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If Everything Requires a Cause, What Caused God?

Bertrand Russell

W. Norris Clarke’s article, “A Curious Blind Spot in the Anglo-American Tradition of Antitheistic Argument,” first appeared in The Monist in 1970.  It was reprinted in his anthology titled The Creative Retrieval of St. Thomas Aquinas: Essays in Thomistic Philosophy, New and Old, which was published posthumously in 2009.  I recently read the essay, and I did so with embarrassment and gratification.  Embarrassment because I found that something I’ve been harping on for a few years now had already been said by Fr. Clarke over 40 years ago.  Gratification because I found that something I’ve been harping on for a few years now had already been said by Fr. Clarke over 40 years ago.

The stock caricature in question is, of course, the “Everything has a cause, so the universe has a cause” argument.  As I’ve pointed out many times on my blog (e.g. here and here), no major proponent of the idea of a First Cause ever actually defended this argument.  Indeed, all the major proponents of arguments for a First Cause would reject the claim that “everything has a cause,” and on entirely principled, rather than ad hoc, grounds.  Hence the stock retort to this caricature has no force whatsoever against their actual arguments.  That stock retort is of course to ask, “If everything has a cause, then what caused God?” and then to suggest that if God need not have a cause, then neither need the universe have a cause.  Maybe, those who attack this caricature suggest, it is the universe itself (or the event that gave rise to it) that is the first or uncaused cause.

The “curious blind spot” Clarke is referring to is contemporary Anglo-American philosophers’ inability or unwillingness to see that in routinely trotting out this objection they are attacking a straw man that bears no interesting relationship whatsoever to what writers like Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. actually said.

On my own blog, I’ve given many examples of philosophers who attack the straw man First Cause argument.  They include Bertrand RussellSteven HalesNigel Warburton, and (as I showed in a post discussing several examples at once) Daniel Dennett, Robin Le Poidevin, Graham Priest, Michael Martin, Simon Blackburn, Jenny Teichman and Katherine Evans.  Clarke offers several further examples from philosophy textbooks of the mid twentieth century, including John Hospers’ widely used An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis.  As Clarke indicates, Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian may be the source from which many subsequent writers learned this caricature and the stock reply to it.  Clarke also notes that Russell in turn seems to have gotten the idea from John Stuart Mill, who in turn got it from his father James Mill.  Clarke thinks that David Hume, who in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion attacks something like the stock straw man First Cause argument, may be the first well-known writer to do so.  Clarke writes:

"Let it first be agreed without qualification that if one does admit the principle “Every being has a cause,” then the refutation is inescapable and devastating.  But the very ease of this refutation, if nothing else, should have aroused some suspicions in the minds of its users, one would have thought, as to whether their supposed opponents were actually using this principle.  And it is in itself a highly suspicious fact that no one among the many in this Hume-Russell tradition whom I have read ever quotes any specific theistic philosopher who does make use of it.  So constant is this pattern, in fact, that I am willing to wager that this family trait is found also in those I have not yet run across." (p. 55, emphasis added)

As I have noted in the earlier posts cited, the pattern in question certainly has continued in the 40 plus years since Clarke wrote.  Critics regularly attack the straw man without citing anyone who has ever defended it.  (Le Poidevin even admits that no one has actually defended it!)  After falsely accusing proponents of the First Cause argument of contradicting themselves by denying that God has a cause, Hospers smugly writes:

"Many people do not at once see this because they use the argument to get to God, and then, having arrived at where they want to go, they forget all about the argument..." (quoted by Clarke at p. 52)

But who exactly are these “many people”?  The critics do not tell us.  It’s tempting to conclude (paraphrasing Hospers) that these critics do not see that no one has ever really defended the straw man they attack because, having arrived at where they want to go -- a way of dismissing Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. tout court and thereby avoiding commitment to a divine First Cause -- they forget all about what these writers actually said.  Says Clarke:

"We can only conclude, then, that the Hume-Russell tradition of anti-theistic argument, on this point at least, somehow got off to a bad start by completely misunderstanding and misrepresenting the very argument it was trying to refute, and that it has continued to repeat itself ever since, talking only to itself, and without ever bothering to inquire whether the supposed other party to the debate was still there at all, or had ever been there.  In a word, it has become a tradition in the worse sense of the word, truly in a rut and apparently unaware of it." (p. 59)

Confirming evidence of this is provided by Steven Hales’ response to my recent criticism of him for peddling the straw man.  Prof. Hales wrote:

"I do find it surprising that Professor Feser chooses to hang his hat on the Cosmological Argument of all things, an argument that the vast majority of contemporary philosophers consider risible, but I suppose that no interesting philosophical argument is ever truly dead."

