Proving the First Cause is Real…and Still Exists Today
NOTE: Today we continue an occasional series of exchanges between Catholic theologian Dr. Michael Augros, author of Who Designed the Designer?: A Rediscovered Path to God's Existence (Ignatius Press, 2015), and various email interlocutors. We shared the first question on Wednesday and today we offer Dr. Augros' response. Enjoy!
First of all, thank you very much for your interest in my book and for your thought-provoking questions!
Perhaps a good way to approach your questions would be to start with a fresh example or two, and then come back to your specific concerns.
Knowledge and opinion are among the things in our experience that require some kind of cause, so let’s consider these as an illustration of the rule that a series of simultaneously acting causes cannot be without a first cause. Sometimes one thing you know can cause you to know another. That’s what happens when you reason from premises you know to be true. Note, too, that the premises cause you to know the conclusion, and not just to come to know it. If you show me a reason to doubt one of the premises I always relied upon for concluding to the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem, I would realize that I do not really know the Pythagorean Theorem—so my knowing it depends on my knowing that the premises behind it are true, for so long as I know it.
But how do we know the premises prior to any conclusion? Must there always be other premises before them, causing us to know them? If that were so, we could know nothing at all, or not by reasoning. Take our present question, for example. I say that there must be a God:
Someone else says “I don’t see that.” So I supply some kind of argument:
God is X.
So , God exists.
But now my interlocutor calls my first premise into question. How do I know God is X? In reply to this challenge, I supply another argument of some sort:
God is Z.
Z is X.
So, God is X.
If my challenger now calls one of these new premises into question, I will have to supply still more premises. Suppose I have in stock a whole infinity of premises none of which is convincing to anyone (not even me) by itself. They are all unknown, iffy, questionable, and each one will become known only if something prior to it makes it known. That description applies to every single one of these premises I have in store. If each one of these in-itself-unknown statements follows from prior ones in this infinite list, can the infinity of such premises cause anyone to know their ultimate conclusion? Can we know that “God exists” (or any other true statement) if our knowledge of it depends on an infinity of prior premises, with nothing that is self-evidently true and principle of the whole series of premises?
I say no. And that is not just because we don’t have enough time to go through the whole infinity of premises. Even if you knew what they all said, you still wouldn’t know the truth of the conclusion, so long as no premise in the whole lot had any convincing power of its own. The whole infinity of premises (each one of which follows from certain ones before it in the list) is like one giant thing you don’t know. Introducing more things you do not know to be true, even an infinity of them in a logical chain, cannot cause you to know anything at all.
In this example, as in the others in the book, it is possible to discern the reason why there must be a first cause. Remember, “first cause” here does not mean what is “first in time” (although a first cause might also be first in time, or even causally prior to time itself), but means instead something that is prior to other things in causation, and does not in turn depend on any other cause at all.
The principle or axiom at work here is this: Before anything that is “by another” there must be something “not by another.” To illustrate this axiom:
If a towel is wet, but not simply because it is a towel (and so it is not wet just “by itself,” that is, by being itself), then it is wet “by another,” that is, due to something else, such as the water in it. And that cannot be the whole story—there must be something prior to the towel being wet by another, such as the water in it that is wet by itself, not by something else.
If the coffee is sweet, but not simply because it is coffee (and so it is not sweet just “by itself,” that is, by being coffee), then it is sweet “by another,” that is, due to something else, such as the sugar in it. And prior to the coffee being sweet by another, the sugar is sweet just by itself—it is not sweetened by something else.
If some type of invasive surgery is good for you, but not simply by itself (as though such surgery could be a good option for you regardless of what further results it might or might not bring), then it is good “by another,” that is, due to something else, such as the health that it can restore. And your health is good of itself, not just because of something else it might bring (i.e., it is good by itself, not “by another”). Or if your health is not good of itself, but is good only because of its connection to something else, there still has to be something that is good or desired by you just on its own account, and not purely because of something else, or else nothing will be good for you or desired by you at all.
