• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

A First Without a Second: Understanding Divine Causality

First Cause

NOTE: Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his own blog, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.
 


 

For the Thomist, to say that God is the First Cause of things is, first and foremost, to say that He is the cause of their existence at every moment at which they do exist. God creates things out of nothing precisely in the act of conserving them in being, and apart from His continual causal action they would instantly be annihilated. You, the computer you are using right now, the floor under your feet, the coffee cup in your hand—for each and every one of these things, God is, you might say, “keeping it real” at every instant. Nor is this causal activity something anything else could either carry out or even play a role in. Creation—which for Aquinas means creation out of nothing—can be the act of God alone.

Where creation is concerned, then, God is the “first” cause not in the sense of coming before the second, third, and fourth causes, but rather in the sense of being absolutely fundamental, that apart from which nothing could cause (because nothing could exist) at all. As serious students of the Five Ways know, the sorts of causal series Aquinas traces to God as First Cause are causal series ordered per se, not causal series ordered per accidens. In the former sort of series, every cause other than the first is instrumental, its causal power derived from the first. (See this post for more on the subject.)  But where creation is concerned, Aquinas’s talk of intermediate or instrumental causes is only “for the sake of argument”; his point is that even if there were intermediate causes of the being of things, the series would have to terminate in a First Cause. In fact, there is and can be only one Creator and He cannot in principle create through intermediaries. (That is not to say that God does not work through intermediaries in other respects. We’re only talking here about His act of causing the sheer existence of a thing or creating it out of nothing.)

Why not? Aquinas addresses the question at some length in the Summa Theologiae, the Summa Contra Gentiles, and De Potentia Dei. The arguments are difficult for someone not versed in the metaphysical presuppositions of Aquinas’s philosophical theology—indeed, some of them are difficult even for someone who is versed in the relevant metaphysics. But what follows will, I hope, suffice to convey some of the main ideas. (It will help considerably if the reader has at least some knowledge of such fundamental Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical notions as actuality and potentiality, form and matter, and the principle of proportionate causality; of the Thomistic arguments for the existence of God as pure actuality and as being itself rather than merely a being among others; and of the arguments for the uniqueness of anything that is pure actuality and being itself. This is all spelled out at length in chapters 2 and 3 of my book, Aquinas.)

First, then, why does Aquinas hold that only God can possibly create out of nothing?

Here’s one way to understand it. Any of us can easily actualize the potential of the oxygen in the air around us to move, simply by waving our arms. Only someone with the relevant expert knowledge could take oxygen and hydrogen and synthesize water out of them. It would take greater power still to cause the prime matter underlying oxygen, hydrogen, or water to take on the substantial form of a tree. But creation out of nothing requires more power even than that, in fact unlimited power. For it is not a case of drawing out the potentialities that are already there in a thing, but rather causing a thing to exist entirelytogether with its potentialities, where nothing at all had existed before. It isn’t a case merely of modifying what already exists, but rather of causing to exist in the first place that which all mere modification presupposes.

Limited causes are limited precisely by potentialities which are not actualized. Hence a sculptor is limited by the degree of skill he has so far acquired, by the limits on his dexterity given the structure of his hands, etc. He is limited also by the potentialities of his materials—their capacity to be molded using some tools but not others, their capacity to maintain whatever shape the sculptor puts into them, and so forth. Now that which creates out of nothing is not limited by any such external factors, precisely because it is not modifying anything that already exists outside of it. But neither can it be limited by any internal potentialities analogous to the limits on a sculptor’s skill. For it is not merely causing a being of this or that sort to exist (though it is doing that too)—modifying preexisting materials would suffice to cause that—but also making it the case that any being at all exists. And only that which is not a being among others but rather unlimited being—that which is pure actualit—can do that.

The idea is perhaps best stated in Platonic terms of the sort Aquinas uses (in an Aristotelianized form) in the Fourth Way. To be a tree or to be a stone is merely to participate in “treeness” or “stoneness.” But to be at all—which is the characteristic effect of an act of creation out of nothing—is to participate in Being Itself. Now the principle of proportionate causality tells us that whatever is in an effect must be in some way in its cause. And only that which just is Being Itself can, in this case, be a cause proportionate to the effect, since the effect is not merely to be a tree or to be a stone, but to be at all.

So only God—who is pure actuality or Being Itself rather than a being among others—can cause a thing to exist ex nihilo. But why could He not work through instrumental causes in doing so? For all the preceding argument would seem to show is that Being Itself is the ultimate cause of any thing’s existing at all. That is, it suggests that any cause of a thing’s sheer existence that was less than Being Itself would, either directly or indirectly, owe its own existence to that which is Being Itself. But why couldn’t that which is Being Itself impart to other things their sheer existence through such an intermediary—through an instrumental cause which, like the effect, is merely a being among others rather than Being Itself?

Here’s one way to think about the problem with this idea. An instrumental cause causes by virtue of being used to alter what already exists, as a chisel is used by a sculptor to alter marble. But to cause the sheer existence of a thing ex nihilo is not to alter what already exists. In the case of a material thing, it does not involve causing already existing matter to take on a new form (as a sculptor does), but rather causing the matter and form together to exist. Hence while it makes sense to speak of using a chisel in the act of sculpting a statue out of marble, it makes no sense to speak of using a chisel in the act of causing a statue to exist ex nihilo. For before the statue was caused to exist ex nihilo, there was no marble on which the chisel could be brought to bear; and after the statue is caused to exist ex nihilo, there is nothing for the chisel to do, since the marble already is (by hypothesis) a statue. Now any purported instrumental cause involved in any act of creation ex nihilo would be like the chisel. It would be a fifth wheel—it wouldn’t be doing anything, and thus would not be causing anything, and thus would not really be an instrumental cause (because not a cause at all). Hence the very idea of God creating out of nothing through instrumental causes falls apart on analysis.

So, while popular images of God as First Cause have Him knocking down the first domino billions of years ago, and while even Aquinas might seem to make of Him the distant terminus of a regress of simultaneous currently operating causes, nothing could be further from the truth. God’s relationship to the world is in Aquinas’s view much more intimate than that, indeed, as intimate as possible. At least where the sheer existence of things is concerned, He and He alone is directly causing them at every instant. He is, as the Muslims say, “closer than the vein in your neck.”
 
 
Originally posted at Edward Feser's blog. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: VK.com)

Dr. Edward Feser

Written by

Dr. Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton. He is author of numerous books including The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustines Press, 2010); Aquinas (Oneworld, 2009); and Philosophy of Mind (Oneworld, 2007). Follow Dr. Feser on his blog and his website, EdwardFeser.com.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • Who or what sustains God?

    If the answer is something or someone else, then who or what sustains that?

    If the answer is that nothing needs to sustain God because of his nature, then maybe nothing needs to sustain the cosmos because of its nature.

    As Carl Sagan said so poetically, "The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be."

    Best evidence is that the cosmos has existed for all time. You can't point to a time when the cosmos wasn't.

    • Fr.Sean

      Hi Paul,
      You ask a good question, but i think that's where the Book of Genesis and the beginning of John's Gospel shed light on the subject. In the Book of Genesis the author tells us God put into order basically from a formless wasteland. In the Beginning of John's Gospel, John tells us, "In the Beginning was the word, the word was with God and the word was God, ...all things came to be through him and without him nothing came to be". Because we live in a world where laws of physics and nature guide our minds to always observe events like you asked it's difficult to imagine God not having a cause, etc. but if much of the bible was written before Aristotle etc., it does perhaps indicate truths about God, truths that would make more sense over time, and that he does not have a cause.

      • David Nickol

        In the Book of Genesis the author tells us God put into order basically from a formless wasteland.

        I agree, but I am not sure how it helps. Regarding the opening verses of Genesis, the New American Bible says,

        Until modern times the first line was always translated, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Several comparable ancient cosmogonies, discovered in recent times, have a “when…then” construction, confirming the translation “when…then” here as well. “When” introduces the pre-creation state and “then” introduces the creative act affecting that state. The traditional translation, “In the beginning,” does not reflect the Hebrew syntax of the clause.

        Along the same line, we have the translation of the opening lines of Genesis from the Jewish Publication Society Study Bible:

        When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

        A note to verse 2 says:

        This clause describes things just before the process of creation began. To modern people, the opposite of the created order is “nothing,” that is, a vacuum. To the ancients, the opposite of the created order was much worse than “nothing.” It was an active, malevolent force we can best term “chaos.” In this verse, chaos is envisioned as a dark, undifferentiated mass of water.

        So both the New American Bible and the JPS Study Bible thus agree that when creation began, something already existed. I think it makes sense to say that in the account in Genesis, God does not create (or at least not create everything) ex nihilo. He brings order out of chaos. I wouldn't take the creation account to be at all literal, so I don't think it rules out creation ex nihilo. But if we are talking about what the Bible actually says, It seems to me that the above interpretations are correct, and the Bible does not depict God creating the world from nothing.

        [I have borrowed from previous messages I wrote elsewhere to compose the above.]

        • Fr.Sean

          Hi David,
          You seem well versed in the topic. I'll have to have a priest friend of mine check the Hebrew, but i guess it does appear a little nebulous. I don't believe you can say definitively what the writer meant to imply; if there was matter or Ex Nihilo? But that is an interesting way to look at the verse. John's gospel is slightly more definitive though when he says; "all things came to be through him and without him nothing came to be". I do believe most Christians and Jews do believe he created Ex Nihilo, which would naturally imply that God should not be held to the same standard of other things in our universe that have a cause. Naturally, if God had a cause, he would not be God. Interesting topic though.

    • Vasco Gama

      I guess that the notion of God (in classical theism conception) is an uncaused cause that is pure actuality and as Feser says "God is the “first” cause not in the sense of coming before the second, third, and fourth causes, but rather in the sense of being absolutely fundamental, that apart from which nothing could cause (because nothing could exist) at all".

      I guess you are suggesting that "cosmos" should be redifined, in order to compete with the classical theism conception of God, in a way that the "cosmos" should be something that somehow created itself (out of nothing) and somehow sustained its own existence?

      • I take it that anything that explains its own existence would be this absolutely fundamental kind of thing.

        Numbers seem to do this (if you believe that numbers are objects). They seem eternal, and they seem to be necessary. They need no outside explanation.

        The universe can be the efficient cause of itself. But I don't know if it can explain itself. Part of it, the physical laws, might be able to explain themselves. But then they are necessarily the way that they are.

        At least three philosophers have provided definitions for the cosmos as a necessary being:

        Spinoza defined the cosmos as self-explanatory and singular. There's only one way things can be, and that's the way that they are. Every aspect of the universe (that I exist here and am typing now, etc.) is mathematically necessary.

        David Lewis defined the cosmos as all possible worlds. He thought all possible worlds are actual worlds and actually exist.

        Hugh Everett defined the cosmos as a quantum superposition of all possible worlds. It could possibly have been different, but the explanation for the way it is is entirely self-contained.

        • Vasco Gama

          How could the universe cause and sustain itself (unless you arbitrarily attribute undetected and extraordinary powers to the universe).

          Physical laws don't explain themselves (they may be necessary to explain the way things are, but this is an entirely different question).

          I guess it possible to arbitrarily postulate reality as brute fact, or that whatever exists is necessary, however this is completely arbitrary and contradicts our experience (in what respects determinacy).

          Plus adding "all possible worlds" or a quantum superposition
          of all possible worlds or all possible wave functions, really doesn't explain nothing, it turns things messier however.

          • Physical laws don't explain themselves (they may be necessary to explain the way things are, but this is an entirely different question).

