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Should We Be Skeptical About Needing a First Cause?


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!

Mark D.

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