Now, one has to be careful about how one understands and applies this axiom. It is not always the case that “What is X by another” leads back to “What is X by itself.” For example, “What is held up by another” (e.g. a hat is held up by a nail) does not ultimately lead us back to “What is held up by itself,” but instead leads us back, ultimately, to “What is not held up” at all, such as the earth. The series still terminates in something distinct from all the other members of the series, but not in “What is X by itself,” but simply in “What is not X” and is something else altogether. So we must be aware that this can happen sometimes.
Another example of this: “What is proved by another” does not lead back to “What is proved by itself.” Nothing proves itself. That would involve a contradiction, since in that case the same statement would both need to be proved and would also supply the proof for itself at the same time. Instead, “What is proved by another” goes back ultimately to other statements that simply are not proved—but statements that are still known, because although they are not proved they are self-evidently true.
So in this way “What is by another” must always lead back to “What is by itself”—sometimes “What is X by another” leads back to “What is X by itself” (as “What is sweet by another” goes back to “What is sweet by itself”), and other times “What is X by another” leads back to “What is not X at all, but is Y, by itself” (as “What is proved by another” goes back to “What is not proved, and needs no proof, but is evident by itself”).
(Another example of the latter is the case of things in motion—everything in motion is in motion by another, but this does not go back to what is in motion by itself, or not ultimately, but instead goes back ultimately to what is not in motion at all. But that goes a little deeper than we need to go right now.)
Whew! If you’ve digested that, then let’s apply this now to your first concern in your email. You ask about this argument:
"If there were caused causes, with no first cause, they would constitute a middle with nothing before it.
But it is impossible for there to be a middle with nothing before it.
Therefore, there cannot be caused causes with no first cause."
You ask (in effect) why we cannot deny the first premise. Why not say that we have a series of causes, and each one has a cause before it, so that we have an infinity of causes and no first one at all?
The answer is: because on that supposition, every cause would be a cause “by another,” due to something else, and not just by itself or of itself. Now the axiom illustrated above demands that where there is something “by another” there must also be something that is “not by another,” or something that is “by itself.” Since there are caused causes, that is, things that are causes not just of themselves but only by another, therefore (by the axiom) there must also be, prior to them all, a cause that is a cause “not by another.”
Since this thing is the cause of other things, but it is not made a cause “by another,” its being and causation must either be “caused by itself” or else “not caused at all.” But what is “caused by itself” involves a contradiction, if we take the phrase strictly (supposing the thing does not exist and then causes itself to exist, or somehow continually gives itself its existence). Instead, then, we must say that it is not caused at all—and so it is a cause of other things, but nothing is a cause of it. And that is what a first cause is.
The first premise above is just another way of saying all of this. If there were things that were causes by another (that is, each one is a cause only because something else is making each one to be a cause), but there were nothing that was a cause by itself, then this group of causes would require something before all of them (by the axiom above, and by the supposition that they are all “by another”), and yet there would be nothing before them all (by the supposition that there is no first cause).
I hope that helps with regard to your first concern.
Your second concern is about the entirely separate argument about the maximum in the series, which I stated only very briefly in the book. How can there be a maximum if we assume there is an infinity of causes?
To be clear, I am not making a claim that every infinite set must have a maximum. If we were to speak of the set of all possible instances of the number 3, then that set is infinite in some way, but all the members are all equal. There is no maximum in such a case.
Nor do I think that a set that is unfinished, but which might be added to, has to have a maximum possible member. For example, the set of positive integers. In reality, we can only have a finite number of integers written down or instantiated in things, or so it seems to me. But we can always add the next integer, and there is no “greatest possible integer.”
But if we are talking about a set of things no two of which are equal, and that are (or can be) set out in order, and they all exist simultaneously and in complete reality (they are not mere possibilities, but really existing and acting entities), then the very nature of this completeness demands some sort of maximum. And this is part of what I mean when I speak of a set of things being definite in the way I used that expression in the book.