            I agree. They don't explain themselves yet. So there are ways around this. You can hold out hope that someday someone will find out how all of this works, and the answer will not depend on any arbitrary constant and everything will be settled. If this does ever work out, then it won't be a brute fact that whatever exists is necessary. It will be that, if you were to change the way anything is, you would end up with a self-contradiction.

            Or you can have faith that there is a multiverse out there with all possible worlds.

            Both of these actually do explain why we have the universe we do (because both entail that, if our universe didn't exist, then we'd have a self-contradiction: David Lewis has a yet-undefeated logical argument for his solution, or so the philosophers tell me). These explanations are as convincing to me as God's existence. Therefore I choose to be agnostic about this question, why are things the way that they are. I don't know why.

      • David Nickol

        Why "redefine" the cosmos to be something that "created itself out of nothing" and sustains itself. Why not simply assume that the cosmos (or everything that exists, if there is a multiverse or something we cannot even conceive of) has "always" existed. I put always in quotes, since it implies temporality, and yet it would appear time came into existence in our universe about 14.8 billion years ago. It is difficult for us to avoid talking about time when we discuss these things, but what would be the objection to assuming a timeless quantum field out of which universes like ours emerge complete with time?

        • Vasco Gama

          The problem with quantum fields is they can not originate themselfes, as beeing uncaused (it is not a problem of time).

          And time is hardly a problem, not so long ago the concept of steady state was commonly accepted.

          • David Nickol

            Why do they need to originate themselves? Why can't they just exist?

            If you want to think of everything in Feser's terms, then of course Feser will be right, since the system he is working within posits that something can't just exist, it must be kept in existence by an uncaused cause. But as has been asked nearly an infinite number of times, why can God exist without a cause but a quantum field cannot?

          • Vasco Gama

            One problem is the arbitrary caracter of the assumptions, as assuming that is reasonable to assume brute facts (that do not require explanation).

            The other is to avoid circular causation of an infinite number of causes in orther to explain something.

            I am no expert in thomism and I think that Feser (who is an expert on that) has a number of very interesting posts in his blog. I advise to give a look.

        • Vasco Gama

          David,

          When Feser states:

          "God is the “first” cause not in the sense of coming before the second, third, and fourth causes, but rather in the sense of being absolutely fundamental, that apart from which nothing could cause (because nothing could exist) at all"

          we have a tendency to see the causal series (in time), which is not what he means, you can see it in space, or better as one can explain the cause of a creature say a rat, as being caused by it body, then from his organs, then from the tissues, then from the cells, then from the molecules, from the atoms, and so forth... (no time, but a series of causes... ), but then maybe you already understood this, however it was not so straight forward for me (I was loocked in time for a while).

        • For the sake of science, for one. The ancient Greeks thought of the cosmos as emanating from God in eternal cycles. With a variety of prose and nature-gods so did the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Chinese, and the Hindus. The major religions and cultures all viewed the cosmos as eternal, and man as a cog in this eternal wheel. Observed celestial phenomena were considered magical, even if they could explain appearances with mathematics. For example, the Babylonians considered the Enuma elish a personification of forces engaged in bloody battles; the mother goddess, Tiamat, dismembered to form the sky, earth, waters, and air. Even though their astronomical models were advanced, this is not a view that amounts to science.

          The Scientific Revolution, the development of the quantitative measurement of objects in motion as physical laws and systems of laws, was not born in any of those cultures/religions were the cosmos was considered eternal because math was abstracted from physical objects. Modern science developed in the Christian West by people who viewed the world as a creation out of nothing, with an absolute beginning of time, by a personal Creator who created an ordered universe and gave man the rationality to understand physical laws.

          So, I ask you, why define the cosmos as something other than natural and real?

          • David Nickol

            So, I ask you, why define the cosmos as something other than natural and real?

            I think science does define the cosmos as natural and real, as opposed to something created by a supernatural being—something that will vanish with a poof if that supernatural being ceases for one nanosecond to use its supernatural powers to keep the cosmos in existence. In the view of theists, the existence of the universe is in fact a huge miracle, as is its continued existence from one instant to the next.

            Whether or not Western Christianity deserves "credit" for modern science is very debatable, but even if true, it does not somehow "validate" Christianity.

          • Science doesn't define the cosmos, it measures it. To do that it is assumed a priori that the cosmos is natural and real. The reasoning about a Creator is not a question for science; it is the work of philosophy and revealed religion.

            The point remains that it was within the Christian mindset that science was born, a a priori mindset that physical laws could be measured. You asked why not "redefine" the cosmos as the ancient cultures did. My answer is because that would be to regress to a world view that is incompatible with science.

          • Paul Boillot

            You don't need to assume that the cosmos is natural and real to measure phenomena.

            You can just....measure them.

            One need not make baseless and untestable assumptions to be intrigued.

            For all I know, you and I live in a simulation on an alien computer...that doesn't mean I'm not allowed to be curious about genetically engineering algae to produce clean energy.

          • Sure you can measure objects and assume that what you are measuring is something magical and imaginary, but modern science was not born under such an irrational mindset. It was born because people believed that what they measured was real, rational, and ordered.

          • Paul Boillot

            And modern quantum analysis is done by people who have various presuppositions about what the nature of the universe is.

            Some of them even try to, gasp, not assume anything about it until they have reasons.

          • Hopefully they assume that what they measure is real. Wouldn't you hope?

          • Paul Boillot

            This is what I'll grant you:

            I hope that scientists keep doing science.

            Whether it's because they assume that the universe is, fundamentally, composed of platonic triangles, or if they believe it's turtles all the way down.

            I don't much care what they assume about nature.

            On the other hand, one notices that the best physicists tend to try to restrain the natural human impulse to pattern seeking without data, projection of desires, and baseless assumption.

          • I do care what they assume about nature because I'm of the wild opinion that physicists who think they measure magic are misleading themselves and others. But to each his own...

            Though I'd be interested in your list of "best physicists" as an aside.

          • Andre Boillot

            Gordon Freeman #1

          • josh

            "I do care what they assume about nature because I'm of the wild opinion
            that physicists who think they measure magic are misleading themselves
            and others."

            We call them Catholic scientists.

          • The ones who try to not assume anything become philosophers. ;)

          • Paul Boillot

            I mean, look, yes, that was clever...

            But I'm being super-serial here, guys!

            I think that deciding what the universe is ahead of time, rather than restrain prejudice and asking it, is something the great physicists whom I've come across don't do.

            ---

            Plus, every PhD in Physics is a doctor of

            P
            H
            I
            L
            S
            O
            P
            H
            Y

            And I'm outtie.

          • Vasco Gama

            David,

            Science is descriptive, accounts what can be empirically observed (which in case of natural sciences is the material reality). People who do science depart from the assumption that reality is intellgible and that we (human scientists) are capable of understanding it (these are philosophical assumptions that we find reasonable to believe).

            Science doesn't concern about meaning and value (people do that on their own if they want) and clearly doesn't cover metaphysics aspects (supernatural, purposes, teleology...) is unable to address those questions by definition (and does not confirm those issues or disprove them).

            Christianity presuposes that reality is inteligible and that humans are able to understand it (but almost everyone agrees with this), so in fact science doesn't prove Christain claims about the material world, but it doesn't disprove them.

    • William Ric-Hansen

      I would dispute your last point. There is very little evidence that the Cosmos has existed for all time. The furtherest point that modern science has taken us is to the point of "singularity", which is poorly named and probably not very descriptive. It is however still the general scientic consensus that some "cause" started the universe (as we know it today).

      Further, I think one should also note that the universe has a certain nature, and one which does not suggest it is capable of spontaneous creation. If the universe changed from a certain state to another, what cause that change? It is evident from observation that (at least inside the observable universe) there is no creation or creative aspects of the universe where something (like a star) is being created or changed without a cause that already exists (in this case the laws of physics). Which laws did not exist at the point of singularity.

      The conclusion being that the universe shows no sign of being capable/responsible for any from of spontaneous, uncaused creation, and therefore to assume the universe sustains itself or created itself, or changed itself is really begging the question. It seems apparent that some force outside of the visible realm of the universe would be responsible for the current form of the universe. The question is what kind of force?

      • David Nickol

        It is however still the general scientic consensus that some "cause" started the universe (as we know it today).

        First, we need to acknowledge that Feser specifically says he is not talking about God as causing the universe by preceding it in time. He is talking about God causing the universe by keeping it in existence.

        But here's something of interest.

        [T]he author of the Arizona Atheist blog asked Vilenkin if his theorem with Guth and Borde proves that the universe had a beginning, and Vilenkin responded:

        [I]f someone asks me whether or not the theorem I proved with Borde and Guth implies that the universe had a beginning, I would say that the short answer is “yes”. If you are willing to get into subtleties, then the answer is “No, but…” So, there are ways to get around having a beginning, but then you are forced to have something nearly as special as a beginning.

        This seems to me consistent with the idea that something exists from which our universe may have "blossomed," and hence it wouldn't be exactly correct to say our universe came into existence from nothing, but nevertheless our universe did have something very much like a beginning, which included the beginning of time. Time may be something like an emergent property, but it is so fundamental to the way we conceive of our universe that we naturally date the beginning of time as the beginning—or something nearly as special as a beginning—of our universe.

        Perhaps is kind of like asking, "Who were you before the moment of your conception?" There is no answer, since there was no "you" before your conception. But there was not nothing.

        • David, regarding your Vilenkin quote, which was (and now is) taken out of context and edited, I suggest reading the post below by William Lane Craig.

          Craig exchanged emails with Vilenkin, which touch upon his previous comments to the Arizona Atheist, and what becomes clear is that when Vilenkin said "there are ways to get around...a beginning", he was referring to hypotheses that have been proposed--but hypotheses that failed at the hands of the BGV theorem:

          “Honesty, Transparency, Full Disclosure” and the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem

          • Geena Safire

            No, actually, they were not taken out of context. Craig simply doesn't understand (or doesn't want to understand) the subtleties of the current theoretical context.

            There are several proposed models for quantum gravity, but all of them fail. BGV is just the most promising so far. These theories currently point to a beginning, according to Vilenkin, but only because they rely on classical spacetime.

            Vilenkin wrote to Krauss: "However, it is conceivable (and many people think likely) that singularities will be resolved in the theory of quantum gravity,"

            And Vilenkin himself is working with Jaume Garriga on another theory: "[We] are now exploring a picture of the multiverse where the BGV theorem may not apply."

            Vilenkin also wrote directly to Craig: "The question of whether or not the universe had a beginning assumes a
            classical spacetime
            , in which the notions of time and causality can be defined. On very small time and length scales, quantum fluctuations in the structure of spacetime could be so large that these classical concepts become totally inapplicable. Then we do not really have a language to describe what is happening, because all our physics concepts are deeply rooted in the concepts of space and time. This is what I mean when I say that we do not even know what the right questions are."

          • Geena, thanks for the reply!

            Regarding your first paragraph, yes, Vilenkin's quotes were taken out of context (as the above link exposes.) Krauss deliberately edited the quotes and left out key information.

