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Should We Be Skeptical About Needing a First Cause?

Skeptical

NOTE: Today we kick off 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'll start with the first email question today and Friday we'll share Dr. Augros' response. Enjoy!
 


 
Hello Dr. Augros,

I am a devout Catholic who recently purchased your book, Who Designed the Designer? I just finished the first chapter but hesitate to read further without first obtaining clarification regarding the first step in your proof. Granted, I am no philosopher, but I perceive potential issues already in the first chapter that I was hoping you would be able to clear up to allow me to read further.

I see problems with your first premise as it applies to infinite regression of causes. Your first proof states:

"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."

It seems to me you could just take that proof and substitute the words "cause before each cause" for the words "first cause" and still have a valid proof for an infinite regression of causes without the need for an absolute first cause.

It would thus read as follows:

"If there were caused causes, with no cause before each cause, they would constitute a middle with nothing before it.
 
But it is impossible to have a middle with nothing before it. Therefore, there cannot be caused causes with no cause before each cause."

I am really hoping I am missing something here.

Likewise, when you discuss Aristotle's view that even an infinity of causes requires a first cause, it seems to me that it all comes down to how you word the proof and how you define the terms, otherwise we run into the same problem Zeno ran into. You say that even an infinite set is definite and must therefore include a maximum "effect maker" and that maximum producer of effects cannot, by necessity, be preceded by a greater effect producer. The problem I see is there will never be a maximum effect maker with an infinite series of causes, insofar as the cause immediately preceding any other cause will necessarily include all the other cause's effects plus at least one, namely the other cause. If we consider that this "definite set" is open-ended with an infinite chain of causes, I don't think you can really define "maximum" in the way you do, since by necessity, the maximum will never end in a "definite set" which is open-ended, which is part of the definition of infinity. Please clarify this issue for me.

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. I don't really follow your logic that the first cause must, by necessity, still be with us today.

I understand you must be busy and I am not even a student of yours, but any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Sincerely,
Mark D.

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  • Paul Brandon Rimmer

    If I take a straight line in Euclidean geometry, and choose a point, is that point always the middle? What does it mean for an infinite line to have a middle at all?

    Or a ray, that certainly doesn't seem to have a middle. It has a beginning (or end, depending on which way you're facing). Any point you choose will have an infinite length on one side and a finite length on the other.

    If there are an infinite number of causes, why not just say that it's like we are living on an infinite timeline? No point's more the middle than any other. Or, for those who have a more definite idea of time, where there's some preferred present and undetermined future, we live at the end of a ray. Any past point we think of will always have a finite amount of time to get to the present, and an infinite amount of time into the past.

    I also (still) don't understand why an infinite chain of causes requires a first cause outside of that chain. Assuming that there's always an explanation for why things are the way they are, maybe the chain explains itself. Otherwise, if something outside the chain, (OC), explains the chain, then we can just take chain + OC and ask about that. That seems like it would be its own first cause, or wouldn't require one.

    • OverlappingMagisteria

      I understood the word "middle" in the article to mean "something that is both preceded and followed by at least one other thing." Not "the mid-point between two endpoints." So any point on a ray except the end point would be a "middle" according to this (slightly misleading) definition.

      • Paul Brandon Rimmer

        Saying that there must be a beginning would be identical to saying
        "there must be a thing that is not preceded by another thing". It would also seem as though there'd have to be an end, "there must be a thing that is not followed by another thing". If that's the case, then doesn't the whole argument reduce to "there must be a first cause because there must be a first cause"? Ignoring the strange possible implications about final effects, this seems to be a tautology.

    • It seems to me that an infinite chain of causes is an infinite chain of contingencies, and an infinite chain of contingencies is still itself a contingent reality, and thus necessarily still entails an explanation which is not itself contingent.

      • Paul Brandon Rimmer

        Why can't a combination of contingent things be a necessary thing?

        • If a set of existents is contigent then each element is not necessary to the set as a whole, and thus the set itself is not necessary--since it could have different, or less, elements.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Why can't the group have different properties in this case than the members? Individual atoms don't have temperature, but groups of them can. The group of all contingent things may be able to explain why it is the way it is altogether, even though individual members cannot explain why they are the way they are. Then no member could be absent, because the group would no longer be able to explain itself. This would seem to entail that no member could be different from the way it is.

          • I definitely agree that a set of elements of nature X does not necessitate that the set also has the nature X, but that's not exactly what I'm saying. I'm saying that something is contingent if it's conceivable for it to have failed to exist. Therefore, if you have a set of elements in which each element could conceivable fail to exist, then the set as a whole could also conceivably fail to exist in its current state, and thus the set itself also satisfies the definition of contingency.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I see what you're saying, and you make a good point.

            My speculation is more that maybe everything necessarily exists, relative to the world. This may require that the set of contingent facts may be explained by essential or autonomous facts, like Shamik Dasgupta attempts in his paper on metaphysical rationalism ( http://www.shamik.net/papers/dasgupta%20metaphysical%20rationalism.pdf ).

          • This conversation was enlightening; thank you for it. One quick tip: you might make it clear that when you remove a contingent element, you no longer have set S, but set S'. For a set S of 4 elements, you can ask whether set S'''' even exists. I sniff bundle theory and essentialism lurking here.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            If you are going to apply contingency to sets then either all sets are contingent or there is only one way that the world could be.

            As I said above:

            Furthermore, by your logic all sets are contingent. The set C + {a necessary being} is contingent, because I could remove an element from C.

          • I don't understand your dichotomy; can you flesh it out some more? If there is a necessary being, how does that fact alone indicate that "there is only one way that reality could be"? Perhaps you could differentiate between 'necessary reality' and 'contingent reality', in your response.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I think this thread is very slopping in using a definition for a contingent element of a set and then trying to use that definition for sets. If I define a set X to be all positive integers less than 50, it does not make sense to say that the set X is less than 50.

            If we wish to talk define contingent sets, by saying a set is contingent if another set could possibly exist, then either all sets are contingent or there is only one necessary set.

            Let us call the set of everything that exists U. If another U' could have existed than both U and U' are contingent. Otherwise U is necessary.
            The set N consisting only of a necessary being is contingent, because we have observed U as a possible set, so the set N is merely possible.
            This is what follows from the definition we are using here.

            Personally, I would define contingent sets as a set C that is not explained by any subset of C, but I don't think you can get to a first mover from here.

          • If we wish to talk define contingent sets, by saying a set is contingent if another set could possibly exist, then either all sets are contingent or there is only one necessary set.

            Why can there not be two necessary sets, with all other sets being contingent?

            Personally, I would define contingent sets as a set C that is not explained by any subset of C, but I don't think you can get to a first mover from here.

            This smells like linear independence. It also threatens to make God out to be only a first mover, instead of continuing to actively create.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Why can there not be two necessary sets, with all other sets being contingent?

            Per Seven's definition:

            I'm saying that something is contingent if it's conceivable for it to have failed to exist. Therefore, if you have a set of elements in which each element could conceivable fail to exist, then the set as a whole could also conceivably fail to exist in its current state, and thus the set itself also satisfies the definition of contingency.

            If they two necessary sets are two distinct states of affairs then the two sets are contingent.

            This is why I think we need a different definition.

            This smells like linear independence. It also threatens to make God out to be only a first mover, instead of continuing to actively create.

            It is similar to the basis for a vector space. But it highlights one of my objections to these arguments. That is why can't a set of contingent elements explain themselves. Something like A explaining B, B explaining C and C explaining A.

            I am not convinced by proofs that infinite regress is impossible. And I would like to know if the principle of sufficient reason is necessary or contingent. It really bothers me that apologists never make it explicit that they are using the PSR.

            These sort of arguments are so far from demonstrating the existence of God that I tend not to worry if he is a first mover or an active creator. For instance, it is said that the necessary being is one. Have not yet seen a proof for that one.

          • This is why I think we need a different definition.

            Alright; I can see you saying there is sloppiness which requires us to up the level of rigor.

            That is why can't a set of contingent elements explain themselves. Something like A explaining B, B explaining C and C explaining A.