Let’s look at an example other than the causal series we are particularly concerned about. Suppose I add up the inverse powers of two. As I’m sure you know, this sum can never get as large as 2, no matter how many terms we add, although it can get as close to 2 as we please. One might think that if we only had them all somehow, then we would have exactly 2. But I do not see how this can be so (and neither did Zeno, or Aristotle, or Thomas Aquinas). If we suppose we had them all, then by the very nature of the completeness we are supposing, there must have been a last term added. Now what was this last term? It is either zero, or a finite quantity, or an infinite one. If the last thing added is infinite, then the sum is infinite in magnitude, not 2. If it is some finite quantity, then since an infinity of terms precede it that are all greater than it (since each prior term is double the next), we again have an infinite magnitude. If the last thing added is zero, then since all the terms prior to it are multiples of it, they are all zero as well, and the sum is zero. And no matter what one thinks of this dilemma, one cannot get around this: if we have all of the terms of this series, then thanks to their order and completeness there must be a last term, even if we still try to insist that the members of the series are infinite in multitude.
Much the same thing is true in the case of a series of causes each one of which is caused by the one before it. If we are only talking about a possible series of causes in our heads or imaginations, then indeed there is no limit to the multitude of prior causes we can add. For example, suppose that
A is being caused by B, B by C, C by D, D by E
Can we add another, so that E is being caused by F? Sure. And there is no limit to this, so long as we are talking only about a possible series that might be realized. Consequently, there might also be no maximum, so long as we are talking about certain kinds of causes. For example, if the terms are boxcars, each one being moved by another, there is no general principle of causation that says you can have only 5 of them in a train. Why not 25? Or 9,867? There might be special reasons of physics that limit the number, but that is another matter.
But once we suppose we are talking about a real causal series (outside our heads) that is finished, complete, and functioning, we have committed ourselves. Even if we suppose there is an infinity of boxcars moving on the tracks (again, there might be physical impossibilities besides the metaphysical ones, but let’s not worry about that for the moment), there must be a complete causation, since the effect is being produced. That means all the causes of this effect, the ones presently producing it and necessary in order to produce it right now, are presently existing. So it is not a matter of some abstract series we might add to in our heads. It is all here. And even if we suppose it includes an infinity of boxcars, each pulling the one after it and being pulled by the one before it, we must admit that something makes the causal series complete and functional (this will be the reason, for example, that the whole series of cars is moving one way rather than the other way). But no single boxcar does that. So something else does. Whatever this is, it is the cause of the whole shebang, and so it is most of all a cause (a maximum in causation). And since it is more a cause than anything else, and is a cause of all the causation of all the other causes, there can be nothing that is a cause of it. So it is uncaused.
You voice a third difficulty:
"I am also having problems understanding how the first cause necessarily needs to still exist with us today. To tweak your train analogy, if the engine, which you designate the first cause, spontaneously exploded and the explosion pushed all the connected boxcars on a frictionless railroad track indefinitely, we would still have the same chain of causes and effects but with an initial mover that no longer exists."
Let’s consider a simpler case similar to your exploding engine—a thrown baseball. While a baseball is being thrown by me, its motion is caused by me. As soon as I release it, its motion is no longer being caused by me. I could die of a stroke, and the ball will keep going, especially if I throw it out in space where there is nothing to slow it down, or not much. So you could find my baseball, or Voyager II, still moving out in space long after the causes that got these things going have vanished out of existence.
As soon as we are thinking along those lines, we have stopped thinking about a series of essentially ordered and presently acting causes. We are thinking about things that used to be acting causes, and are no longer. The question about a “first cause” (where this is defined as first in causation, not in time), however, is precisely about causes acting now, in the present, not about series of things going back into the past. If I am painting somebody’s portrait, we find a series of causes like this:
My Brush : My Hand : My Brain : My will ...
These causes are working together in the present, not one after another in time. This is the kind of series that cannot go on through an infinity of causes without a first cause. It might also be true that we have a kind of series of causes like this:
Me painting right now : My parents conceiving me : Their parents conceiving them ...
If my parents had never conceived me, I would not be here and I would not be painting this portrait. And if their parents had never conceived them, they would never have been, and I would never have come to be, and I would not be painting this portrait right now.