            Also, you can't simply dismiss Craig with a "he doesn't know what he's talking about" accusation. As Vilenkin wrote directly to Craig: "I think you represented what I wrote about the BGV theorem in my papers and to you personally very accurately." This is strong affirmation that Craig understands what he's talking about, including the subtleties of the current theoretical context." For more proof, I suggest reading his essay on the BVG theorem in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

            Finally, in the link above, Craig provides a rejoinder to your final Vilenkin quote:

            "[I]n [Vilenkin's] closing paragraphs we can see that Vilenkin affirms the interpretation I gave to his words. The issue is not quantum gravity but the reality of time and causation. This raises very fundamental questions about the nature of time, whether time is identical to the operationally defined quantities in physics or whether those quantities are, as I maintain, but measures of time, which exists independently of them. So long as the universe is expanding over time in the quantum gravity regime, the BGV theorem holds. Indeed, it is questionable whether it is even coherent to speak of classical spacetime's "emerging" from a timeless condition, since that state cannot be said to be before or earlier than classical spacetime. This suggests that any such model should be given at best an instrumentalist or anti-realist interpretation."

          • Geena Safire

            First, yes, Krauss says he edited Vilenkin's email for space (to fit on a slide) and to remove more technical components. I do not see that the edits changed the sense of Vilenkin's email regarding the BGV model.

            Krauss took out a section that applied not to the BGV model but to the Aguirre & Gratton and Carroll & Chen models, and those are the ones to which Vilenkin's mention in the email about a beginning relate.

            Further, regarding the BGV model, Vilenkin says that, based on his own current work with Garriga, "it is not at all clear that the BGV assumption (expansion on average) will be satisfied." In case it's not obvious, that BGV assumption is the one that seems to point to a beginning.

            (And, even if it were true, Craig is among the last who should be criticizing someone misquoting and taking things out of context. Pot, kettle, et al.)

            The BGV theory only points to the likelihood of a beginning that fits Craig's theology only if, as Vilenkin says, one assumes a classical spacetime.

            Further, with regard to Krauss, you'll note Vilenkin wrote to Craig: "My letter was in response to Lawrence’s email asking whether or not I thought the BGV theorem *definitively* rules out a universe with no beginning. The gist of my answer was that there is no such thing as 'definitive ruling out' in science. I would say the theorem makes a plausible case that there was a beginning. But there are always caveats. ... I did not hear your debate in Sydney, but I don’t think Lawrence would intentionally misinterpret my views. I have known [Krauss] for a long time, and he has always been an honest and straightforward fellow."

             

            Second, with regard to physics, I would take the opinion of a physicist over a Christian apologist. I'm not particularly interested in Craig's theory about the nature of time.

            I can, however, recommend theoretical physicist Sean Carroll's book, 'From Eternity to Here: the Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time'. You can see Carroll's talk based on the book here: Sean Carroll on the Origin of the Universe and the Arrow of Time.

            Or you might consider Hawking and Mlodinow's recent 'A Briefer History of Time'.

          • David Nickol

            Geena Safire has responded better than I could, but I would just like to point out that Vilenkin wrote the following directly to William Lane Craig:

            Whatever it's worth, my view is that the BGV theorem does not say anything about the existence of God one way or the other. In particular, the beginning of the universe could be a natural event, described by quantum cosmology.

            This certainly does not mean that the universe created itself ex nihilo.

          • David, thanks for the reply. If you agree with her response, I'd encourage you to read my rejoinder.

            In response to *your* comment, William Lane Craig engages this "natural origins" argument in several places. He references two of them:

            "[W]hile I would never rejoice that someone is not a Christian, I find [Vilenkin's] agnosticism to be helpful in that no one can accuse him of having a theological axe to grind in his defense of the universe’s beginning. As for his proffered natural explanation of the universe’s beginning, I interact with it in Reasonable Faith, pp. 115-16, and in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, pp. 183-4 (with Jim Sinclair)."

          • David Nickol

            It seems to me it is only reasonable to look to physicists, not philosophers, for theories about the origins of the universe. I would be happy to read what William Lane Craig has to say if it is presented to me, but references to a total of four pages in two books that I do not have access to don't move the discussion forward.

            I am neither a philosopher nor a physicist, but it seems to me WLC is very much committed to discussing 21st-century scientific concepts in a philosophical system from the 13th century. Dr. Stephen Barr has an article on the problems of Thomistic philosophy in dealing with contemporary physics, and he concludes:

            In short, Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy has paid a heavy price for the two and a half centuries in which it largely ignored what was going on in the natural sciences. A sustained re-engagement with science would enrich its conceptual and linguistic resources. This re-engagement cannot simply be an attempt to translate statements of modern science into existing Aristotelian terms. That cannot be done in many cases. Rather, many more Aristotelian/ Thomistic metaphysicians than currently do must learn to listen to and understand science in its own native tongue. Modern physics has made discoveries (e.g. quantum mechanics) which undoubtedly have profound metaphysical implications, but what those implications are cannot be explored unless the physics is understood directly and not "in translation".

          • Vasco Gama

            David,

            This says very little about the validity of thomism, In is article he says that the terms used by Aquinas may have some problesm in relation to the modern understanding of the language and that Aquinas did not know a variety of things (that only came to be know in recent times). Well it could hardly be any different. Anyway he fails to make any serious criticism and only dismisses it on the grounds that he thinks it is outdated.

          • David Nickol

            Anyway he fails to make any serious criticism and only dismisses it on the grounds that he thinks it is outdated.

            Dr. Stephen M. Barr is a physicist. He's the real deal, not just someone with a degree in physics or a physics teacher, but someone who publishes important work. He is also the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. The book information is too long to copy here, but you can follow the link to Amazon. Coming from him, saying that Thomism is out of date when dealing with modern science is a serious criticism, in my humble opinion.

          • I also agree that there are some aspects of Thomism that need updating, but I don't think (although I've not read his books, so take it for what it's worth) he dismisses all Thomism. He argues that there are aspects that need rethinking, and he's not the only one. St. Thomas kept very close to Aristotle's teaching and there have been aspects of that updated along the way too. This is the natural process of growth in knowledge.

          • David Nickol

            but I don't think (although I've not read his books, so take it for what it's worth) he dismisses all Thomism.

            I agree with you here. What would be the point of calling for a system of thought to be updated if you really think it ought to be scrapped?

          • Vasco Gama

            I known who Stephan Barr is and I have to say that I usually agree with him (based on what I have read), however my credit to him goes as a physicist (he is not a philosopher and he is entitled to have an opinion, but there he is out of his leage).

          • I am not familiar with Craig's writing so I can't comment on that. However, statements like this merit caution.

            "It seems to me it is only reasonable to look to physicists, not philosophers, for theories about the origins of the universe."

            Physics cannot provide theories about the origin of the universe because to do that physics would have to be able to measure "nothing" and then measure "something". Physics is within the realm of physical objects. Physics presumes the physical universe is already there.

          • David Nickol

            Physics cannot provide theories about the origin of the universe because to do that physics would have to be able to measure "nothing" and then measure "something".

            You are assuming what you need to prove—that the universe came from nothing. But that is certainly not the only possibility, even if what we refer to as "our universe" had a beginning in time. Of course scientists (including physicists) can provide theories about the origin of the universe. Here is the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary definition of cosmology:

            1 : a branch of systematic philosophy that deals with the character of the universe as a cosmos by combining speculative metaphysics and scientific knowledge; especially : a branch of philosophy that deals with the processes of nature and the relation of its parts — compare ontology
            2 : a particular theory or body of doctrine relating to the natural order
            3 : astronomy dealing with the origin, structure, and space-time relationships of the universe

            Also see the definition of cosmogony:

            1 : the creation, origination, or manner of coming into being of the world or universe
            2 : a theory or account of the origination of the universe
            {a primitive cosmogony}
            3 : a part of the science of astronomy that deals with the origin and development of the universe and its components

            In both cases, it is definition 3 that is pertinent. It is certainly possible science will hit a dead end when it comes to discovering the origin of the universe and say only, "We can explain this much, but beyond that we can't go." But it seems to me that it is a religious belief, not a scientific one, that science cannot discover the ultimate origin of the universe.

          • If you're calling it philosophy, sure reason about the origin of the universe. Just don't call it physics or exact science. There are sciences that are more or less exact, but what is not exact in them is reasoned discourse in the form of philosophy or theology. This is a confusion today, as evidenced by those definitions.

            Science actually limits itself since it is about quantitative aspects of objects in motion. By its own limits it cannot discover what is beyond it.

            I've learned to be a stickler on this point. It saves confusion. There's a tendency for people to call their reasoning "science" to make it sound good, when they don't need to do that.

          • David Nickol

            Science actually limits itself since it is about quantitative aspects of objects in motion. By its own limits it cannot discover what is beyond it.

            I utterly reject the notion that science is so limited. It sounds like the narrowest description possible of one branch of physics. There is no room for biology or paleontology or physiology or neuroscience in your definition.

          • So if science is not about quantitative aspects of objects in motion, then what is it? Philosophy?

            There's plenty of room for less exact sciences in that definition so long as you understand that reasoned discourse accompanies the exactness and you understand what is exact and what is not. Quantities are distinct from qualities.

          • Geena Safire

            I've already replied to you elsewhere under this article regarding what physics actually is. (In addition to other places previously.)

          • Geena, I appreciate that, but I don't think you appreciate how much people in the past and still today struggle with defining science. You seem to think it's a settled point, and as someone who studies the history of science, I assure you that it is not as settled as you think.

            Britain's Science Council took an entire year to try to redefine science in 2009, and what they came up with is so ambiguous that you could call a toddler tantrum science if you were so motivated.
            http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2009/mar/03/science-definition-council-francis-bacon

            You could also graft any philosophy whatsoever onto anything someone called "science" and use that to push your points instead of defending them on their own merits. Sam Harris thinks morality is a matter of science. That's how bad it's gotten.

            It is precisely this perversion of science that I defend against with a precise definition -- a reminder that science deals with physical objects in motion, quantities not philosophy. If someone wants to philosophize, then he or she needs to be able to reason well enough for that reason to stand on its own, without calling it science as if science were some shiny marketing wrap.

      • Do you have evidence of a length of time during which the cosmos did not exist? If not, then for all lengths of time we know of, the cosmos existed. There's no evidence to the contrary.

        Why do you think there are no physical laws before cosmic inflation?

        Why must the force be outside the universe? Maybe the pre-inflation universe has no time-direction, or maybe it produces particles that go back in time and start the whole thing off. Why can't it cause itself?

        • William Ric-Hansen

          No because almost all cosmologists believe that time (as we experience it) started at the big bang. Therefore it is impossible to make any statement about time before the universe. I believe it is irrelevant as well to be honest because regardless of the time, or lack thereof, the argument only really begins at the Big Bang.

          I didn't mean that there were no laws previous just that the current laws of physics did not (could not have) existed in the state of singularity. This is an important distinction and begs the quesiton: If there is nothing about the universe that gives any indication that it can spontaneous cause or create something without the cause existing as a law which is part of the physical/caused universe, then what makes us think the universe itself was responsible for the changes in it own laws that occured at the point of singularity?

          Your last paragraph is really just begging the question which doesn't really require an answer. But a simple answer would be that things act according to their nature. Nothing about the universe we have studied so far has given us even a shred of evidence that the universe could act or does act in the way you suggest.

          • No because almost all cosmologists believe that time (as we experience it) started at the big bang. Therefore it is impossible to make any statement about time before the universe.

            Maybe almost all cosmologists are wrong.

            Anyway, it doesn't matter, because I think that that time started with the big bang. I don't hold this position very strongly, but it seems reasonable that time started in something like a Hartle-Hawking state.

            If there is nothing about the universe that gives any indication that it can spontaneous cause or create something without the cause existing as a law which is part of the physical/caused universe, then what makes us think the universe itself was responsible for the changes in it own laws that occured at the point of singularity?