            That would seem to be the 'circular argument' leg of Agrippa's trilemma. Generally it is rejected when it is said that the Bible is self-authenticating. :-p

            I am not convinced by proofs that infinite regress is impossible.

            Just so we're clear: infinite regress is different from the above circular argument. And nobody is saying that infinite regress simpliciter is impossible, only infinite regress of essentially ordered series. See for example Caleb Cohoe's There Must Be A First: Why Thomas Aquinas Rejects Infinite, Essentially Ordered, Causal Series.

            And I would like to know if the principle of sufficient reason is necessary or contingent. It really bothers me that apologists never make it explicit that they are using the PSR.

            You're always welcome to ask that the level of rigor be increased—but then you will also have to abide by the increase. As to the PSR, that may be a philosophical decision instead of an empirically discovered fact. It is very easy for people to have a preferred model for understanding reality, and dismiss all deviations as 'noise' or 'irrationality'. The PSR seems like a weapon against such dismissal.

            These sort of arguments are so far from demonstrating the existence of God that I tend not to worry if he is a first mover or an active creator. For instance, it is said that the necessary being is one. Have not yet seen a proof for that one.

            I actually see these arguments more in terms of establishing that if we don't want to admit certain things, we should give up on the idea that anything is essentially ordered, or giving up on the PSR. These are very serious concessions; I'm not sure you want to make either one of them, and very likely not both. If nothing is essentially ordered, I'm not sure that rationality itself can survive.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            That would seem to be the 'circular argument' leg of Agrippa's trilemma. Generally it is rejected when it is said that the Bible is self-authenticating. :-p

            But it is not a knowledge claim. All I am saying is that one would need to prove that contingent beings could not explain themselves by a looping process of some sort.

            Just so we're clear: infinite regress is different from the above circular argument. And nobody is saying that infinite regress simpliciter is impossible, only infinite regress of essentially ordered series

            Sure, but I'm just listing deficiencies in cosmological arguments.

            You're always welcome to ask that the level of rigor be increased—but then you will also have to abide by the increase.

            If apologists are going to throw around the word proof, I demand a very high level of rigor.

            As to the PSR, that may be a philosophical decision instead of an empirically discovered fact. It is very easy for people to have a preferred model for understanding reality, and dismiss all deviations as 'noise' or 'irrationality'. The PSR seems like a weapon against such dismissal.

            I hope that the PSR is true, and it most cases it is helpful to act like it is true. Is the PSR a contingent or necessary fact?

            I actually see these arguments more in terms of establishing that if we don't want to admit certain things, we should give up on the idea that anything is essentially ordered, or giving up on the PSR.

            Let us take the PSR for a second. Consider a particle in a box with a wave function. At some point we observe the particle. Is there a reason why we observe the particle at point A instead of some other point?

          • But it is not a knowledge claim. All I am saying is that one would need to prove that contingent beings could not explain themselves by a looping process of some sort.

            How is "explain themselves", "not a knowledge claim"? As to your "looping process", I am reminded of fractals and such. But if you only ever integrate your prior state plus an algorithm to get your future state, you will be very limited. Fractals are very beautiful, but they are also very limited.

            Sure, but I'm just listing deficiencies in cosmological arguments.

            Ok. But if those deficiencies are not matched against deficiencies in alternative proposals, then you will be taking advantage of the asymmetry that it is easier to critique and tear down, than it is to explain and build up.

            If apologists are going to throw around the word proof, I demand a very high level of rigor.

            Again, as long as you can match it, be my guest. I simply despise hypocrisy, whether outright or subtly hidden, e.g.:

                In one definition of the word, it is of course impossible to find any assertions of full skepticism; even silent enactments are difficult. A good general rule is: scratch a skeptic and find a dogmatist. (Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, 56)

            I'm not a huge fan of standard Christian apologetics, but I'm also not a huge fan of standard New Atheism argumentation. I'd love to raise the level of both!

            Is the PSR a contingent or necessary fact?

            It's not clear that one can know which is the case; one might have to believe. Take for example, the following:

            In 1590, skeptics still doubted whether humans can find universal regularities in nature; by 1640, nature was in irremediable decay: but, by 1700, the changeover to the "law-governed" picture of a stable cosmos was complete. (Cosmopolis, 110)

            Had those skeptics convinced everyone, they would have appeared right because nobody would have expended the blood, sweat, and tears to do science. Fortunately, sufficiently many 'scientists' believed that what they were doing was possible. Evidence followed that belief. I suspect the same is the case in significant portions of Christianity, e.g. Rom 8:16–25.

            Let us take the PSR for a second. Consider a particle in a box with a wave function. At some point we observe the particle. Is there a reason why we observe the particle at point A instead of some other point?

            I am convinced by the argument of David Bohm, who probably should have gotten a Nobel Prize for the Aharonov–Bohm effect:

                The assumption that any particular kind of fluctuations are arbitrary and lawless relative to all possible contexts, like the similar assumption that there exists an absolute and final determinate law, is therefore evidently not capable of being based on any experimental or theoretical developments arising out of specific scientific problems, but it is instead a purely philosophical assumption. (Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, 44)

            This receives support in 2006 by quantum physicist-turned-philosopher Bernard d'Espagnat:

                In order to properly understand the nature of this argument, let us first derive from what has been recalled above the obvious lesson that (as already repeatedly noted) quantum mechanics is an essentially predictive, rather than descriptive, theory. What, in it, is truly robust is in no way its ontology, which, on the contrary, is either shaky or nonexistent. (On Physics and Philosophy, 148)

            The claim that QM is only predictive means that it is agnostic to the 'substrate', as it were, which generates the phenomena which it predicts. One might compare thermodynamics as predictive model, to statistical mechanics as ontological substrate.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            How is "explain themselves", "not a knowledge claim"?

            I am saying that it remains to be shown that it is logically impossible to have a situation in which: A is contingent on B which is contingent on C which is contingent on A.

            This is different from saying that A is true because B, B is true because C, and C is true because A.

            Ok. But if those deficiencies are not matched against deficiencies in alternative proposals, then you will be taking advantage of the asymmetry that it is easier to critique and tear down, than it is to explain and build up.

            The alternate proposal is that we just don't know. This is better than false proofs.

            If you ask me if there was a first cause, I will simply say that I do not know. I do object to people claiming that they have a proof.
            Although I think I figured out how I would define contingent and necessary sets. A set C contingent if a subset of itself does not explain C. A set N is necessary if it is a subset of all non-contingent sets.

            Again, as long as you can match it, be my guest. I simply despise hypocrisy, whether outright or subtly hidden, e.g.:

            I only use the word proof in the context of mathematics.

            I'm not a huge fan of standard Christian apologetics, but I'm also not a huge fan of standard New Atheism argumentation. I'd love to raise the level of both!

            Well, every bad new atheist argument is in response to a bad apologetic argument. You reap what you sow. ;-) Seriously though, I think the main problem with popular argumentation is that it is more concerned with winning the point than actually knowing the truth.

            Is the PSR a contingent or necessary fact?

            It's not clear that one can know which is the case; one might have to believe.

            It also depends on what we mean by possible world.

            Another issue I think is the cavalier way we talk about explanations. Granting PSR, we really don't to a very good job of describing the content of the explanations. For instance, why do photons exist instead of not existing? Perhaps this is simply a lack of knowledge on my (our?) part, but reasons given for state of affairs X instead of Y don't seem to be very explanatory.

            How does a necessary being explain say the universe?

            I am convinced by the argument of David Bohm, who probably should have gotten a Nobel Prize for the Aharonov–Bohm effect:

            Interesting. I took a couple classes in QM in college, but this conversation will swiftly move past what I know. My distinct impression from quantum mechanics was that it violated PSR. This is not an argument though. I think Copenhagen is the most popular interpretation among physicists, so that is probably one reason.

          • I am saying that it remains to be shown that it is logically impossible to have a situation in which: A is contingent on B which is contingent on C which is contingent on A.

            Ok, but the set { A, B, C } can still be contingent. I'm afraid I may have completely lost the point.

            The alternate proposal is that we just don't know. This is better than false proofs.