But of course, the reason “the vast majority of contemporary philosophers consider [the argument] risible” is precisely because what they know of it is the straw man version peddled in books like Hales’ rather than what proponents of the cosmological argument have actually said!  It’s a vicious circle.  “We know the cosmological argument in general is too silly to be worth taking seriously because the version we learned from the textbooks is so easily refuted; and we know there aren’t any other versions worth looking into, because the cosmological argument in general is too silly to be worth taking seriously.”  This tells you nothing about the value of the cosmological argument, and everything about the value of the conventional wisdom in academic philosophy.

In fact, as Clarke notes, Aquinas explicitly denies that everything has a cause.  He held that “to be caused by another does not appertain to a being inasmuch as it is being; otherwise, every being would be caused by another, so that we should have to proceed to infinity in causes -- an impossibility…” (Summa Contra Gentiles II.52.5).  For writers like Aristotle, Plotinus, and Aquinas and other Scholastics, it is not the fact of something’s existence as such, or of its being a thing per se, that raises causal questions about it.  It is only some limitation in a thing’s intrinsic intelligibility that does so -- for example, the fact that it has potentials that need actualization, or that it is composed of parts which need to be combined, or that it merely participates in some feature, or that it is contingent in some respect.  Hence these writers would never say that “everything has a cause.”  What they would say is that every actualization of a potential has a cause, or whatever is composite has a cause, or whatever has a feature only by participation has a cause, or whatever is contingent has a cause.

Accordingly, when they arrive at God via a First Cause argument, there is no inconsistency, no sudden abandonment of the very premise that got the argument going.  Rather, the argument is that the only way to terminate a regress of actualizers of potentials is by reference to something which is pure actuality, devoid of potentiality, and thus without anything that needs to be, or even could be, actualized; or it is that a regress of causes of composed things can be terminated only by something which is absolutely simple or non-composite, and thus without any parts whose combination needs to be, or indeed could have been, caused by anything; or that the only way to terminate a regress of things that cause other things to participate in being is by reference to that which just is being itself rather than something which merely has or participates in being, and thus something which neither needs, nor could have had, a cause of its own being; or that the only way to terminate a regress of causes of contingent things is by reference to something absolutely necessary, which by virtue of its absolute necessity need not have, and could not have, had something impart existence to it; and so forth.

Whatever one thinks of these sorts of arguments, there is no inconsistency in them, nor any ad hoc exceptions to general principles.  The only way to accuse them of either fault is by reading into them the silly straw man argument that their proponents would reject.

How did the Hume-Russell straw man tradition ever get started in the first place?  I noted in another blog post that Descartes’ “preservation” argument, an eccentric and now little-known variation on the cosmological argument, implies that there is a sense in which everything has a cause -- though it does not explicitly appeal to that claim as a premise, and it does not make an exception in the case of God since it regards Him as self-caused.  Clarke discusses this argument in some detail and shows that while Descartes’ development and defense of the argument in the Replies is complicated and confusing, at the end of the day even he does not appear to be saying quite the sort of thing that the Hume-Russell straw man attributes to First Cause arguments.  What Descartes is saying is something closer to a version of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR), on which everything has an explanation.  And in the case of cosmological arguments that appeal to PSR (like Leibniz’s), the Hume-Russell style objection cannot get off the ground, because these arguments do not and need not make any exception in the case of God.  They hold that absolutely everything has an explanation.  In the case of contingent things, the explanation lies outside the thing, and in the case of a necessary being, the explanation lies in the thing’s own nature.  Again, whatever one thinks of such arguments, there is no inconsistency in them, nor any ad hoc exception to a general principle.

Clarke suggests that Descartes blurred the distinction between a cause and a sufficient reason, and that Spinoza (who also thought of God as self-caused) did the same.  What they really meant was something like “Everything has an explanation,” where they make no exception in the case of God.  But since they use the language of “cause,” it sounds like they are saying that “Everything has a cause” in the usual sense of an efficient cause which is distinct from its effect.  And of course that is the sort of cause that God is traditionally said not to have, and which Descartes and Spinoza themselves would deny that he has (even if they think he does have a “cause” in the sense of a sufficient reason).