            There is some reason to think that possibly time has no direction before cosmic inflation. Since all our intuition about cause preceding effect in time comes from experiences where time has a definite direction, we have no reason to think that things cannot cause themselves when time has no direction.

            Even if time has a direction, there's nothing in the current laws of physics to definitively rule out effects preceding causes. This may in fact happen all the time (see Feynman's interpretation of positrons).

            I also agree (with one small change made):

            Nothing about the universe we have studied so far has given us even a shred ofmuch evidence that the universe could act or does act in the way you suggest.

            There is as much evidence that something external caused the universe as there is that the universe caused itself.

          • William Ric-Hansen

            But again, it's all really begging the question. Maybe time didn't have a direction but does that mean something can create itself? You say we have no reason to think something can't cause itself, but when you really break down that statement what does it mean? Our understanding of time is limited to say the least. Ultimately we come to the last line of your page which I agree with but purely because there is absolute no evidence either way..

          • Ultimately we come to the last line of your page which I agree with but purely because there is absolute no evidence either way...

            I pretty-much agree. That's not a bad way to end a discussion, with pretty-much agreement. :)

          • Geena Safire

            No, they don't believe that time itself began at the Big Bang, but time with respect to our universe.

            Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll (one of the leading theorists working on a theory of quantum gravity) says that the Big Bang, at this point, should not be considered the beginning of everything but rather the end of our current understanding.

          • William Ric-Hansen

            That's what I meant Geena. But is use the singular "time" because we know of no other time. The only time we know or have any reference to began at the moment of the "big bang" or whatever you want to call it, and has continued to this day. Any other comments about time are meaningless because you have no way of verifying that time exists at all before singularity.

            Sean Carrol is one thinker, and his view is purely speculation. As speculative as any belief about what caused the big bang. My point is that the majority of cosmologists still believe that the big bang was the beginning, or close enough to a beginning to be defined as such.

          • Geena Safire

            Sean Carrol is one thinker, and his view is purely speculation.

            No, actually, William. Your views and my views are purely speculation. Carroll's views are advanced hypotheses that are taken quite seriously by the small group of theoretical physicists working in the field.

            [T]he majority of cosmologists still believe that the big bang was the beginning, or close enough to a beginning to be defined as such.

            No, they don't. Given the limitations of taking an enormously complex set of ideas where they are all pushed to the breaking point and trying to put it in everyday language, they say that it seems plausible that it can be considered to be like a beginning. But that is certainly not saying that it is defined as such.

            Even Alexander Vilenkin writes: "[If ]quantum fluctuations in the structure of spacetime [are] so large that these classical concepts become totally inapplicable[, t]hen we do not really have a language to describe what is happening. ... [W]e do not even know what the right questions are."

          • William Ric-Hansen

            Not even Sean Carrol agrees with you:

            "One sometimes hears the claim that the Big Bang was the beginning of both time and space; that to ask about spacetime “before the Big Bang” is like asking about land “north of the North Pole.” This may turn out to be true, but it is not an established understanding. The singularity at the Big Bang doesn’t indicate a beginning to the universe, only an end to our theoretical comprehension. It may be that this moment does indeed correspond to a beginning, and a complete theory of quantum gravity will eventually explain how the universe started at approximately this time."

            No serious cosmologist has made any definitive decision on the subject, including Sean Carrol. And a poll was done on cosmologists, I'm not just guessing, I have a poll on cosmologists and the majority still believes in big bang creation or near enough. I will post the poll later.

          • Geena Safire

            Sean Carroll and others believe in the theory of the Big Bang. But that doesn't mean that they believe that it was a or the beginning ex nihilo.

            Sean's quote that you provided says, "This may turn out to be true, but it is not an established understanding." and "The singularity at the Big Bang doesn’t indicate a beginning to the universe." and "It may be that this moment does indeed correspond to a beginning."

            So no, Sean Carroll does not disagree with me. But I agree with him: We don't know.

          • William Ric-Hansen

            @ Geena, I never said they believed in Creation Ex nihilo, by God, merely that the majority still believe it was either some kind of creaton or don't know (like Sean Carrol). You contradcit yourself because initially you say they don't believe time began with the big bang, then you say they don't actually know. You further contradict yourself by saying Carrol doesn't "speculate" but further qoute him specifically saying that our current understanding ends at the big bang. Therefore any theorising at this point in time is actually speculation, educated speculation but speculation nonetheless. So if you had come here and said: "Actually most Cosmologists including Carrol believe that time could have existed prior to the big bang, however at the moment they don't know" then I would have agreed with you. However to come and say that most Cosmologists don't believe time began at the big bang is patently false.

            The reality is that most cosmologists agree that we just don't know the answer and that concepts like the multiverse etc are more speculation then science (at the moment).

          • Geena Safire

            William, in some ways we seem to be talking past each other. That is happening, I think, because some of these terms we are using have such a wide range of meanings.

            What concerns me specifically is your use of the word "creation" since, in theological circles – like this web site, for example, has a particular meaning that requires that it was brought into being by a "creator." So physicists generally avoid that word in serious discussions. They agree with the Big Bang theory, but they don't agree that it was a 'Big Bang creation.' Most agree that it is likely that it was some kind of beginning, but not all think that it was the beginning of everything (though it might be). And they all would agree that we don't know for sure.

            We also have problems with the word 'science.' 'Science' can refer to the methods by which we consider and study ideas – the scientific method. 'Science' can also refer to the body of knowledge of what has been found to be most likely true, based on use of the scientific method. So it is true to say that the multiverse hypothesis is not settled science – not a scientific fact -- but it is also true to say that it is a plausible scientific hypothesis, that is, it is science.

            Another word that we are having a problem with is 'speculation.' Theoretical physicists feel comfortable discussing their hypotheses as 'speculation' when there isn't enough evidence to sufficiently support or refute it. But that doesn't mean, as you agreed, that the speculation of a theoretical physicist should be given equal weight to the speculation of some random person in a combox.

            Therefore I would say that the 'speculation' of a theoretical
            physicist is science – it is a very deeply considered idea that fits in the framework of all the other scientific knowledge and ideas. It is proposed as a hypothesis as part of the scientific method. It is not scientific fact yet, but the hypothesis is science. It is a scientific hypothesis. The multiverse, in particular, is not some wild idea. It fits with all that we know about physics and, in fact, is fits better than ideas of a single universe. It is a serious scientific hypothesis

            Another phrase that we seem to have a challenge with is 'don't know.' In the same way that common speculation is not in the same ballpark as scientific speculation, a scientist's not-knowing is distinct from the average person's not-knowing. Regarding many issues related to the Big Bang, there is much that is known, and what is known puts extensive and very well-defined limits on what 'speculation' can fit in with it. That is, 'we don't know for sure' or 'we don't know exactly' is not the same as 'we don't have the slightest idea.'

            Think of it like this: you could speculate about what a number might be, but you might know that the number has to be between 2.16 and 17.35, and it has to be an even number, and it cannot be divisible by 3, and it has to be a rational number (not like pi with unending digits) with no more than 6 digits after the decimal point, and it cannot include the numerals 9 or 7 at any point. There are still a lot of numbers you can choose, but the choice is severely limited – and each choice must be tested to verify that it meets each of the criteria. In physics, there are considerably more stringent constraints regarding hypotheses about the Big Bang or the nature of time.

            So if you were asked about your confidence in your speculation of the number you chose, you can say, "I don't know." But that doesn't mean you don't have the slightest idea. And you can say, if someone else speculates that the answer could as likely be 21 as the number you came up
            with, you can say that, even though we don't know what the exact answer is, it cannot be 21.

            William wrote: You contradcit yourself because initially you say they don't believe time began with the big bang, then you say they don't actually know.

            We also have a problem with the word 'time.' But that's not
            surprising. Sean Carroll and other physicists have big problems with 'time' also. The issue of time in physics is complicated. Some physicists think time is fundamental; others think that time is a by-product of increasing entropy.
            Sean Carroll is in the latter category. But he doesn't consider the matter settled, since both ideas can fit experimental observation. That doesn't mean, if you ask Sean Carroll 'What is time?' that he'll just say, "We don't
            have any idea. It's all speculation." He'll say that some physicists think that time is fundamental and others do not think it is fundamental, (and he could continue in mind-numbing detail about each of them), and that we don't yet know which one is right.

            With respect to my actual statement: "No, they don't believe that time itself began at the Big Bang, but time with respect to our universe.": Perhaps it would have been more clear if I had said, "Physicists are not all in agreement that time itself began at the Big Bang. They are not even in agreement about the nature or definition of time. Also, some do not believe that the Big Bang was necessarily a beginning. But physicists are generally in agreement that, with respect to us, the Big Bang happened 13.81 billion years ago. But science doesn't actually know enough about time or the Big Bang to say definitively what time is or what exactly happened at the very moment of the Big Bang or exactly what kind or kinds of beginning it was."

          • David Nickol

            I have a poll on cosmologists and the majority still believes in big bang creation or near enough.

            It seems to me Sean Carroll's position is more supportive of Geena's than of yours. I take him to be saying that we are not to take what the majority of cosmologists say say as a fact. The Big Bang, Carroll is saying, may very well not be the beginning.

            I certainly don't think the majority of cosmologists believe the Big Bang was the moment when God created the universe ex nihilo!

          • William Ric-Hansen

            I qouted Carroll to show he was not definitive about anything not to support my position (if I have one)...

          • Sean Carroll is one of the exceptions. He holds to the idea that time is fundamental and goes on forever in both directions from a minimum entropy state. Here's a good figure of it. http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/wiredscience/2010/02/multiverse_2-660x266.jpg

    • ccmnxc

      I tend to object to Feser's posts being put up here simply due to the fact that the relevant Thomistic metaphysics tend not to be included in the package. This is problematic since A-T metaphysics provides the entire basis for Aquinas's philosophy and theology. To answer your question, God is sustained by His nature, which is one of pure actuality. I'm still studying this, so don't expect all that great of an explanation, but let's just say that being pure actuality entails necessity. Actuality is used in conjunction with potentiality. For example, a rubber ball placed in a microwave is potentially melted. There is something inherent in its nature which would allow it, under certain conditions, to melt. It therefore follows that it has potentiality with regards to melting. When the microwave is turn on, motion (which is Thomistic jargon for change) takes place. Potentiality is reduced to actuality regarding the ball becoming melted. Now, since God is pure actuality, there is no potency about Him that is not actualized. This allows for a necessary existence. The cosmos is not pure actuality. It is potentially warmer, colder, denser, etc. W/o being pure actuality, it is not necessary in its own nature. I realize that probably made very little sense and wasn't explained very well, but hopefully shedding some light on the Thomistic metaphysics surrounding the issue will demonstrate that this is far more complex than a simple blog post can ever hope to communicate.

      • I agree with you that a comment box is not sufficient to explain Aristotle's or Aquinas's views on actuality and potentiality. But let's see where this goes.

        The take-home message I got from you is that something is necessary if and only if it cannot change in any way. Is that right?

        • ccmnxc

          That's the impression I receive. This implies that God has no "will do" properties about Him, as that would imply change. He is a single atemporal act.

          • It seems as though the Christian God does not meet these requirements, and so is not the same as Aquinas's and Aristotle's God.

            The Christian God sent his son to die for the sins of the world. God is not sending his son right now. This is a change. Also, the Bible talks about God changing his mind (e.g. Genesis 6:6). Finally, it seems difficult to imagine a personal being, possessing a free will, that at the same time can never change.

          • David Nickol

            Also, the Bible talks about God changing his mind (e.g. Genesis 6:6).