            Hold on. QFT and GR contradict each other. We don't as a result, throw them in the trash bucket. Suppose fossil evidence produced a radical challenge to the theory of evolution. It wouldn't be trashed as a result; people would continue using it until something better comes along. Saying that we should throw out something because it has some problems is a very, very dangerous attitude. I say that needs to be immensely qualified, and once those qualifications are in place, I'm not at all confident that your "alternate proposal" is the best one, in this scenario.

            I only use the word proof in the context of mathematics.

            Well, have fun convincing others to use the word in the same way. Sometimes I fight for the meanings of words, sometimes I find it distracting from truth-seeking.

            Well, every bad new atheist argument is in response to a bad apologetic argument. You reap what you sow. ;-) Seriously though, I think the main problem with popular argumentation is that it is more concerned with winning the point than actually knowing the truth.

            I'll take that wink to be an acknowledgment that "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." As to your serious comment, what are you going to do about that observation? Demagogues and snake oil salesman are not a new phenomenon. Neither is sophistry.

            Another issue I think is the cavalier way we talk about explanations.

            Pretty much any philosopher worth his/her salt will agree with you. Which battles do you think are most important to pick in this realm? Which ones can you let slide, for the time being?

            How does a necessary being explain say the universe?

            It allows you to have essentially ordered causal series, it seems. It allows reality to exhibit mind-like qualities (say, beauty that isn't just an evolutionary adaptation) which are incredibly unlikely to obtain via impersonal causes. Naturalism seems to entail nominalism, which has pretty big costs. I'm not sure you can avoid nominalism without a necessary being. Now, I'm by no means an expert on necessary being metaphysics, so I think I'll stop here and let someone else take over.

            My distinct impression from quantum mechanics was that it violated PSR.

            Only if you think QM is a complete theory instead of being merely predictive.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Ok, but the set { A, B, C } can still be contingent. I'm afraid I may have completely lost the point.

            Even if it explains itself?

            Hold on. QFT and GR contradict each other. We don't as a result, throw them in the trash bucket.

            Both theories work exceptionally well. However, we do not yet know how to reconcile them. What we do know is that they work very well in the domains that they try to describe.

            Suppose fossil evidence produced a radical challenge to the theory of evolution. It wouldn't be trashed as a result; people would continue using it until something better comes along.

            Or they would posit a mechanismsm that could reconcile the fossil evidence with the theory of evolution. Evolution is well-evidenced. A challenge to evolution wouldn't cause us to throw evolution out, but rather revise it to fit the new data. Punctuated equilibrium comes to mind.

            Newton was well-evidenced. We don't throw out Newtonian physics, but rather realize it is a very good approximation for big and slow moving objects. If relativity didn't reduce to Newton under the right conditions, we would be very worried.

            Saying that we should throw out something because it has some problems is a very, very dangerous attitude.

            I am saying that on the basis of cosmological arguments, we do not know if there is a first mover or not. We do not know if there are one or many first movers. We do not know what a first mover even looks like. It could be a multi-verse or something that we haven't even conceived of. Thus, the proper attitude towards first movers is that we do not know if there is one or if there is one what it looks like.

            I say that needs to be immensely qualified, and once those qualifications are in place, I'm not at all confident that your "alternate proposal" is the best one, in this scenario

            I think we are talking about two different things. One is an empirically based knowledge that a theory works very well at describing and predicting. This theory we keep, even if it has problems, because the theory is largely successful.

            On the other hand, we have propositions that do not work well at describing or predicting. What does a first mover predict or describe? Most of the theist posters seem to think that these are philosophical question and this ipso facto are immune to any kind of empirical testing. I don't think too highly of this position, but I will ask exactly what does having a first mover predict and in what way does it work.

            First mover arguments are deductive arguments based on various assumptions or first principles. If they are false proofs and they do not work, then I would argue that not knowing is the proper epistemological stance.

            Well, have fun convincing others to use the word in the same way. Sometimes I fight for the meanings of words, sometimes I find it distracting from truth-seeking.

            Proof is a word worth fighting for. If something is proven, then anyone who studies the matter sufficiently will be convinced by the proof.

            As to your serious comment, what are you going to do about that observation? Demagogues and snake oil salesman are not a new phenomenon. Neither is sophistry.

            Haven't really given it much thought. I tend to only converse online with people who are interested in substantive conversation (like yourself) and those who say things that really annoys me. The latter is a vice I should avoid.

            Which battles do you think are most important to pick in this realm? Which ones can you let slide, for the time being?

            What is the content of an explanation? Given an explanation, how do we know that it is an explanation. I guess we need a definition of what an explanation looks like?

            It allows reality to exhibit mind-like qualities (say, beauty that isn't just an evolutionary adaptation) which are incredibly unlikely to obtain via impersonal causes. Naturalism seems to entail nominalism, which has pretty big costs. I'm not sure you can avoid nominalism without a necessary being.

            But there are atheists who are not nominalists.

            Only if you think QM is a complete theory instead of being merely predictive.

            It is complete locally.

          • Even if it explains itself?

            Well, you made a distinction between causality and explanation. But how can one have a full explanation without a full accounting of causality—of the entire "evolutionary history", as it were?

            Both theories work exceptionally well. However, we do not yet know how to reconcile them. What we do know is that they work very well in the domains that they try to describe.

            Yes. So, what constitutes "work very well" in the domain of cosmological arguments and such? The key here is that demanding perfection seems to be a wrong-headed endeavor.

            I am saying that on the basis of cosmological arguments, we do not know if there is a first mover or not.

            What is your standard for "knowing" something? Do we "know" that we're not brains in vats?

            Thus, the proper attitude towards first movers is that we do not know if there is one or if there is one what it looks like.

            It seems like even if there is a probability cloud, we might be able to say things about it.

            On the other hand, we have propositions that do not work well at describing or predicting.

            Is that their purpose? The proposition that "all propositions ought to describe or predict", by what you mean by 'describe', does not seem to itself describe or predict! What you've left out (at least) is final causation, but final causation is problematic, because it brings in the specter of ought, and we moderns tend to want that to be 100% locked up in the brain, as something 100% subjective, with really no ontological grounding whatsoever. Finding out more about actual final causes would not accomplish the scientific purpose of giving us greater power over reality, more unrestricted power.

            Most of the theist posters seem to think that these are philosophical question and this ipso facto are immune to any kind of empirical testing.

            Perhaps, but one can define 'empirical testing' to exclude final causation. What is the theist to do, if such an exclusion is in place—explicitly or implicitly?

            Proof is a word worth fighting for. If something is proven, then anyone who studies the matter sufficiently will be convinced by the proof.

            We shall have to see how you deal with "know", above. :-p

            What is the content of an explanation? Given an explanation, how do we know that it is an explanation. I guess we need a definition of what an explanation looks like?

            I heartily suggest Gregory W. Dawes' Theism and Explanation on this matter. I wish it cost less, but perhaps your library has it (perhaps through interlibrary loan).

            But there are atheists who are not nominalists.

            That doesn't mean they're being consistent. :-p But you're welcome to introduce one who has written stuff we can examine together.

            It is complete locally.

            Source? I have this from Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine's The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature:

                Nearly two hundred years ago, Joseph-Louis Lagrange described analytical mechanics based on Newton's laws as a branch of mathematics.[33] In the French scientific literature, one often speaks of "rational mechanics." In this sense, Newton's laws would define the laws of reason and represent a truth of absolute generality. Since the birth of quantum mechanics and relativity, we know that this is not the case. The temptation is now strong to ascribe a similar status of absolute truth to quantum theory. In The Quark and the Jaguar, Gell-Mann asserts, "Quantum mechanics is not itself a theory; rather it is the framework into which all contemporary physical theory must fit."[34] Is this really so? As stated by my late friend Léon Rosenfeld, "Every theory is based on physical concepts expressed through mathematical idealizations. They are introduced to give an adequate representation of the physical phenomena. No physical concept is sufficiently defined without the knowledge of its domain of validity."[35] (28–29)

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Well, you made a distinction between causality and explanation. But how can one have a full explanation without a full accounting of causality—of the entire "evolutionary history", as it were?

            Did I? I would like a proponent of the cosmological argument to tell me what they mean by all these terms. We have done variations of the cosmological argument countless times on this site, and every time it is a little different.