But this is a very different kind of series! In the first series, all the causes are working together at the same time. In the second series, the causes work successively, and not at the same time. In the first series, each cause is being given its causal power by the prior cause (the one named next in the series). My brush is producing the painting only because my hand is causing it to do so. But that is not what is happening with the second series. I am not painting this portrait because my parents are conceiving me right now. Although I must have been conceived in the past if I am to be painting now in the present, the act of conceiving me does not cause my act of painting. That is why I get more credit (or blame) for the painting than my parents do.
The arguments of Thomas Aquinas (and others) for the existence of a divine being are about causal series like the first one, not like the second one. It is in a series of that kind that God is called a “first cause.” And that is why he is more a cause of the world than are any of the secondary causes in between, just as I am more a cause of the portrait than is the brush I am using. (If you are interested in the terminology, the first kind of causal series is said to be ordered per se, the second per accidens, since in the first type each member is a cause of the next thing being a cause, not just a cause of a thing that later happens to be a cause.)
Coming back, now, to your tweaked version of the story of the train. Let us suppose that an engine (or whatever cause) has gotten a train going by pushing it, and then it is decoupled from the train of boxcars and they keep going along the tracks for some time. Certainly that can happen. I talk about similar cases in the book. A carpenter can build a house and then die on the way home, yet the house continues to exist without the carpenter. But that is because the carpenter is only a cause of the house coming into existence, not a cause of its continuing in existence. The carpenter causes the house to come to be, not simply to be. The engine is the cause of the train accelerating, or of its terminal velocity coming to be, not of its maintaining that terminal velocity.
So we must now ask: what is the cause of the train’s continuing in motion, now that the engine is no longer causing its motion?
One answer we might give (and this answer is often given) is “There is no cause of its motion—the motion needed a cause to bring it into existence, but once it exists, it continues on its own with no need of any cause whatsoever.” I try to show that this is false in chapters 2 and 3 of the book. But I can say something briefly here that might be helpful. If I pour milk into a glass, it takes on the shape of the glass—I caused the milk to take on that new shape. If I die right afterward, the milk continues to have that same shape, but this is no longer due to me. Does it follow that the milk now continues in that shape just of itself, due to no cause whatsoever? Not at all. There is still a cause. It continuously depends on the glass in order to continue to have the shape of the glass. So just because one cause is responsible only for the coming-to-be of something, and no more, does not mean there is no other cause at work that might be responsible for its continuing to be. The same goes for the motion of the train. The engine is not needed in order for the train to continue to move. That does not prove that there is no cause of its continuing to move.
Your question about the train brings out that the train of boxcars owes its motion to something other than just the engine. I must agree, of course, since I think that God is the cause of all things whatsoever other than himself, including the motion of the train and the existence of the engine (and the laws of physics inherent in its materials and in the surrounding space, etc.). But the train illustration, like the one with the chain and the lamp, is not supposed to get us back to the absolutely first cause of all things. It is only meant to illustrate the point that what is “by another” must take us back to what is “not by another,” just as the boxcars that are “moved by another car in the train” must take us back to what is “not moved by another car in the train,” namely the engine. So too what is “caused by another cause” must take us back to what is “not caused by another cause.”
Even if we supposed that the train is no longer being moved by anything, but just is in motion by itself without any cause whatsoever, we would be admitting that we have found a being and a cause which has no presently existing cause of any kind—the motion of the train, which we are supposing just exists by itself (and causes any number of effects), without being caused by anything. This is not true, but it concedes the main point of Ch.1, namely that there has to be at least one cause in existence that is not presently being caused by anything at all.
If the foregoing remarks seem too indigestible at points, you can simplify the question by asking yourself whether you think you can know anything through proof from an infinity of premises. If you see the impossibility of that, and see that the impossibility is not merely a matter of time constraints, then you are well on your way.
Thank you again, Mark, for your interest in the book, and for your intelligent questions. I do not always answer email inquiries about it, but I do my best to respond to thoughtful and honest concerns such as yours.
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