            It is very difficult to reconcile the story of the Noah and the Flood with the "God of Philosophers." God not only regrets his creation and decides to wipe out humanity (his first change of mind). He then decides to save Noah and his family, thereby not wiping out humanity (his second change of mind). Then, after he has killed all the people on earth, not to mention the animals (what did they do to deserve such a fate), he seems a bit sheepish and vows—when smelling the burnt offerings of Noah—never to do such a thing again.

            When the LORD smelled the sweet odor, he said to himself: "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the desires of man's heart are evil from the start; nor will I ever again strike down all living beings, as I have done. As long as the earth lasts, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, Summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease."

            Of course, if God loved the smell of burn offerings, since God doesn't change, he must currently love the smell of burnt offerings, if he never changes.

            Of course, the problem with all of the above is that it takes the Old Testament more literally than I think is warranted, but even if we try to interpret the story of the Flood as figurative, we have to determine why God is depicted as changing his mind if we believe that in actuality, God can't change his mind—or to be more precise, if we believe that the idea of God changing his mind makes no sense.

  • David Nickol

    God creates things out of nothing precisely in the act of conserving
    them in being, and apart from His continual causal action they would
    instantly be annihilated.

    And yet we are told God exists outside of time and is immutable. So how can we attribute to God "continual causal action"? If God exists in some kind of "eternal now," it makes no sense to talk of him either continuing or ceasing an action. God can't stop and start something. That implies temporality.

    I am not sure exactly what God's creation is supposed to be or how he keeps it in existence. Is his creation matter and energy? Because of course things do come into existence and go out of existence—stars, for example.

    • This is a great point. It's why certain theistic philosophers of time, like William Lane Craig, say that wherever there's time, God's temporal.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    It seems to me that SN would be a much better website if the authors, whose OP's are posted, hung around and engaged in dialogue with the readers. A few authors have done this. I think all should.

    • Kevin, I agree that would be ideal. But most contributors are unable to squeeze combox discussion into their busy schedules.

      We do what we can.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        Why not limit contributors to those who want to do apologetics (within their area of expertise) and test their notions against people who will critically question them?

    • David Nickol

      This is an exact reprint of something from Dr. Feser's blog originally appearing July 4, 2011. I suppose there's nothing wrong with printing already-published pieces if they are of high quality and relevant to what is on Strange Notions currently. Still, it means that authors, especially those like Dr. Feser, are probably not going to be eager or particularly willing to discuss posts they wrote years ago. You can check out the original post and see how Dr. Feser responded to comments made to the original post.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        Thanks. That is helpful.

  • Vasco Gama

    This may be hard to get, but I am quite sure that medieval Thomas Aquinas (or Feser for that matter) was not addressing the big bang creation of the universe, or anything remotely related to that.

    We have a tendency to see the causal series (in time), which is not what Feser (or Aquinas) means, you can see it in space, or better as one can explain the cause of a creature say a rat, as being caused by it body, then from his organs, then from the tissues, then from the cells, then from the molecules, from the atoms, and so forth... (no time, but a series of causes... ), but then maybe you all already understood this, however it was not so straight forward for me (I was locked in time for a while).

    Then it may be the case that it deserves a second reading (or not).

  • Geena Safire

    If one posits that an infinite, non-temporal, immaterial, maximally-powerful, intelligent being is necessary for anything in existence to have come into existence and to remain in existence, then since there are things in existence, there must be such a being.

    This is known as circular reasoning or tautology.

    But just as the ancient 'prime mover' argument has given way to seventeenth-century physics, the 'first cause' argument also fails in the face of twentieth-century physics.

    First, there are several known instances of things occurring, including coming into existence, that do not have a cause. Second, it is far from clear that our universe had a beginning from nothing. Third, even without the first, we only have examples of something coming from something. We don't have any examples of nothing in order to know what is possible to come from it. Extrapolating that (nearly) everything that we know of has a cause, that's in a universe of somethings including those causes.

    Second, philosophically, if one defines 'nothing' as that from which nothing can come, then, unsurprisingly, nothing can come from that 'nothing.' That's pure tautology.

    But, in reality, 'nothing' may be, if you will, nothing like that. Actual 'nothing' may be inherently unstable, and thus inevitably leading to 'something' every so often.

    This doesn't mean that such a deity doesn't exist and didn't create the universe. But the 'first cause' argument doesn't prove that it does or did.

    • "This is known as circular reasoning or tautology."

      Thanks for the comment, Geena. I actually agree with your assessment. But what you've called circular reasons is not what Dr. Feser argues in his article. It's a distorted caricature of the First Cause argument. The argument doesn't *begin* with an infinite, immaterial, self-existing First Cause and then conclude it must exist, it *necessarily arrives* at that its existence through logical deduction. What you've offered is a straw man.

      • Horatio

        All the scientific evidence points this way, and even many atheist cosmologists agree. Before the Big Bang, there was no space, no matter, no energy, and no time. In other words, there was nothing.

        I second this. Hawking likened the question of 'What Came Before the Big Bang?" to "What's North of the North Pole?" We can talk about M-theory and p-branes and whatnot, but that's just putting off the problem.

        • Geena Safire

          Hawking wasn't saying that there was nothing before but rather saying that the question 'What came before?' is incoherent, like asking 'How many Tuesdays are there in butter?' That is, he believes that the Big Bang cannot be considered to be a 'beginning' in the way that word is commonly understood in a non-scientific sense.

          Hawking also says, "So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?"

          • So here is an actual, not just a rhetorical question: is it possible even in principle to figure out whether the universe is self-contained? It seems like standing in a bucket and trying to lift yourself up by the handle, but I am nothing like an
            authority in this area. Thanks

          • Geena Safire

            In order to know that, as I understand it, we need a theory of quantum gravity. Many theoretical folks are working on this, and various theories have been proposed, but they each have limitations. String theory is the most promising but it is not ideal either.

            Sean Carroll gives a great lecture here: Dark Energy, or Worse: Was Einstein Wrong? The discussion about quantum gravity starts about 24 minutes in, but the previous material is both interesting and helpful to understand his gravity discussion.

          • Hawking is sort of right. It is incoherent for physics to ask or answer that question since physics measures physical objects. That doesn't mean the question cannot be legitimately asked; it just isn't a question for physics.

          • Geena Safire

            Stacy, it would be very much appreciated if you would learn the actual range of the field of physics. You have made this mistake several times before. Ignore the commonality between the words 'physics' and 'physical.' The field has to do with both physical matter and with radiation/energy and motion and forces and space and time. They are not so interested in molecules (chemistry) nor biology nor geology, although there is some overlap with these and other fields. But the domain of physics is vast: the cosmos (astrophysics) and normal everyday-scale forces and matter and energy, and the very small.

            It is completely within the field of physics to study such phenomena as the Big Bang. And it is exactly the findings of physics at such a complex situation that the question may be incoherent because it not meaningful in any context (unless you have Tuesdays in your butter).

          • Words mean things. Physics deals with physical objects in motion. Physics cannot get outside of physical time and physical space to study non-time and non-space.

            Creation cannot be fully grasped by physics because physicists cannot go outside the cosmos to measure it -- no matter how much materialists wish to shore up their philosophy by claiming otherwise.

          • Geena Safire

            Physics deals with physical objects in motion.

            That limited definition was not even true in Isaac Newton's time over three hundred years ago. And it's far, far from true now.

            Here's a rather simple one you could use: "Physics is the branch of science concerned with the nature and properties of matter, energy, forces, and fields and their interactions. The subject matter of physics, distinguished from that of chemistry and biology, includes mechanics, heat (thermodynamics), light and other radiation (optics), sound (acoustics), electricity, magnetism, gravity, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, the Higgs field, structure of atoms and their subatomic particles, relativity, quantum mechanics, and spacetime,"

            I'll agree with you that physicists cannot study supernatural phenomena because they are defined to be beyond the reach of science. Of course, that assumes that there is such a place/space. Plus, you'd be surprised how much of a universe you can measure from inside.

          • In other, more concise, words: physics deals with physical objects in motion.

            Agree on the last paragraph. Physics is limited to the physical world.

          • Geena Safire

            Gravity is not a physical object nor is it motion. The strong nuclear force is not a physical object nor is it motion. Spacetime is not a physical object nor is it motion. etc. etc. I know you know this. That definition is inadequate, unless your intention is to appear ignorant or demean the field. It would be like me saying that God is an invisible man in the sky. That would be either stupid of me or intentionally insulting.

            if you want a super-short definition, you could say: physics deals with matter, energy and forces. Or: physics is the study of forces acting on matter and energy.

            When you get a little deeper into physics, you discover that, in fact, fundamentally, there are no physical objects -- there is no matter at all. Every bit of existence is waves interacting in various fields. When it is measured, a wave resolves into what seems like a particle. But that is not what it is.

          • Geena, are you suggesting that matter, energy, and forces do not emerge from physical objects? That physics is all make-believe? And that reality is defined by what we can measure?

          • Geena Safire

            No, forces do not emerge from physical objects. No, energy does not emerge from physical objects.

          • Cite? I'd like to know where you get this from, and more importantly, how you, or your sources, explain the existence of forces and energy independent of the physical world.

            Unless I'm misunderstanding you.

          • I think it's all particles. Feynman says as much as well, everything is made up of atoms. He also makes the argument in his University of Auckland lecture, http://vega.org.uk/video/programme/45 (starting at 36 minutes, although the whole thing is worth listening to, in order to learn more about quantum mechanics). I'm convinced, at least, that it's really particles.

            But let's say that you're right about no particles, and that it's waves or fields. What are those things? I have no idea what a field is. I know how to write out the mathematics, because someone showed me how and I've read books, but what are they supposed to be?

            If there are no physical objects at all, then waves and fields are not physical objects, so why care about them? How do you know that there are no physical objects?

          • Geena Safire

            I love Feynman! Thanks!

            I'm talking about Quantum Field Theory. Sean Carroll gave a good talk in June of this year that included this and also talks about the Higgs field called Particles, Fields and The Future of Physics - A Lecture by Sean Carroll, given at the FermiLab Users meeting.

            As with Feynman's lecture, Carroll' entire lecture is great. (He even brings in Insane Clown Posse's song 'Miracles'.) But he starts talking about Quantum Field Theory at about 22:50.

            "Once you invent field theory, the laws of physics are not action at a distance. They are local. The information you need is contained nearby you. The mechanism by which gravity works is now explained. It is not instantaneous weird communication over infinite distances. It's the the Earth pushes down the field right there (gestures to slide showing slope of gravitational potential field), and that pulls the field right there, and that pulls the field throughout the rest of space. Everything touches everything else and communicates to its nearest neighbors, not to the whole rest of the universe.

            So that paradigm seemed to be extremely effective. By the 19th century we had a picture of physics where matter – stuff – was made of particles, atoms. Atoms became sort of accepted by the modern scientific community in the 19th century. And forces, we said, are made of fields. The electromagnetic field was well-known in the 19th century as well as the gravitational field.

            The 20th century was more absolutist in its leanings. The 20th century comes along and says, "You know what? That particle stuff is overrated. Actually everything is made of fields. You don't have to separately talk about matter made of particles and forces made of fields. All you need are fields.

            That should puzzle you a little bit. How can it be? I'm telling you – and I'm not going to back off this later – this podium right in front of me is made of fields. Little vibrating numbers at every point in space are what make up this podium, are what make up me, and what make up you. But we feel solid, right? How can it possibly be that something as tangible and solid as ourselves or the Earth can be made of vibrations or oscillations or gradients in fields filling space?