            An explanation would account for any causality that is present.

            Yes. So, what constitutes "work very well" in the domain of cosmological arguments and such? The key here is that demanding perfection seems to be a wrong-headed endeavor.

            That the conclusions and premises correspond wit reality, and that we are justified in believing the premises to be true.

            What is your standard for "knowing" something? Do we "know" that we're not brains in vats?

            In this case that we have an epistemically justified in accepting a proposition or its negation as true. This is not the case with first mover arguments.

            It seems like even if there is a probability cloud, we might be able to say things about it.

            But there isn't. It is outside our domain of knowledge.

            Is that their purpose? The proposition that "all propositions ought to describe or predict", by what you mean by 'describe', does not seem to itself describe or predict!

            I thought their purpose was to be a statement about the nature reality. The problem is that I can give reasons why I accept general relativity or quantum field theory. It works! I do not think we are justified in believing in first causes. I am waiting for someone to give me the justification. I can only tell you why I think you should believe in the things that I believe in. I cannot tell you why I should believe in things that I don't believe in. You asked me to justify quantum mechanics and I did. You have to tell me why I should believe in a first cause. :-)

            What you've left out (at least) is final causation, but final causation is problematic, because it brings in the specter of ought, and we moderns tend to want that to be 100% locked up in the brain, as something 100% subjective, with really no ontological grounding whatsoever.

            Are you saying that a first mover is necessary for final causation? I'm confused as to your point here.

            Perhaps, but one can define 'empirical testing' to exclude final causation. What is the theist to do, if such an exclusion is in place—explicitly or implicitly?

            I suppose a theist should try to show that final causation is being defined out of empirical testing. Personally, I think theists often play very fast and lost with empirical matters. They use empirical justifications for premises and then claim that their arguments are non-empirical.

            We shall have to see how you deal with "know", above. :-p

            I hope I am being consistent. I don't always choose the right words though :-) Know was a bad choice.

            I heartily suggest Gregory W. Dawes' Theism and Explanation on this matter. I wish it cost less, but perhaps your library has it (perhaps through interlibrary loan).

            Even the kindle edition is over $40!

            That doesn't mean they're being consistent. :-p But you're welcome to introduce one who has written stuff we can examine together.

            Bertrand Russell was a realist?

            Source?

            Bell's Theorem.
            http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/bell-theorem/

          • Did I?

            No, I stand corrected:

            LB: That would seem to be the 'circular argument' leg of Agrippa's trilemma.

            IR: But it is not a knowledge claim. All I am saying is that one would need to prove that contingent beings could not explain themselves by a looping process of some sort.

            You are apparently talking about 'explanation' which is nevertheless "not a knowledge claim". I really don't know what you're talking about, given that combination.

            That the conclusions and premises correspond wit reality, and that we are justified in believing the premises to be true.

            Yes, that's the abstract schema, at least if we don't think the Gettier Problems are fatal. What about the concrete applications of it? Cosmological arguments seem to want explanations to have a certain 'final character', one which isn't just ad hoc. It would seem that ad hoc explanations lack the kind of 'truth-like quality' that we expect to find. Terminating in brute facts is too easy to see as giving up.

            LB: What is your standard for "knowing" something? Do we "know" that we're not brains in vats?

            IR: In this case that we have an epistemically justified in accepting a proposition or its negation as true.

            C'mon, that isn't an answer to my question.

            But there isn't. It is outside our domain of knowledge.

            That seems to be a very point under contention. What it probably requires is that you give more weight to a priori argument, abandoning the class of assertions which put great weight in the power of evidence to lead us to true beliefs. However, I'm inclined to think those assertions ought to be abandoned, because they simply fly in the face of how people actually operate. Observation is heavily, heavily theory-laden, and we should face this instead of burying our heads in positivist sand.

            I thought their purpose was to be a statement about the nature reality.

            The contention here will be what 'reality' is. Does 'reality' contain ontological final causes?

            The problem is that I can give reasons why I accept general relativity or quantum field theory. It works!

            Your use of 'works' is ultimately subjective: it works to get you what you want. But one does not need ontological matching to get what you want; control theory is well-acquainted with "good enough approximations" which work perfectly well, even though they don't capture how the system actually operates. The thing with final causes is that they futz with "what you want". So if you don't want that futzed with, one way to avoid it is to simply deny final causation any grounding in your epistemology.

            Are you saying that a first mover is necessary for final causation? I'm confused as to your point here.

            That wasn't my point; my point was that when you use phraseology such as "we have propositions that do not work well at describing or predicting", you are in danger of enslaving all knowledge to pragmatism. You seem more interested in the "predict" and "control" aspect than the "describe" aspect.

            Now, perhaps a first mover is required for final causation; I've yet to work through the interaction between essentially and accidentally ordered series. I have requested the book Jayman reviews in Review: “Aquinas’ Proofs for God’s Existence” by Dennis Bonnette from my library; the focus is on "the per accidens necessarily implies the per se".

            I suppose a theist should try to show that final causation is being defined out of empirical testing. Personally, I think theists often play very fast and lost with empirical matters. They use empirical justifications for premises and then claim that their arguments are non-empirical.

            Heh, there's a lot of "play very fast and loose" on all sides, it seems to me. For example, from you:

            IR: I have a more expansive view of evidence than most. I include good arguments and even things based on intuition, although the later can be very misleading.

            So...

            Bertrand Russell was a realist?

            According to SEP: Nominalism in Metaphysics:

            Russell (1912, 96–7) and others think that Resemblance Nominalism faces the resemblance regress. But this regress presupposes that resemblances are entities that can resemble one another. Since Resemblance Nominalism does not reify resemblances, the regress does not arise (see Rodriguez-Pereyra 2002, 105–23, for further discussion).

            I also found Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra 2001, Resemblance Nominalism and Russell's Regress. Note that the SEP article is written by Rodriguez-Pereyra.

            Bell's Theorem.

            What makes you think that Bell's theorem indicates QM is "complete theory", locally? Bell's theorem shows that there exists nonlocal state. We see this in entanglement.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            You are apparently talking about 'explanation' which is nevertheless "not a knowledge claim". I really don't know what you're talking about, given that combination.

            Agrippa's trilemma is about how we justify our belief system. We are talking about the definition of contingent beings. I am asking why can't contingent beings loop around to explain themselves.

            Cosmological arguments seem to want explanations to have a certain 'final character', one which isn't just ad hoc. It would seem that ad hoc explanations lack the kind of 'truth-like quality' that we expect to find.

            And how do cosmological arguments accomplish this?

            LB: What is your standard for "knowing" something? Do we "know" that we're not brains in vats?

            IR: In this case that we have an epistemically justified in accepting a proposition or its negation as true.

            LB: C'mon, that isn't an answer to my question.

            Scientific evidence, deductive arguments based on well-defined terms and first principles that are coherent within a belief system, and pragmatism.

            That seems to be a very point under contention. What it probably requires is that you give more weight to a priori argument, abandoning the class of assertions which put great weight in the power of evidence to lead us to true beliefs.

            I prefer a priori argumentation.

            Observation is heavily, heavily theory-laden, and we should face this instead of burying our heads in positivist sand.

            This is better than the usual critique of positivism. :-)

            The contention here will be what 'reality' is. Does 'reality' contain ontological final causes?

            I don't know. Do you?

            Your use of 'works' is ultimately subjective: it works to get you what you want.

            It predicts the behavior of the universe. Yes, that is something I want. I thought everyone wants that.

            The thing with final causes is that they futz with "what you want". So if you don't want that futzed with, one way to avoid it is to simply deny final causation any grounding in your epistemology.

            I'm somewhat confused here. Why do you think final causes futz with what I want? I doubt you know what I want - human beings are rather complex. I'm not completely sure myself what I want :-)

            That wasn't my point; my point was that when you use phraseology such as "we have propositions that do not work well at describing or predicting", you are in danger of enslaving all knowledge to pragmatism. You seem more interested in the "predict" and "control" aspect than the "describe" aspect.

            I am very much interested in the description. However, I want the arguments to be consistent, rigorous, and well-defined. Still waiting.