Clarke suggests that what Hume did was essentially to confuse these two senses of “cause,” taking the rationalist claim that “everything has a ‘cause’-in-the-sense-of-a-sufficient-reason” to be identical to the claim that “everything has a ‘cause’-in-the-sense-of-an-efficient-cause-distinct-from-itself. “  In fact no defender of the cosmological argument ever made the latter claim, but since Descartes and Spinoza made the former claim it seemed to Hume as if someone had made it.  He then essentially made the further step of attributing this thesis to proponents of the cosmological argument in general.  And then, since proponents of the cosmological argument in general do deny that God has a ‘cause’-in-the-sense-of-an-efficient-cause-distinct-from-himself, the claim that proponents of the argument were contradicting themselves seemed to have force.  But as Clarke says:

"Thus the First Cause argument for the existence of God which the Hume-Russell tradition so devastatingly attacks is indeed an inviable metaphysical monster.  But it is a monster of their own fabrication, not that of any reputable theistic philosopher.  It is actually a kind of hybrid of both the traditional Scholastic and Cartesian rationalist traditions, which would make sense in neither and be repudiated by both." (p. 62)

Clarke goes on to note that while Hume may have had some excuse for this error given the confusing nature of Descartes’ terminology, “it is much harder to excuse his successors in this tradition, with all the resources of historical scholarship and linguistic analysis at their disposal, for perpetuating this confusion” (p. 62).  And again, Clarke wrote this over 40 years ago.  In the decades since, lip service to and indeed genuine knowledge of the history of philosophy has dramatically increased within Anglo-American analytic philosophy, and still this absurd caricature of the cosmological argument are routinely and matter-of-factly peddled by academic philosophers.

And unfortunately, the Hume-Russell straw man has so deeply distorted general understanding of the cosmological argument that even some theists -- indeed, even some sympathizers with the cosmological argument -- feel they have to treat it as if it had something to do with the arguments of Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al.  Consider Alex Pruss’s article “The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.  In general it is (as, of course, Alex’s work typically is) excellent.  But Alex says that “a typical cosmological argument faces four different problems,” one of which he describes as follows:

"The third difficulty is the Taxicab Problem, coming from Schopenhauer’s quip that in the cosmological argument, the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) is like a taxicab that once used is sent away.  The difficulty here is in answering what happens when the explanatory principle… gets applied to the First Cause.  A popular formulation is: 'If God is the cause of the universe, what is the cause of God?'  Typical solutions argue that the case of the First Cause is different in some way that is not merely ad hoc from the cases to which the explanatory principle was applied." (pp. 24-25)

Alex goes on to argue that this “problem” can indeed be solved, but I think he should never have treated it as a “problem” for the argument in the first place.  Suppose critics of Darwinism routinely asserted that Darwinians claim that a monkey gave birth to the first human baby, and also routinely went on to ridicule this claim as evidence of the “risibility” of Darwinism.  Would it be a good idea for a defender of Darwinism to say that “a typical Darwinian argument faces four different problems, one of which is the Monkey Problem,” and then go on to offer a solution to this “Monkey Problem”?  Of course not, because the “Monkey Problem” is a complete fabrication that no version of Darwinism ever needed a “solution” to.  The proper response would be relentlessly to hammer this point home, not to dignify the objection by treating it as if it were something other than an attack on a straw man.  That only reinforces the misunderstanding in question in the very act of trying to resolve it.  But the same thing is true of the bogus “Taxicab Problem.”  (By the way, I think something similar could be said of the other three “problems” Alex refers to in his article.  They all concern issues that defenders of cosmological arguments are typically addressing head on from the start, not “problems” that remain to be solved after the arguments have been given.)

I’ll give Fr. Clarke the last word, by quoting a passage that I think conveys the correct attitude to take toward those who attack the Hume-Russell straw man.  I think a willingness to assent to what Clarke says here provides a useful test of the competence and intellectual honesty of any atheist and of any professional philosopher:

"[W]e are here in the presence of a philosophical tradition that is truly in a self-repetitive rut, a tradition that has long since ceased to look outside of itself to check with reality and see whether the adversary it so triumphantly and effortlessly demolishes really exists at all… [I]t would seem to be high time that those who still follow this particular tradition of antitheistic argument should have the grace and humility to acknowledge that their argument is dead, and let us get on with more substantive problems with regard to philosophical argument for and against the existence of God." (pp. 62-63)

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.

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Dr. Edward Feser

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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.

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