            Well the answer, of course, is quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics are what you need. And when you add quantum mechanics to fields, you make quantum field theory. This unhelpful little graphic (slide has front covers of many scientific books with 'Quantum Field Theory' in the title) is just to point out an interesting fact which is that to working physicists, quantum field theory is the most important thing we know. We learn quantum field theory in graduate school. There are billions of books written about it from 'Quantum Field Theory for Mathematicians' to 'Quantum Field Theory for Dummies' and 'How is Quantum Field Theory Possible?' – I didn't read that book. But it is possible; it works.

            The point is that when we talk about physics to non-physicists – when we popularize it – we never mention quantum field theory. We talk about particle physics, we talk about relativity, we talk about quantum mechanics. Heck, we talk about string theory and the multiverse and the anthropic principle. But we think that quantum field theory – it's too much to bother about. And, as a result, no one got it when we discovered the Higgs boson. To understand why the Higgs boson is important, you need quantum field theory."

          • He does say that the podium exists. That's it's made up of something real, what he calls a field (I'm not sure what he means by the word 'field', so I'll watch his lecture). He in fact makes a stronger statement, that fields are local, and that there's no action at a distance.

            Local quantities, in space and time, that have to be in the same place as each other in order to interact. It sounds very much like atoms to me.

            Quantum field theory is very particle-friendly. For a physicist-philosopher's exploration into particles in QFT, a good paper is Redhead, Michael LG. "Quantum field theory for philosophers." In PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, pp. 57-99. Philosophy of Science Association, 1982.

          • Paul Boillot

            There's no action at a distance.

            http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_entanglement

          • Excellent point! Entanglement is a big problem for particle interpretations, and also for field interpretations. A great talk on this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMFLL_PXH8w

            The particle interpretation reproduces the results of entanglement, so long as particles behave as though they take all possible paths.

            Do particles actually do this? I don't know, but right now that's the way I imagine the world. This question is very interesting, and I want to look into this in more detail.

            Why should particles do this? That's a philosophical question on the order of "why do protons have more mass than electrons?" or "why do things tend to take the path of least resistance"? I don't know if there's a satisfying answer. This question is far less interesting to me (and I'd imagine probably to you as well).

          • Geena Safire

            Yes, the podium exists. But the fundamental, subatomic components which make it up are waves in fields. Atoms also exist. But the fundamental, subatomic components of which they are made -- electrons, up quarks and down quarks (which make up the protons and neutrons, and the forces that bind them together and affect them -- are waves in fields.

            Throughout the universe -- and thus at every point in the universe -- there are many coexisting fields: the electromagnetic field, the gravitational field, the strong nuclear force field, the weak nuclear force field, the Higgs field, and also the electron field, the up quark field, the down quark field, and fields for each of the other discovered subatomic units that we usually call particles. At every point in space, each of those fields has a particular value (somewhat like there is a unique temperature and humidity at every point in a room).

            This is how a neutron can "decay into" a proton and an electron. The neutron is in no way made up of a proton and an electron. Instead, in the process of the decay, the neutron field has a certain effect on the up quark field and the down quark field and the electron field at that point.

            I'm sure that article you reference is interesting, but quantum field theory (and the philosophy of science) has likely changed somewhat in the last 30 years. so I'll try to find something more recent.

      • Geena Safire

        The argument doesn't *begin* with an infinite, immaterial, self-existing First Cause and then conclude it must exist, it *necessarily arrives* at its existence through logical deduction. Your version is simply a straw man.

        Feser says: "But creation out of nothing requires more power even than that, in fact unlimited power." and "And only that which is not a being among others but rather unlimited being—that which is pure actualit—can do that." and "So only God—who is pure actuality or Being Itself rather than a being among others—can cause a thing to exist ex nihilo."

        Those certainly seem to me as positing such a being is necessary. It doesn't seem like a straw man to me.

        But actually, Feser's ideas start with "the metaphysical presuppositions of Aquinas’s philosophical theology."

        I'm disputing that one has to start with presuppositional apologetics in general. I also disagree with the validity of Aquinas' assumptions specifically.

        I'm not aware of anything coming into existence without a cause. If such examples exist, I'm definitely interested. Can you please share a few?

        Radioactive decay occurs without a cause. Virtual particles come into existence without a cause.

        All the scientific evidence points this way, and even many atheist cosmologists agree. Before the Big Bang, there was no space, no matter, no energy, and no time. In other words, there was nothing.

        No, they don't. They agree that the Big Bang was plausibly some kind of beginning, but not necessarily 'the beginning' as that is commonly understood, and not necessarily from nothing. Our universe had no space and no time because our universe didn't yet exist. But that doesn't mean that there was necessarily nothing to expand at the expansion.

        Again, I agree [defining 'nothing' as that from which nothing can come] is a tautology. But it's also a straw man. Who here has defined "nothing" this way? Certainly not Dr. Feser.

        Feser wrote ""So only God ... can cause a thing to exist ex nihilo,"

        That looks to me like he's saying that 'nothing' is that from which nothing can come -- so God is necessary. Not a straw man.

        Do you have another interpretation?

        Can you please unpack this statement [that 'nothing' may be inherently unstable] a bit more? It seems that for something to have a property like instability, it would have to be something---not nothing.

        I would refer you to Lawrence Krauss' book, "A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing." As a summary, you could view his talk based on his book, "A Universe from Nothing"

        In a brief and wholly inadequate summary, Krauss proposes three different varieties of 'nothing' that could be possible given the extant 'something' that we know and love. It seems reasonable that physicists, who study the very fundamentals of what 'something' is are the best to also describe what it is not, thus 'nothing.' One is no matter and no energy/radiation. Another is no matter, no radiation, no time and no space. Another is no matter, no radiation, no time, no space, and no laws of physics.

        • Vasco Gama

          Geena,

          It is quite easy to say that something occurs without a cause, other quite more difficult is to prove that it is actually the case.

          "Radioactive decay occurs without a cause. Virtual particles come into existence without a cause."

          At the very best we can say "without a cause that we know". How can one proof that something doesn't have a cause. Plus the causality of the radioactive decay (at least) is still under study, is not al, as something proven to occurr without a cause.

          And when people say nothing, nothing is realy nothing, not to be understood that nothing is the same as nearly nothing (as Krauss pretends).

          • Geena Safire

            At the very best we can say "without a cause that we know".

            No actually, Vasco, physics has studied the matter in excruciating detail. There is no cause unless it's supernatural and, if a deity exists, I'd bet it's got more interesting things to do than whacking gazillions of atoms every microsecond.

            For a given atom, it might decay in the next second, or it might decay 10,000 years from now, or any time in between. There is no way to predict when it will decay. There is no trigger event or condition. None. No cause.

            If you talk to a physicist and propose that there is "no cause that we know of," s/he will laugh at you. That is just simply wrong. There is no study going on regarding this. There is no cause and, in fact, there can be none. The matter is settled. It's silly Christian apologetics talk. (Not all apologetics talk is silly. But this is.)

            Einstein and others perhaps thought that this was a defect of the theory that should eventually be removed, by a supplemental hidden variable theory that restores determinism; but subsequent work showed that
            no such hidden variables account[ing for it] could exist. At the microscopic level the world is ultimately mysterious and chancy.

            And virtual particles come into existence without a cause. It's weird but proven to be true (as much as anything can be proven in science). Quantum mechanics is just very strange. No cause. None.

            And when people say nothing, nothing is realy nothing, not to be understood that nothing is the same as nearly nothing (as Krauss pretends).

            If you become an expert in the fundamentals of matter, energy, forces, and fields at the subatomic level and at the cosmological level -- and maybe if you make a theoretical discovery as significant as dark energy, which Krauss did -- then you would understand what 'something' really is. Then you could say what 'nothing' means in the context of what 'something' is.

            Krauss' hypotheses about 'nothing' are taken as plausible in the scientific community because they agree with all experimental observation. Krauss is not "pretending". That's just Christian apologetic arm-waving. You've been misinformed.

            Philosophical 'nothing' is something fun that philosophers and theologians enjoy thinking about. Which is fine. But that has nothing to do with, and can say nothing about, what 'nothing' means in real life.

            (Note: 'Nucleus' does not have an 'o' in it.)

          • Vasco Gama

            Geena,

            I am sorry for my English, in fact it is my mother language
            and frequently I make mistakes, either in spelling words or in the construction of phrases. I try to avoid them, but often I miss something. Anyway I hope that you are able to understand what I say.

            As I said “It is quite easy to say that something occurs
            without a cause, other quite more difficult is to prove that it is actually the case.” In this case not you or anyone else (like a scientist or philosopher, however a wizard or a magician maybe pretend that to be the case) is able to show that anything can happen without a cause. They can say that they don’t know what the cause is and try to hide it into accepted ignorance (a level of ignorance that is
            accepted), and that is pretty much what is done in science. When we postulate the existence of elemental particles it is so because we can’t decompose this into a more reduced level, and that we can’t find no way of distinguishing them
            one from another. It is not that we don’t try, we do. We came to know that the nucleuses are constituted by smaller particles, and we will keep looking for even smaller and more fundamental constituents (as the efforts on string theory try to). It is not that we try to find God, or anything of the sort, we just try to understand things.

            It is a fact that we don’t know what exactly triggers the
            nuclear decay at some particular time. And that is that (nothing else, it is not at all as if the nucleus could decide to do it, or if there is something magical about quantum mechanics). The same for the appearance of a virtual
            particle in a determinate occasion (we don’t know what triggers this even, again that is not the same to say that it does not have a cause, it may very well be a cause, we are just not able to know that, maybe it some fluctuation in
            the field, or of space time, we could not determine what it was). In fact this is hardly a problem of causality, but of indeterminacy. When we have a glass of water at 20ºC, we known very well that a small part of that water will evaporate and go into the gas phase above the surface, we don’t know what the water molecules that will go into the gas phase (they are all alike, for us, we can distinguish them), and then in the gas phase some of those molecules may aggregate and form droplets that grow and condense into the liquid phase. Is there something particular about the water molecules that evaporate and aggregate, or those who return to the liquid phase, no, they are all alike, do they have a will of its own, does it help, or gives any insight to say that it is undetermined and say that those processes are random. Does it mean anything mysterious that
            contradicts God, maybe for you, not really for me, I would say.

            “No actually, Vasco, physics has studied the matter in excruciating detail. There is no cause unless it's supernatural and, if a deity exists, I'd bet it's got more interesting things to do than whacking gazillions of atoms every microsecond.”

            Really, what is your point? Is anyone claiming that we
            should attribute those things to God and dismiss any insight that science can bring us (well that is not my case and not anyone else I guess).

            I know what dark matter and energy (although no one knows, or pretends to know what it is exactly), it something we needed to postulate to explain our universe.

            “Krauss' hypotheses about 'nothing' are taken as plausible in the scientific community because they agree with all experimental observation.”

            That is just not the case, Krauss conception of nothing is preposterous (besides being really different from nothing). You impression is incorrect, however he is taken seriously by atheist apologists, if that is what you mean.

            We may hold the notion that science explains everything or that it is about doing so. Clearly it is not the case scientists
            are not about getting out of work, in fact the knowledge uncovered by science reveals a larger extent of what we don’t know, and the numbers of people involved in the scientific effort is only limited by the resources that society
            is willing to attribute to science.

          • Geena Safire

            Thanks, Vasco, for the thoughtful reply and also for the Sean Carroll link. I'm extremely impressed with your fluency in English. (I didn't mention the spelling thing in any pejorative way; I just prefer to be told if I'm making a mistake so I can correct it and thought you might also.)