            With regard to pragmatism, aren't you the one that favors choosing interpretive stances ;-)

            Now, perhaps a first mover is required for final causation; I've yet to work through the interaction between essentially and accidentally ordered series.

            So you don't know either. So I guess we agree here?

            IR: I suppose a theist should try to show that final causation is being defined out of empirical testing. Personally, I think theists often play very fast and lost with empirical matters. They use empirical justifications for premises and then claim that their arguments are non-empirical.

            LB: Heh, there's a lot of "play very fast and loose" on all sides, it seems to me. For example, from you:

            IR: I have a more expansive view of evidence than most. I include good arguments and even things based on intuition, although the later can be very misleading.

            So...

            I feel taken out of context here. Firstly, I want theists to give me the evidence that they consider to be evidence for God or whatever. I am not trying to pin them down on my conceptions of evidence or truth. I want to know why they think what they think. Secondly, my quoted does not mean that I will do both at the same time. I will not claim that my intuitional claims are actually empirical claims and I will not make and empirical claim and then try to elevate it about empirical refutation by calling it metaphysics.

            What makes you think that Bell's theorem indicates QM is "complete theory", locally?

            Any added local variables will cause the theory to give predictions different from what quantum mechanics predicts. QM is well evidenced, so we don't want different predictions. Thus it is complete locally.

            Bell's theorem shows that there exists nonlocal state. We see this in entanglement.

            That is a possible interpretation. I think what it shows philosophically more than anything else is that we should be very careful with our everyday intuitions about causes and telos.

          • Agrippa's trilemma is about how we justify our belief system. We are talking about the definition of contingent beings. I am asking why can't contingent beings loop around to explain themselves.

            You're using the word 'explain' as if it has nothing to do with 'knowledge', and I just don't understand how that works.

            And how do cosmological arguments accomplish this?

            I'm not an expert on them; I've only just started to become interested via Feser's The Last Superstition and Caleb Cohoe's There Must Be A First: Why Thomas Aquinas Rejects Infinite, Essentially Ordered, Causal Series, although I haven't made it through the latter. What I know is that there's a lot of confusion out there about causation and whether it even exists (e.g. Sean Carroll's "unbreakable patterns"). I suspect that there is some process of people slowly becoming consistent with their presuppositions; actually, I think this happens over multiple generations. One possible result is that metaphysics disintegrates, and ceases to be a fertile ground for generating new science and enhancing existing science.

            What cosmological arguments do do is throw the following kind of discussion into question. This is from Richard Feynman:

                We make now a few remarks on a suggestion that has sometimes been made to try to avoid the description we have given: “Perhaps the electron has some kind of internal works—some inner variables—that we do not yet know about. [...] But we have verified experimentally that that is not the case. And no one has figured a way out of this puzzle. So at the present time we must limit ourselves to computing probabilities. We say “at the present time,” but we suspect very strongly that it is something that will be with us forever—that it is impossible to beat that puzzle—that this is the way nature really is. (The Feynman Lectures on Physics, III § 1–8)

            Feynman famously made fun of philosophers, but this is a philosophical claim. To see a different point of view, I turn to David Bohm:

                The assumption that any particular kind of fluctuations are arbitrary and lawless relative to all possible contexts, like the similar assumption that there exists an absolute and final determinate law, is therefore evidently not capable of being based on any experimental or theoretical developments arising out of specific scientific problems, but it is instead a purely philosophical assumption. (Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, 44)

            My suspicion is that the mental machinery and intuitions deployed around the cosmological argument touch on these matters. These matters are no academic dispute: what one believes will determine what gets scientific funding and what does not. Beliefs can easily become reality, for if you believe nothing can be done, and do not fund it, perhaps nothing will be done because you did not fund it.

            Scientific evidence, deductive arguments based on well-defined terms and first principles that are coherent within a belief system, and pragmatism.

            Coherentism as epistemology has serious problems, and pragmatism enslaves us to current human desires. These both seem like bad ultimate standards for "knowing" something. Aristotle had a plenty coherent system for his tastes and his justification of slavery allowed his wants to be well-satisfied. Had we gone with 'pragmatism', it's not clear that we would have advanced science to the state it is at, today.

            I prefer a priori argumentation.

            Really? I'm not sure I've ever run into a self-described skeptic who prefers a priori argumentation. Have you? What famous names can you name in this tradition?

            This is better than the usual critique of positivism. :-)

            What's the "usual critique"?

            I don't know. Do you?

            Well, arguments such as Caleb Cohoe's (above) might force us to accept final causation or reject much more than we want to. Otherwise, we might get not just a deflationary conception of truth, but a deflationary conception of causation, as well. All that is solid could melt into air. Then again, I see that as the most drastic method God could employ to remove false beliefs from a group of humans: eat away at all their beliefs.

            It predicts the behavior of the universe. Yes, that is something I want. I thought everyone wants that.

            It's not clear to me that Syrian refugees want that. It strikes me that actually they want at least the hope of something possibly resembling a good decent life. But this requires study into what is "the good life", which is study of icky human beings with aspects of themselves that look awfully like final causes. It is much easier to pretend that the world of ought is 100% subjective (in the 'idiosyncratic' sense, or at least the 100% socially constructed sense), and restrict talk of science and justified true belief to the realm of formal systems which well-match highly, highly selective patches of reality.

            I'm somewhat confused here. Why do you think final causes futz with what I want? I doubt you know what I want - human beings are rather complex. I'm not completely sure myself what I want :-)

            If you're unaware of how Natural Law Theory futzes with what people want, I think you have some studying to do. The claim that reality was designed such that how you are acting now is suboptimal is a deeply offensive claim to some people, especially Westerners.

            I am very much interested in the description. However, I want the arguments to be consistent, rigorous, and well-defined. Still waiting.

            Once again, if you require that things be provided to you on your terms, you can define things out of possibility. It would be as if you mandated that only rational numbers be used, and yet the proof requires the irrationals.

            With regard to pragmatism, aren't you the one that favors choosing interpretive stances ;-)

            I don't 'favor' choosing interpretive stances; I think that choosing is unavoidable. The only question is whether you are aware of the choice, or whether it is made for you without your knowledge.

            So you don't know either. So I guess we agree here?

            No, you seem to want to utterly dismiss cosmological arguments because they don't match your exacting standards; I'm well aware that in realms such as this, there simply is no extant philosophy which matches such exacting standards. Things are fuzzier than you will let them be.

            I feel taken out of context here.

            You are always welcome to correct me. So for example, do you use the term, "the evidence", very differently based on context? Our discussions have ranged over multiple contexts, so I have just started worrying that you are using the term equivocally. But then I recall that you just said "I prefer a priori argumentation.", and wonder whether you ever use "the evidence" in any other way—which would put you at odds with many atheists who argue on the internet.

            I will not claim that my intuitional claims are actually empirical claims and I will not make and empirical claim and then try to elevate it about empirical refutation by calling it metaphysics.

            Do you think the "empirical" (≠ "the evidence"?) can always adjudicate metaphysics?

            Any added local variables will cause the theory to give predictions different from what quantum mechanics predicts. QM is well evidenced, so we don't want different predictions. Thus it is complete locally.

            But is even this true? Put QM near a black hole event horizon, for example. You seem to be in violation of Ceteris Paribus Laws, and I've never come across a good refutation of that idea.

            That is a possible interpretation.

            I suggest a look at Bernard d'Espagnat's On Physics and Philosophy; he argues that Bell's theorem has implications regardless of interpretation: in particular, that of 'nonseparability'; see for example Holism and Nonseparability in Physics.

            I think what it shows philosophically more than anything else is that we should be very careful with our everyday intuitions about causes and telos.

            But our whole edifice of science is dependent on our everyday intuitions, for that it is where it started. If you start eating away at our everyday intuitions, I say that one ought to try to re-do the history of science with the modified intuitions, to see if it is even possible. If it is not, I question whether falsities have been injected, falsities which will ultimately be poisonous to the unhindered progression of science. I wouldn't be surprised if the worship of idols has analogies to the belief in false conceptions of reality; Owen Barfield explores this idea in Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. (Barfield was a mentor and close friend of C.S. Lewis'.)

