaism, and he seems to be saying that it has little to do with the way the world is, and more to do with what is good for people. In other words, to explain it in the way we analyzed the truth of a religion, “Judaism is true” for Aumann because he believes that it is true that it is good and beautiful to observe the Sabbath, true that it is good to refrain from breaking copyright laws, and so on. And since these things are true it is worthwhile for him to be a member of a Jewish religious community.

You may or may not agree that the Sabbath is beautiful, and you may or may not agree that it is good to refrain from breaking copyright laws. But even if you do agree with these things, you probably don’t conclude that it is worthwhile for you to convert to Judaism. At the same time, you may realize that these things might well make it worthwhile for Robert Aumann to remain a Jew.

Thus our explanation seems to lead to relativism, because Judaism can be true for Aumann, but false for other people. However, there are several problems with calling this result relativism.

First of all, there was some remaining ambiguity in the way we defined the truth or falsity of a religion. Jews might normally believe certain true things, and given that Robert Aumann accepts those things, it might be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew. But it is possible that Jews also normally believe certain false things, such that if Aumann knew they were false, it would no longer be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew. Thus, for example, a Christian would argue that Jews falsely believe that Christ is not the Messiah, and that if Aumann knew that this was false, it would no longer be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew, but to convert to Christianity.

Thus we could make our definition more precise by saying that a religion is true if it is worthwhile to belong to that religion even after you know the truth or falsity of all the beliefs that the members of the religion usually hold, and that it is worthwhile by reason of some of the true things that they hold.

However, this does not sufficiently answer the charge of relativism, because it would still be possible that one religion would be true for one person, and not true for another person.

For example, suppose that theism is true, but that no divine revelation has been given. If Aumann realizes this, he might reasonably believe that it is worthwhile for him to remain a Jew, and unreasonable to convert to Islam, even after knowing the truth or falsity of every concrete belief held by Jews and Muslims. Likewise, a Muslim, knowing the same things, might reasonably believe that it is worthwhile for him to remain a Muslim, and unreasonable to convert to Judaism, even after knowing the truth or falsity of every concrete belief held by Muslims and Jews.

The answer in this case is that the situation simply does not imply relativism, because Aumann and the Muslim do not disagree about anything. Aumann may say, “Judaism is true,” and the Muslim may say, “Islam is true,” but when they explain what they mean and why they say it, they do not disagree with each other about any objective fact. This is no more relativism than it is relativism to admit that one person may prefer vanilla ice cream, and another person chocolate.

Thus, it is possible to mean something reasonable when saying that some religion is true, or that some religion is false. But in the end perhaps it would be better to avoid all the confusion in the first place, by following Robert Aumann’s example and simply distinguishing the question, “What is the world like?” from the question, “Is it, or would it be, good for me to belong to this community of believers?” Of course the answers to these questions are going to be related in various ways, but they are different questions.

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.

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.

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.

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.