            That is just not the case [that Krauss' hypotheses about 'nothing' are taken as plausible in the scientific community].

            If you read the blog post from Sean Carroll, you will note that he generally agrees with the plausibility of Krauss' various propositions about 'nothing.'

            "So if your definition of 'nothing' is 'emptiness' or 'lack of space itself,' the laws of quantum mechanics provide a nice way to understand how that nothing can evolve into the marvelous something we find ourselves inside. This is interesting, and important, and worth writing a book about, and it’s one of the possibilities Lawrence discusses."

            and

            "In this kind of picture, [t]here is a boundary of time (presumably at the Big Bang), prior to which there was … nothing. No stuff, not even a quantum wave function; there was no prior thing, because there is no sensible notion of 'prior.' This is also interesting, and important, and worth writing a book about, and it’s another one of the possibilities Lawrence discusses."

            Other physicists have similar responses. That doesn't mean that they are proponents of any or all of Krauss' definitions of 'nothing.' but they consider that his ideas are scientifically valid and plausible. That was all I had claimed.

            It is a fact that we don’t know what exactly triggers the nuclear decay at some particular time.

            No, actually, Vasco, it is a scientific fact that there is no cause and no trigger for nuclear decay and there cannot be one. That is the nature of quantum mechanics. You can take it up with any physics professor. She'll tell you the same thing. It is fundamentally non-deterministic.

            With regard to water, on the other hand, it is very well known that each water molecule will act in the same exact way at the same exact temperature and the same exact position with respect to the surface of the water. Deterministic. But radioactive decay and virtual particles and non-deterministic.

            Krauss conception of nothing is preposterous (besides being really different from nothing). [It] is quite the equivalent of the affirmation that 10 to the power of –n (where n is a very large natural number) is equal to 0

            With respect to your analogy between definitions of 'nothing' and 'zero,' your point may be correct philosophically, but is completely false in reality.

            For example, zero degrees Celsius equals thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit, and zero Fahrenheit is minus 18 Celsius. That is, 'zero' in the real world is always defined with respect to something (such as the freezing point of a mL of pure water at sea level) and thus will not necessarily be 'zero' with respect to most other things.

            In the same way, in the real world, 'nothing' can only be defined with respect to 'something.' And since there are different kinds of 'something,' there will be different kinds of 'nothing.'

            In my guess, Krauss has the same philosophical rigor as an elephant (which is quite a problem for his epistemology and honesty, as it is not at all like something he is not supposed to know).

            We completely agree on your elephant anology. And, actually, Krauss apologized for being such a jerk with respect to philosophy in this Scientific American article.

            But I disagree with you that he is dishonest. My opinion is that he strives to be scrupulously honest, and in the scientific world his scientific hypotheses are accorded respect. But his attitude toward philosophy has a lot of room for improvement.

            (By the way, if you want to do that quoting thing here with the line along the left side, you can add <blockquote> before the text:and &lt/blockquote> after the text.)

          • Vasco Gama

            Geena,

            Thank for your agreeable assessment for my English, unfortunately I am well aware that my fluency in that language if far for the desirable, as occasionally I am confronted with criticism, as I am forced to write in English from time to time. You are too kind.

            In spite of being in disagreement with Sean Carroll in many instances I sympathize with him, and usually appreciate his comments. He seems fair and honest and he doesn’t seem
            to present the tendency of overreaching his claims and pretty much attains himself to what he knows to know. This is a quality that is rare among the apologists of new atheism (that I appreciate). One other thing entirely different is questioning if he could fail to be nice and sympathetic to Krauss. I guess not. It is good thing that Krauss finally found appropriate to apologize. Your sympathy towards Krauss, only speaks to your behalf (unfortunately I fail to be so charitable, I know I should, but I guess he knew exactly what he was saying, he wrote a book, he did have time to consider his affirmations, what he said was not at as something that was said in the moment, without the possibility of consideration).

            I will not discuss either the particularities of zero, or the peculiarities of nothing. I guess I said enough and that you understood what I said.

            Quantum indeterminacy is a fact, but that is quite distinct than pretending that something can happen without a cause. There is plenty of indeterminacy in nature and it gets more obvious in quantum mechanics (where the indeterminacies are inherent to the quantum mechanics). It happens all the time when we consider excitations (that virtual particles are an example), or in decay of excited states (that radioactive decay is an example). This is processes contain intrinsic indeterminacies, and we have to deal with that.

          • Geena Safire

            Thank you for your wonderful reply and for this entire conversation. I have learned and benefited from our exchange

            Please understand that I "know whereof I speak" regarding your fluency, because I speak another language passably but with much less fluency than yours, so I recognize the amount of commitment it takes. I also find Sean Carroll to be more personable and respectful than Krauss.

            You might enjoy this YouTube video called The Great Debate: Can Science Tell Us Right from Wrong? It includes Krauss surrounded by philosophers, including Patricia Churchland, Steven Pinker, Simon Blackburn, Peter Singer, Roger Bingham and Sam Harris. Krauss' tone is much more muted here as he recognizes that he is not in his element and must strive to be philosophical.

            I think we both understand each other regarding 'nothing', even if we disagree about what it can mean. I think the same can be said for the nature of causality wrt quantum indeterminacies.

            Again, thank you.

            ( By the way, in case you were interested in creating links here that include a title rather than the naked link, you can do this: Add these before and after your title <a href="put.copied.link.here">Title Title Title</a> )

          • Vasco Gama

            Geena,

            It was pleasure to disagree with you and I have to thank you for this stimulating conversation.

  • Steven Dillon

    Thanks for posting Dr. Feser, your arguments are -- as always -- enviously clear. But, I still struggle to understand the notion of an unmoved mover. Let me try and explain like this:

    1. Every mover moves.
    2. Whatever moves is moved by another.
    3. Therefore, every mover is moved by another.

    The first premise is obviously the controversial one, since the second is a Thomistic principle. But, (1) seems true to me.

    In order to be a 'mover', A must actualize B's potency, call it 'C'. This requires that A have the active potency to do so.

    But, how could A have the potency to actualize C *without* having the potency to become the actualizer of C? It seems like saying 'I have the ability to swim, but not the ability to become a swimmer'. One seems analytically to the other. Assuming -- as I believe -- that active potency entails passive potency, it follows that movers move. Perhaps I've just misunderstood Thomistic metaphysics, it is subtle.

    • Vasco Gama

      In fact the "unmoved mover" (or uncaused cause) is necessary in order to avoid an infinite series of causes, which are unreasonable (in a finite universe, such as our own).

      And the unmoved mover (or uncaused the cause) that is pure actuality (with no potency that could be actualized) defined as beeing itself (or existence) is God.

      you are right Thomistic metaphysicsis hard

      • Sqrat

        In fact the "unmoved mover" (or uncaused cause) is necessary in order to avoid an infinite series of causes, which are unreasonable (in a finite universe, such as our own).

        It is not known whether our universe is finite or infinite. Either way, I think it's irrelevant, since causality is a matter of time, not space. There would be nothing inherently unreasonable about an infinite series of causes, any more than an infinite series of effects would be inherently unreasonable. The only requirement in either case would be an infinite amount of time.

        • Vasco Gama

          As we are able to know the universe is finite (and time and space had a begining).

          But if in order to avoid God, you may find reasonable to postulate the first irrationaty that comes to your mind, it is fine for me.

          • Sqrat

            As we are able to know the universe is finite....

            We know no such thing. The current, and quite recent, consensus seems to be to assume that the universe is actually infinite, but only because "it makes the physics simpler" to make that assumption. It's not something that has or can be been settled by observation, since obviously we have not observed any edge or boundary to the universe.

            ...(and time and space had a beginning)

            I can't speak to the question of space, but I can say with some confidence that it is no means a completely settled matter in physics that time had a beginning, and certainly not that the beginning of our universe was also the beginning of time.

          • Vasco Gama

            and I am supposed to take you seriously

      • Why do you think the spontaneous unexplained cosmos creating mind is more reasonable than the same thing without a mind? Or an infinite universe for that matter?

        • Vasco Gama

          Clearly, since I am a theist (however that does provid you any insight that things should be that way).

          • So I guess this first cause argument is not something you would say supports your theism, rather the other way around?

          • Vasco Gama

            your guess is correct.

          • Well that is helpful. Of course the only discussion we can have is whether the first cause is more or less likely than some kind of eternal material existence. Faith aside, which do you think?

          • Vasco Gama

            Brian,

            In fact I am having a first consideration on the arguments. At this point I can say that I find them coherent and a rational aproach (that surprised me, considering that they were proposed a long long time ago). The one that appears to be less interesting is the argument from design (however it maybe very appealing to some people, not to me).

          • I don't take a position on whether something always existed or the Cosmos had a beginning. Both seem ridiculous to me and there isn't enough evidence to chose between the options.

            Thanks for a good exchange on this. Though I am not saying it is over.

          • Vasco Gama

            It was nice talking to you (I guess those questions will never be over).

  • Mary B Moritz

    Thanks - Just love it as always! Aquinas is wonderful and Feser brings this to the point.

    But we will still need the explanation how secondary causes can than be REAL causes....... But maybe this was just too much in one post.

  • Feser states that all mere modification presupposes an initial causation. I think he means necessitates, but I think this is not the case. It could equally be an eternal regress. Both an initial spontaneous cause and an infinite regress are counter intuitive but it has to be one of them.

  • Paul Boillot

    The arguments are difficult for someone not versed in the metaphysical presuppositions of Aquinas’s philosophical theology

    It seems to me that the arguments are 'difficult' not because of the concepts in play, but because there is an insistence on manufactured jargon by those who imagine that they are thereby entering into the mysteries of God.

    Any 'field' that tries this hard in it's vocabulary is immediately suspect in my opinion.

    "God" is that which causes all being. Got it. (See, that wasn't so hard)

    Now that we've clearly, and more importantly concisely, defined what we mean by "God," the next question is: is it meaningful?

    Maybe.

    There might be a personal being which is being, which we call "God."

    On the other hand, the cosmos might be "God" in this sense, the fundamental, recursive, cause.

    Or, more difficultly, it might be the case that there is no nihilo for us and our universe to have been created ex. Hard as it is to imagine, it might not be possible for somethingness to ever have been, or eventually become, nothingness; the cosmos might always have existed.

    In any case, Aq gives us no reason to choose between contingency or it's lack, and even less to choose to believe that in a contingent cosmos, "God" would be anything like what he wants us to think it means.

  • Steven Carr

    'For the Thomist, to say that God is the First Cause of things is, first and foremost, to say that He is the cause of their existence at every moment at which they do exist.'

    What causes hatred, evil, jealousy, famine, death, anger, spite and disaster, homosexuality and abortion?

    The Christian God.

    Feser says so. For his god causes all things to exist.

    FESER
    'At least where the sheer existence of things is concerned, He and He alone is directly causing them at every instant. He is, as the Muslims say, “closer than the vein in your neck.”'

    CARR
    Every instant when abortion exists is because He and He ALONE is directly causing abortion at that every instant.

    Feser says so. Who are we mere mortals to contradict a Feser?

    The Christian god is closer than the needle in the fetus's body.

  • Steven Carr

    What does Feser have to say about death, hate , illness, famine, drought and pestilence?

    How can we annihilate those bad things?

    Easy. Find out what is causing them and destroy the cause.

    But what causes famine and drought?

    Can Feser give us a clue?

    FESER
    God creates things out of nothing precisely in the act of conserving them in being, and apart from His continual causal action they would instantly be annihilated. You, the computer you are using right now, the floor under your feet, the coffee cup in your hand—for each and every one of these things, God is, you might say, “keeping it real” at every instant.