          • Ignatius Reilly

            You are using an unconventional definition of contingency.

            Your outline does not lead to the conclusion that a necessary being exists. If C is the set of all contingent objects that it is logically possible that a subset of C is necessary. It is also possible that a subset of C explains everything in C.

            You have not shown that any of this lead to a non-contingent being.

            Furthermore, by your logic all sets are contingent. The set C + {a necessary being} is contingent, because I could remove an element from C.

            Edit: fixed a word

          • If C is the set of all contingent objects that it is logically possible that a subset of C is necessary. It is also possible that a subset of C explains everything in C.

            No, it's not possible. Because if C is a set of contingent realities then this means that C' could have easily been a state of affairs. And this C' could have easily failed to contain the subset of C that you claim makes it necessary and explains C. But in order for the subset of C to be necessary it could not fail to be.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            No, it's not possible. Because if C is a set of contingent realities then this means that C' could have easily been a state of affairs. And this C' could have easily failed to contain the subset of C that you claim makes it necessary and explains C. But in order for the subset of C to be necessary it could not fail to be.

            An element of C alone may not be enough to explain C, but a subset of C could possibly explain C. If this is true, C contains and explanation for its own existence. Therefore a set of contingent elements could be non- contingent.

            It may not always be possible to remove any element by itself and then arrive at a possible C'. You may need to replace with a different element of remove two. You need to justify your operation of removing any element of C and then getting a new contingent set C'. This may not be possible.

            Counter-Example: If I remove electrons from C, I will also have to remove all of the periodic table. It is not possible to remove any element from C to get a C'.

          • George

            That's not circular?

          • You'll have to explain how you believe it's circular.

          • George

            I read it fast and responded fast because I had to get to work, so I might not be following. Do "contingent" and "not necessary" mean the same thing?

          • Yes, they do.

      • That of course presupposes the principle of sufficient reason. And there's no reason why we must accept the principle of sufficient reason.

        • No it presupposes the laws of logic which say that something can only be either A or non-A, and therefore something can either only be contingent or necessary (non-contingent).

          • Nothing is violated, because if brute facts are allowed, then something contingent can exist without explanation. So you are still presupposing the PoSR in your answer.

          • If something is contingent then it by definition is not a brute fact, because its being is dependent on something else, and therefore it is explained by it. Do you not know the definition of contingent?

          • By contingent I mean non-necessary, but not necessarily dependent on something else for existence, because that would obviously not make it brute.

          • So you want to change the conventional definition of contingent in an ad hoc fashion so you can assume the validity of brute facts. Yeah , they call that begging the question.

          • A few comments below you just agreed that "contingent" and "not necessary" mean the same thing. Ha.

          • If you would've read my previous comment more carefully, you would have noticed that I never disagreed that contingency is equivalent to non-necessity. My quibble is with you assuming that contingency can include brute facts. This is the very thing up for debate, so to arbitrarily include brute facts in the definition is begging the question. Especially since the conventional definition makes no use of brute facts. The conventional definition only says that something is contingent if it depends for its being on something else. Not that it can depend on something else while simultaneously being a brute fact.

          • We have to broaden our horizons and not stick to rigid or particular definitions of things as a way to rely on our arguments when having deep philosophical discussions. I'm simply defining contingent here in the simplest sense as non-necessary. Words have multiple definitions. Think 'religion'. Many definitions. In the context of how I describe the universe as contingent and a brute fact, there is no contradiction or question begging. In fact, two definitions of contingent are:

            "happening by chance or without known cause; fortuitous; accidental"

            "Logic. (of a proposition) neither logically necessary nor logically impossible, so that its truth or falsity can be established only by sensory observation."

  • Does a universe which experiences eternal return, where each iteration is precisely the same as the previous, negate the need for final causation to explain things? I am aware of Caleb Cohoe's There Must Be A First: Why Thomas Aquinas Rejects Infinite, Essentially Ordered, Causal Series, but what happens if we reject a part of this other than the "infinite" option? How much would we have to reject?

    For example, might one way to get rid of final causation be to deny that there is agent causation?

    • Paul Brandon Rimmer

      Luke,

      I'm not an expert on Thomism by a long stretch, but was just thinking about your question. Someone can correct me if I'm wrong:

      An accidentally ordered causal series involves that A -> B -> C where the fact that B -> C does not depend on A. Stipulating B, B -> C does not involve A. The example from the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Scotus is that a grandpa (A) has dad (B) who has a son (C). That the dad has a son (B -> C) does not depend on the existence of the grandfather (A). The grandfather could be long dead when B -> C.

      So it seems Aquinas would be fine with an infinite accidentally ordered causal series. The universe could be infinitely old, without a beginning. But to answer why the infinite series ... n-1 -> n -> n+1 ... and not another series or ordering requires an explanation, E. Maybe that explanation depends on another explanation, E', and so forth. But this series is essentially ordered, and not accidentally ordered, and it would seem as though an infinite series of explanations would amount to an infinite number of bad answers, and wouldn't really answer the question.

      In the case of the eternal return, the question would be why the universe eternally returns to this series of events over and over and not another. This cries out for an explanation, especially if you accept the principle of sufficient reason.

      This is something I thought you could explain the explanations by the infinite series of explanations itself (or at least I couldn't see why not); it would have different properties than its members. @Steven_Jake:disqus set me straight, so I don't think this anymore. At least one of the explanations needs to account for its own existence. It may be autonomous (it's something that exists and isn't the sort of thing that can have an explanation for its existence outside itself, like maybe sets, or God or certain physical laws, or the fact of the world), or it may be something rooted in the concept of explanation itself (Della Rocca thinks this this is Spinoza's vision of the cosmos, that the explanation for the cosmos bottoms out in intelligibility itself).

      • So it seems Aquinas would be fine with an infinite accidentally ordered causal series.

        Yep, that's the idea I've gotten from multiple sources.

        In the case of the eternal return, the question would be why the universe eternally returns to this series of events over and over and not another. This cries out for an explanation, especially if you accept the principle of sufficient reason.

        Oh, do you mean that there's a sense of necessity here which violates the concept of 'accidentally ordered'?

        At least one of the explanations needs to account for its own existence. It may be autonomous (it's something that exists and isn't the sort of thing that can have an explanation for its existence outside itself, like maybe sets, or God or certain physical laws, or the fact of the world), or it may be something rooted in the concept of explanation itself (Della Rocca thinks this this is Spinoza's vision of the cosmos, that the explanation for the cosmos bottoms out in intelligibility itself).

        In The Myth of Religious Neutrality, Roy A. Clouser argues that the category of thing you pick out with your 'autonomous', clarified by your parenthetical, is the category of 'religious belief'. A detailed definition can be found at an article by Clouser, A New Philosophical Guide for the Sciences: Ontology without Reduction (see the numbered list).

        On the bleeding edge of my own research is to look at the implications of different 'religious beliefs'. Clouser does some of this in his book and I'm only halfway through; one battle he mentions is that between the logicians and intuitionists in mathematics. As it turns out, that debate matters, because it determines how children are thought to think about math. Few people even seem to think about this very deeply, although I recently came across a recent blog post, new and old thoughts about teaching mathematical proofs. Suffice it to say that if we do not train our young well, progress in penetrating further secrets of reality may stall. So one's 'religious belief' seems rather important.

        Something which may interest you is that Clouser thinks 'religious beliefs' do not entail specific theories, but they do guide us toward some kinds of theories and away from others. The easiest example would be reductionistic theories vs. non-reductionistic theories, but there are other dimensions as well. I'm pretty sure Clouser has something deeply correct, because I've made a study of how much damage the philosophy of atomism has had in many realms of thought, and the evidence is pretty overwhelming. (One great resource on this is Charles Taylor's Philosophical Arguments; a theological treatise is Colin E. Gunton's The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity.)

        Anyhow, you can see that I find this topic quite interesting. :-D

  • David Hardy

    I largely do not share the specific concerns of this author. I see the issue raised by the first cause argument - things contingent on prior causes, and things contingent on sustaining conditions or formations, appear to present a problem, because if this holds true at all levels, the universe itself is contingent for its spatial form and temporal existence. I object more to taking "non-contingent" and equating it to God. There are other conceivable non-contingent options, and a number of aspects of God are far from demonstrated to be the same as non-contingent. Intelligence, for example, in every observable instance, is highly contingent both spatially (requires a highly developed nervous system in all observed cases, not just basic universal building blocks) and temporally (developed long after many other things). There is no reason to equate intelligence, another quality attributed to God, to non-contingency. On the other hand, basic structures of matter may be neither created nor destroyed, making then non-contingent both spatially and temporally, and contingency itself is a concept that only makes sense in terms of how those structures are organized.

  • Not having read the first chapter I cannot really comment on it or these questions. But here are my comments on First Cause arguments. I understand the argument to go something like this:

    P1 material reality is a caused entity
    P2 material reality did not cause itself
    P3 material reality could only have been caused by a single intelligent, immaterial, mind that transcends space and time
    C1 a single intelligent, immaterial, mind that transcends space and time must exist

    This is a valid argument, but I do not think it is reasonable to accept any of the premises as true.

    P1 - how could we possibly know this? We have lots of data on material reality causing itself to change but none of any material reality beginning to exist. We have a good theory of material reality's development from a singularity to the present. But a singularity is not non-existent. We have no information of a state of affairs in which material reality did not exist. We are not in a position to say anything the nature of material reality in this sense.

    P2 - I think "causing oneself" is an incoherent concept. I don't think anything material or immaterial could cause itself to exists in an ontological sense because if something does not exist, it cannot do anything. But if I am wrong, what do we know about what kinds of things can cause themselves to exist? I would think nothing. We certainly do not have a basis to reason that material reality cannot cause itself to exist, if the concept is even coherent.

    Pause here to note that both myself and theists believe that some reality just exists. It is not contingent on anything prior, it either caused itself or is a brute fact. God either caused itself to exist, or just does. But I do not see what excludes material reality from this. It seems that apologists just define material reality as caused or contingent. That is not an argument or a demonstration, it is a fudge.

    P3 - I do not see why we would believe this. There is no empirical experience of anything immaterial, and one argues from ignorance in accepting speculation that our mental life somehow is related to a non-material reality that we can in no way detect. Moreover, there seems to be no warrant to accept it must be an intelligence or singular. Even if there must be a first cause that is not material reality, why just one? (Bradley Bowen hit this recently in Secular Outpost http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2015/09/20/william-lane-craig-36-years-of-equivocation-part-4/)

    Ultimately the question is: what is it about material reality, AS A WHOLE, that entails it was caused by something else, and what about it tells us what the attributes of that something else are?

    • what is it about material reality, AS A WHOLE, that entails it was caused by something else

      I would say that the fact that material reality 1) satisfies the definition of contingency, and 2) does not explain it's own existence are sufficient reasons to believe that it has a cause of its being.

      Even if there must be a first cause that is not material reality, why just one?

      1) Because a multitude of first causes satisfies the definition of contingency, and 2) each of the first causes would have a nature that is identical to their existence, which would mean their nature's are all identical, which would mean they were not distinguishable, which would entail that there are not more than one.

      • George

        "1) satisfies the definition of contingency"

        How?

        And I have already heard the attempted justification of saying to just look at all the things around us that are undergoing "change".

        "That chair was contingent on the carpenter to make it" for example. Or "that chemical reaction was contingent on two elements coming together, and the elements were contingent on the electromagnetic and strong nuclear force, which are contingent on etc etc."

        But how does any of that apply to the whole set? How is that representative of the universe as a whole?

        • Something is contingent if it's conceivable that it fail to exist. Since I conceive of the material universe failing to exist, then it is by definition contingent.

          The reasoning behind this definition is that if X is part of the nature of Y, then you cannot have a Y fail to be X, nor can one conceive of a Y failing to be X. Similarly, if existence is part of the nature of an existent, then you cannot have that existent fail to exist, even conceptually. So, if you can conceive of an existent fail to exist, then existence is not part of the nature of that existent, and it is contingent.

          • George

            What good is this definition?

          • George

            "Since I conceive of the material universe failing to exist, then it is by definition contingent."

            Yes, but is it actually contingent? Why should I use your definition? How do I know you are accurately speaking of the true nature of something?

            Why do switch to "nature" in your second paragraph, when before you did in fact say definition?

            I thought of commenting in response to you a few hours ago over conceptualizations, so I'll add it now. What if your act of conceiving something doesn't yield an actual representation of that thing? If I say that our Milky Way Galaxy is a thing which I can walk across, from one edge to the other, in five minutes with no time dilation, am I really conceiving it? Do you think I have a useful model of our galaxy in my head? What good is my definition of the galaxy when I go talk to an astronomer?

            (of course I am not saying there is a rule against imagining crossing the galaxy and defying relativity, the imagination is fun to indulge sometimes)

            "if existence is part of the nature of an existent"

            are you treating existence as an add-on trait here? how is this different from the Ontological Argument for the existence of God?

          • Yes, but is it actually contingent? Why should I use your definition? How do I know you are accurately speaking of the true nature of something?

            I already explained why. If Y is part of the nature of X, then you cannot have an X fail to be Y. E.g., it is part of the nature of a triangle to have three sides, therefore you cannot have a triangle fail to have three sides. Now, in logic, contrapositives are true if the original conditional is true. So, since my conditional above is true, then the following statement is also true: If X can fail to be Y, then Y is not part of the nature of X.

            Thus, If an existent can fail to exist, even conceptually, then it cannot be of the existents nature to exist, and it is contingent. I don't know how else to spell it out.

            Why do switch to "nature" in your second paragraph, when before you did in fact say definition?

            Because speaking of a thing's nature is part of the entailment of the definition of contingency.

            What if your act of conceiving something doesn't yield an actual representation of that thing? If I say that our Milky Way Galaxy is a thing which I can walk across, from one edge to the other, in five minutes with no time dilation, am I really conceiving it? Do you think I have a useful model of our galaxy in my head?

            The problem is that you're conflating physical possibility with metaphysical possibility. Conceptual addresses the latter and not the former. While your Milky Way example is physically impossible, it is not metaphysically impossible, and the discussion of contingency deals with ontology and thus it deals with metaphysical possibility.

            are you treating existence as an add-on trait here?

            No I'm not treating existence as a property.

          • George

            What if you are wrong about the nature of x?

          • I never said one couldn't be wrong about a thing's nature.

          • George

            So are you right when you speak of the nature of the universe?

          • Yes, the universe is all space-time, matter and energy. Any thing that does satisfy this definition is literally not part of material reality.

          • George

            why are you bringing up triangles? what does that have to do with the universe we observe?

            "it is not metaphysically impossible"

            what does that mean? what good is this metaphysics? how useful is my model, my definition of the galaxy?

            "No I'm not treating existence as a property."

            what does this line mean? "Similarly, if *existence is part of the nature* of an existent"

            "Because speaking of a thing's nature is part of the entailment of the definition of contingency."

            I'm not sure I understand this statement.

          • why are you bringing up triangles? what does that have to do with the universe we observe?

            I brought up the example of triangles to help substantiate the assertion that if Y is part of the nature of X, then you cannot have an X fail to be Y.

            what does that mean? what good is this metaphysics? how useful is my model, my definition of the galaxy?

            Metaphysics is inquiry into the fundamental nature of reality. Are you a naturalist? A materialist? A physicalist? All these are metaphysical positions.

            what does this line mean? "Similarly, if *existence is part of the nature* of an existent"

            To say that existence is part of one's nature is to say that one's nature provides the reason for its own existence. To put it in Thomist terms, it means that one's essence just is existence.

            I'm not sure I understand this statement.

            Natures are implicitly contained in the definition of contingency.

      • 1) why? What is it about the whole of material reality that suggests contingency?

        2) do you mean you are unaware of no explanation for the existence of material reality, or that you are aware it cannot have such an explanation. If the former, you cannot rule it out, if the latter please let us know!

        No, there is no reason that several first causes could not have contributed to the existence I of material reality or aspects of it.