    CARR
    I don't get it.

    Come on Professor, don't give us those cryptic clues that we need a degree in philosophy to help us understand.

    Come out and tell us clearly what causes things to exist.

    How can we annihilate famine, drought and pestilence if you continue to be so coy as to what is conserving their existence?

    • Sqrat

      One way of reading the Thomist model, as outlined by Feser, is that God is not "conserving" bad things, he's constantly creating them ex nihilo.

      Imagine the following event: A war criminal kills an innocent child with a bullet to the head. What is actually happening, according to this reading of the Thomist model, as presented here in two sentences by Feser, is that the war criminal fires the bullet but then instantaneously disappears, to be replaced by a later copy of the war criminal created ex nihilo by God. The bullet also disappears instantaneously, only appearing to have a continuous existence because it is also created ex nihilo by God many times (perhaps an infinite number of times) on its way from the gun to the child's head.

      Meanwhile, the child who was the war criminal's target has also disappeared and has been replaced by a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy ... all created ex nihilo by God. At some point in this process, God ceases to create a living child and begins creating a dead child, with a newly created copy of the bullet appearing infinitesimally farther into the child's brain with each copy of the child and the bullet.

      So the proximate cause of the dead child, according to this reading, is not the act of the war criminal (who in any case has disappeared and been replaced by copies of infinitesimal duration), but acts of God. He has ceased to create copies of a living child and has created the corpse of a dead child ex nihilo and has begun to copy it.

      It strikes me that this is somehow not Theologically Correct. But if the Thomist model of this event is really about the "conservation" and not "creation" of war criminal, bullet, and child, the picture changes radically. God is not recreating war criminal, bullet, and child over and over. However, he is certainly "conserving" the existence of the bullet between gun barrel and child's skull rather than allowing the bullet to assume its natural state of existence (which is, apparently, non-existence). Unfortunately, that would not seem to be Theologically Correct either, because it makes God directly complicit in a war crime -- the child is killed only because God has willed it to be so and caused it to be so.

      • Steven Carr

        Or possibly the hypothetical Christian god is not creating bad things all the time, but just preserving their existence.

        Who can say?

        Well, Professor Feser can.

        Does his god create evil or conserve evil?

    • Kevin Aldrich

      You are demanding a theodicy from a post which does not deal with God and evil. You are addressing an author who is not going to answer you.

      But I think you are amusing yourself.

      • Steven Carr

        No, I am just quoting Feser.

        I can't quite understand what he is saying.

        Could he tell us clearly who is preserving the existence of abortion?

        FESER
        We’re only talking here about His act of causing the sheer existence of a thing

        CARR
        I've almost got it. I think I am beginning to understand who causes the sheer existence of abortion.

        If only Professor Feser were more clear in his writing. Philosophy is hard to understand.

        FESER
        At least where the sheer existence of things is concerned, He and He alone is directly causing them at every instant.

        CARR
        I've read this sentence ten times and I still can't quite grasp it. Who and who alone is directly causing the existence of hatred , jealousy and disease?

        • Sqrat

          Under the Thomist model as described by Feser, God either "creates" or "conserves" both the abortionist and the means by which the abortion is performed, and thus makes himself a necessary accomplice to the abortion. The fact that you have pointed out that there are implications of this for theodicy is perfectly reasonable, Steven. Under the model, an abortion can only occur because God has willed and caused it to occur.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Of course there are implications for theodicy but Feser is not addressing them.

            The New Apologetics does address God and evil.

          • Steven Carr

            'Of course there are implications for theodicy but Feser is not addressing them.'

            Feser does address them,

            He is very very clear about who is at every moment responsible for the sheer existence of abortion.

            It is , guess who?

            Feser can't do more to address the problem of evil than if he came straight about and said God created abortion.

            Which he did.

            Because Feser claimed his hypothetical god is solely responsible for the creation of every thing that exists.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            You are putting words in Feser's mouth, Steven. But you are right to reject the idea of a God who creates evil.

            If created persons have freedom, then they can misuse it, as in abortion. If God had chosen to prevent every evil, then evil would be the supreme value in the universe.

          • Steven Carr

            Oh, I see.

            So Feser's hypothetical god is not keeping abortion in existence.

            There are things which exist which do not owe their existence to Feser's imaginary god.

            Why didn't he just say that in the first place?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            God holds creation in existence. This includes human person who do evil thing, like procure and perform abortions. But abortion does not "exist." It is the removal of something which ought to exit, the life of the unborn.

          • Vasco Gama

            Steven,

            There is an alternative, I guess that we can see the thing as a trick from Feser in order for you to find reasonable to proclaim whatever absurdity that comes into your mind (which is far more reasonable than presuming that Feser may be rational, or be capable of producing any coeherent thought).

          • Sqrat

            Does New Apologetics manage to explain away the obvious implication in the Thomist model of continuous creation/conservation that God must be a willing accomplice in evil in order for evil to occur? Or does New Apologetics explicitly or implicitly reject that model?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Your question is akin to "Have you stopped beating your wife?"

          • Steven Carr

            Only if Professor Feser had written that I continually caused the existence of wife-beating.

            But Feser does not think I am his hypothetical god.

            He thinks his god is , what were his words again 'For the Thomist, to say that God is the First Cause of things is, first and foremost, to say that He is the cause of their existence at every moment at which they do exist.'

            Feser is very clear.

            His god causes evil to exist at every moment at which evil does exist.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Have you heard of the idea of evil as privation? That is the classic answer.

          • Sqrat

            Not at all. My question is how New Apologetics deals with the problem.

            Do they deal with it at all? When I search their site using the keyword "Aquinas", I get only one hit, an article entitled "How does universal significance expose one to absolute despair apart from the redeeming work of Christ?" That does not seem to be on point.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            The entire website is based on a theology of divine justice, so it is all about God and evil. Try "A line in the sand."

          • Sqrat

            That article doesn't explicitly address Thomism. It does say this:

            If God exists, he is omniscient, omnipotent, infinitely good, and his perfect goodness entails a perfect opposition to every evil (including all suffering of the innocent). All evil is infinitely offensive to the infinite goodness of God, and while he unfailingly draws greater good out of every evil, his act of “permitting” evil is not to be understood as involving any degree of approval. Rather, God’s permission of evil is the endurance of that which is infinitely offensive to him.

            They also quote Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household:

            God does not tolerate evil, but reacts to it with all the power of his holiness… Woe to us if he didn’t! A compromise with evil at that level would destroy the very ethical foundation of the world.

            The implication of the Thomist model is that God does not merely "permit" or "tolerate" evil, he participates in causing it (in most or perhaps even all cases, without God's direct participation, evil could not even occur). Wouldn't this, in Father Cantalamessa's words, "destroy the very ethical foundation of the world"?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I think your implication is not really implied.

            God causes being and persons. There is a difference between giving persons real importance and willing them to misuse their powers.

          • Sqrat

            I'm not saying that God wills persons to misuse their powers. I'm saying that the clear implication of Thomism, as outlined by Feser, is that, when they misuse their powers, it is only through the will and direct participation of God in that misuse that the misuse can succeed in its objective. Because ultimately, under the Thomist model, no one actually has any power to do anything more than think evil thoughts. To do actual evil deeds requires that God actively create/conserve the physical means by which those deeds are performed. A war criminal cannot shoot an innocent child in the head unless God creates/conserves the bullet between barrel and brain. That's just a plain and straightforward reading of Feser's explication of divine causality per Aquinas.

            Argue, if you wish, that God does not initiate evil deeds. Nevertheless, if Aquinas is right and Feser is interpreting him correctly, without God's help those deeds could not succeed.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Aquinas defines evil as a privation of a good that ought to be in a created nature. It's like a rip in your sweater. The sweater exists, the rip does not (even through we speak as if it does), yet it damages the thing that does exist.

          • Sqrat

            And this furthers the discussion how?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I think it corrects what you think creation ex nihilo implies.

          • Sqrat

            Why do you think that?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            It appears you think Aquinas thinks God "causes" evil.

          • Sqrat

            Not at all. What I think is that, if Feser's exposition of Aquinas' theory of divine causality is correct, then Aquinas may have failed to realize that his theory logically entails that God must be a willing participant in evil in order for evil to occur.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Not being a Scholastic theologian I could not say, but I've read enough Aquinas to be very wary of assuming he didn't think implications through to the end.

          • Sqrat

            Not being a reader of Aquinas at all, I make no such assumption. I grant, for example, that it's possible that Feser's thumbnail sketch is incomplete, overly simplistic, or simply wrong. But I gather that, from your own reading of Aquinas, you don't recall anything that Aquinas said that addresses the apparent problem of theodicy entailed by the position outlined by Feser?

            That problem seems so obvious that perhaps Brandon might want to take Feser's article down. Brandon's trollin' for atheists here ("fishers of men" and all that). That article probably isn't gonna help him increase the size of his catch. If anything, it creates a certain impression of "Catholicism = just plain weird." That's the effect it has for me, anyway.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Try the New Apologetics.

          • Andre Boillot

            Are you perhaps in the employ of this borg-like group?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Nope.

            (Resistance is futile.)

      • josh

        Since Feser probably isn't going to answer any questions on a reprint of his usual spiel, should we just cancel comments on this post?

        • Kevin Aldrich

          I've suggested that SN only post pieces in which the author will engage with his audience.

          • josh

            Fair enough I guess. But given that it was posted I don't see a reason to object to people commenting on it.

  • The arguments are difficult for someone not versed in the metaphysical
    presuppositions of Aquinas’s philosophical theology—indeed, some of them
    are difficult even for someone who is versed in the relevant metaphysics.

    This is a powerful prima facie case that the presuppositions are too weakly based in reality, too vague, and/or too ambiguous to be reliable. You don't get the same effect in mature subfields of science and math -- only in subfields where the facts are still in doubt.

  • josh

    "Only someone with the relevant expert knowledge could take oxygen and
    hydrogen and synthesize water out of them."
    Curiously enough, oxygen and hydrogen 'synthesized' water all by themselves and humans came later. This should be a tip off that something is going badly wrong with your analogy/argument. Hydrogen and oxygen form water spontaneously under certain conditions, which can be fulfilled in one way by human action, but human knowledge is not necessary.

    " It would take greater power
    still to cause the prime matter underlying oxygen, hydrogen, or water to
    take on the substantial form of a tree."
    So now we've substituted power for knowledge. Well, there are lots of problems with the Aristotelian 'prime matter' concept and 'substantial forms'. But why does it take 'power' to put one in the other? Power is a concept between things that have matter and form, it has no clear meaning in this sentence.

    "But creation out of nothing
    requires more power even than that, in fact unlimited power." Infinity times definitional zero is still zero. Now if we were talking about limiting behavior (a mathematical formalism for those unfamiliar with it) maybe we could get somewhere. But this would require some actual definitions and rules of inference that aren't just pulled out of a metaphysician's metaphorical maximus.

  • Kant draws a similar distinction (in his Prolegomena) between "the cause OF appearances" and "the cause IN appearances" -- which, to my mind, makes intelligent design (as a matter of faith) and evolution (as a matter of science) perfectly compatible (as illustrated in the diagram, below).

    For more on Kant, see his treatment of "the fourth antinomy" on pages 53 and 58 of this PDF file:
    http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdf/kantprol.pdf

    (4) Thesis: In the series of the world’s causes there is
    some necessary being.

    Antithesis: There is nothing necessary in the world; in
    that series everything is contingent.