        No I see no reason why there cannot be multiple, independent necessary entities. For example a first cause of material we find in the standard model of physics and a first cause for dark matter. Or three entities that are necessary and independent and each created a third if material reality. Why not? Why does this need to be linear, recall we are talking about a state of affairs where there is no such thing as time space or matter. These entities could be distinct in ways we cannot conceive. They are by definition beyond our conception and intuition, if they were to exist.

        • 1) why? What is it about the whole of material reality that suggests contingency?

          See my answer to George above.

          do you mean you are unaware of no explanation for the existence of material reality, or that you are aware it cannot have such an explanation.

          I mean that since material reality satisfies the definition for contingency, then it must have an explanation outside of itself.

          No I see no reason why there cannot be multiple, independent necessary entities.

          I explained my reasoning why above. Something which is necessary is an existent whose nature is identical to its existence. But there cannot possibly be many existents with this nature since there would need to be some way to distinguish them, and therefore they wouldn't have the same nature. We're talking about this in principle and not in practice. The fact that the first cause would exist outside space or matter doesn't seem to present a problem here, since having a nature identical to existence is not something that requires space or matter, unless one wants to a priori assume naturalism.

          My minor point here, in answer to your point, is that we surely can conceive of an existent outside of material reality who's nature is identical to its existence. Your claim that we cannot conceive of such a thing seems unsubstantiated.

          • George

            "would exist outside space or matter"

            what does that mean?

          • Your definition if contingency is wrong. Something is contingent if in actual fact its existence depends on some other thing or event. We don't know whether or not all material reality's existence depends on something else. The concept of material reality being dependent on something else is not incoherent, but that doesn't mean it is true, likely or possible. The concept of a material reality that is ontologically necessary is also coherent, but that doesn't make it true or reasonable to believe.

            Your position is better stated as: if material reality is indeed contingent, the something else must have caused it. The issue is whether it actually is contingent, that that we can conceive of it being contingent, or necessary, doesn't mean it is.

          • Your definition if contingency is wrong. Something is contingent if in actual fact its existence depends on some other thing or event.

            First, There are many different definitions of contingent, and the fact that I don't use the colloquial definition here is irrelevant.

            Second, and more importantly, my definition of contingent does in fact entail your definition above. For if the reason for an objects existence is not found within its own nature, then it must be found in something outside of itself, which necessarily entails that its existence depends on something else.

            The concept of material reality being dependent on something else is not incoherent, but that doesn't mean it is true, likely or possible

            Correct, but I never argued that.

            The concept of a material reality that is ontologically necessary is also coherent

            Not really, since it satisfies the definition of contingency that I gave.

            The issue is whether it actually is contingent, that that we can conceive of it being contingent, or necessary, doesn't mean it is.

            Sure it does, since if I can conceive of the universe failing to exist, then the reason for the existence of the universe cannot be found within its own nature. Again, If X can fail to be Y, even conceptually, then Y is not part of the nature of X. (This is why you cannot conceive of a triangle failing to have three sides, because having three sides is part of the nature of a triangle. Yet we can easily conceive of a green triangle, since the color of a triangle does not affect its nature.) Thus, if the universe can fail to exist, conceptually, then existence is not part of the nature of the universe.

          • Okay, then the way you are defining "contingent" here is problematic.

            The issue is, "is material reality contingent?" you would need to establish this first, to some level of confidence. I am asking how you can establish this?

            "For if the reason for an objects existence is not found within its own
            nature, then it must be found in something outside of itself, which
            necessarily entails that its existence depends on something else."

            You are saying either something caused itself or was caused by something else? I think it is incoherent. If something does not exist and is not caused by anything else, there is literally absolutely nothing to cause it. I would advance a definition of nothing here as the absence of anything, and such an absence cannot cause anything or do anything. Properly phrased I think the dilema is "a thing's existence can either be caused by something else or be uncaused"

            Here the question is whether we have a basis to conclude that material reality has a cause or is uncaused. I do not know what attributes we could look for to establish either.

            [me] ""The concept of a material reality that is ontologically necessary is also coherent"

            [you] Not really, since it satisfies the definition of contingency that I gave."

            The issue here is not with the definition of "contingent" but of "material reality" - you seem to be defining it as contingent, which is circular.

            The reason I cannot conceive of a triangle with more than three sides is because what I mean by "triangle" is a three-sided shape. It is thus a contradiction to speak of a four-sided triangle, this would be saying there can exist a thing that has both three and four sides. But what I mean by "material reality" is "the observable cosmos". There is nothing that I am am aware of about observable cosmos that indicates it's existence is contingent or caused.

            So I agree that "if" material reality is not uncaused, it has an external cause. But it is an "if", it is speculation. It is not even a hypothesis, because there is no way to falsify it.

          • The issue is, "is material reality contingent?" you would need to establish this first, to some level of confidence. I am asking how you can establish this?

            I've already claimed how this can be established, and has been established. I don't need to sniff around for a cause in order to determine if something is contingent. All I need to do is examine a thing's nature. And to claim the contrary is something you have yet to substantiate.

            If I come across an object that I've never encountered before, I don't need to know that it was caused in order to categorize it as contingent. If the nature of this object gives no intrinsic explanation of its existence, then it is by definition contingent. So, your claim that i need to first observe an efficient cause of an object before I can call it contingent is simply false.

            You are saying either something caused itself or was caused by something else?

            No, that's not what I'm saying. I never said I believed in self-causation. Self-causation is impossible.

            Here the question is whether we have a basis to conclude that material reality has a cause or is uncaused. I do not know what attributes we could look for to establish either.

            The basis is that the nature of material reality provides no reason for why it exists, and therefore this reason must be found outside of this reality. If material reality were not contingent then its own nature would provide the reason for why it exists. Since it doesn't it is contingent.

            The issue here is not with the definition of "contingent" but of "material reality" - you seem to be defining it as contingent, which is circular.

            No I didn't say that material reality is defined as contingent. I said that material reality fits in the category or set of things that are contingent. Just like we don't define the number 2 as a rational number, but it nevertheless fits in the category or set of rational numbers.

          • Okay, so how have you examined the nature or material reality? I don't think anyone is very far along in understanding what material reality is, much less reaching conclusions on its nature. What is it about the nature of material reality that convinces you it is contingent? In terms of examining realities what do you look for as an indication of contingency versus necessity? On what grounds do you hold that a necessary reality would have an explanation that you would be capable of appreciating? I would think that there very well could be an explanation that as humans we could not understand. Just because it eludes you doesn't mean it isn't there.

            If you believe in a god that is not contingent, what explains this God? If you aren't aware of an explanation, shouldn't you, by your own standards applied to material reality, consider it contingent?

  • Mike

    But didn't aquinas assume that the universe was eternal and yet still needed a first cause? In that case even an eternal universe would have had to have been brought into existence by something beyond it.

    • Not unless one assumes that all causation is temporal.

    • Peter

      Aquinas believed, through faith, that the world, i.e. universe, had a beginning. However, he reasoned that even if it did not and was eternal, God would still be its cause in the sense that God sustains the universe in being at every moment of its eternal existence.

      • Mike

        you mean had a beginning in "time" not had a beg in existence correct?

        • Peter

          They are one and the same thing.

          • Mike

            i think you are confusing the two actually.

          • Peter

            How can something begin to exist if not in time?

          • Mike

            time is a function of the rate of decay of matter not itself real. see einstein for explanation.

            edit: not just decay but 'change'.

  • Peter

    With the universe having a definite beginning approximately 14 billion years ago, surely any discussion about infinity is superfluous? There was no time before the beginning of the universe for anything to have existed to cause it. Nothing existed before the universe and so, from a purely scientific point of view, the universe can only have caused itself, and done so in ways we've yet to discover.

    Where does God come in? Well, the Catechism says that the world began when God's word drew it out of nothingness (CCC338), and so a universe creating itself out of nothing in response to God's call is perfectly consistent with the Catechism.

    • George

      "a universe creating itself out of nothing in *response to God's call* is perfectly consistent with the Catechism."

      well of course it will seem that way if they add that little rationalization at the end.

      • Peter

        It is indeed a rationalisation because it offers an explanation of why the universe is configured the way it is to create life or, at least, the building blocks of life.