Why You Continually Need a First Cause for Your Existence
NOTE: Today we continue an occasional series of exchanges between Catholic theologian Dr. Michael Augros, author of Who Designed the Designer?: A Rediscovered Path to God's Existence (Ignatius Press, 2015), and various email interlocutors. Enjoy!
Your response to Mark's question of why the First Cause still has to be with us today was much anticipated, but unfortunately, left some of us disappointed (e.g., the will causes the body to act by moving the paint brush). You simply made the assertion that God is causing my will to exist in the here-and-now and to have its causal power, etc.
I desperately have been trying to understand the metaphysical/philosophical argument that God is sustaining and continuously causing *in the present* in order to overcome the argument that The First Cause/Mover is like a clockmaker who created everything and let it run.
Before trying to address your question, permit me to make a few preliminary remarks that might help avoid or remove certain confusions.
- The business about painting is only meant to serve as an illustration of a few points, not to be a free-standing argument for the existence of a first being that is the cause of the being of all things. It is intended to illustrate that when causes operate together, not one after another in time (e.g. this generation has kids, then that generation has kids, etc.), then such a series has the following properties: the prior cause is more a cause of the final effect than the subsequent causes are, there must be a first in the series, and if the first cause stops acting then everything stops, including the final effect (there is no longer anything “being painted,” even if the painted canvas continues to exist).
- The illustration is an example of a cause of something coming to be, not of its being, if we are thinking of the painting as the ultimate effect and the painter as the “first cause.” I cause it to come to be, not simply to be, which is why it can continue to be without my continued action. But if we consider its coming to be, of which I am a cause, that cannot continue without my continued action. And that is a general rule. To whatever extent one thing is the cause of another, the other cannot be without the one. So if I cause the painting’s coming into existence, then its coming into existence cannot continue without me. Similarly, if one thing causes another thing’s existence, then that other thing’s existence cannot continue without the action of the cause.
- In point of fact, God is causing my will to exist and to have its causal power for so long as it exists, and so my will, while it is a first cause of my painting among created things, is not a first cause absolutely speaking. This is far from obvious just from the illustration, but then the illustration was not meant to prove any of that. The same goes for other kinds of causes that might be first in this or that category of things, but that are not first simply and absolutely. There might be first causes in the natural world, for example, with no prior natural cause—perhaps a star is the first cause of its own light, and there is no prior cause in nature that is making the star exist and enabling it to produce light. If there is a cause prior to such a natural thing at all, then it must be the cause of the existence of the natural thing, since the natural thing already exists and is not coming into existence. But one needs a reason to suppose that there is such a cause.
So now let’s think about your question. How does one see that there is a cause of the very existence of my will, or of material things, even after they have come into existence? One way to go about it is in these steps:
[a] Show that there must be at least one “first being,” a thing that can exist and act all by itself, without help from any other thing.
[b] Show that there can be at most one first being—from which it follows (together with [a]), that there is exactly one such thing. And from this it follows that anything other than that one unique thing must derive its existence (and not just its coming into existence) from something else.
Step [a] is the conclusion of chapter 1 of Who Designed the Designer?.
Step [b] is the conclusion of chapter 2 of Who Designed the Designer?.
Step [c] is the conclusion of chapter 3 of Who Designed the Designer?.
From these things it follows that no familiar thing—not you or me, or anything in the whole world of nature, or the universe itself—can have its existence (and power of acting) just by itself. There is only one thing like that, if steps [a] and [b] are correct, and that thing cannot be anything having shape and size, nor can it be anything susceptible to change if step [c] is correct.
I myself, for example, am a thing with parts and susceptible to change. So I cannot exist and act entirely by myself, and consequently I must have my being and action with dependence on another thing. That other thing either is the one and only first cause, or else it is something else which (consequently) also is not an independently existing thing, which therefore relies on a prior cause of its existence. By the argument behind Step  this must terminate in the first cause anyway, and it follows that I derive my existence from the first cause, whether mediately or immediately.
(Now an aside: I do not derive my existence from the first cause through a bunch of intermediate causes, but immediately. There is not some created thing that is giving me my existence as long as I exist. Without going into all the reasons for that, I will say this: When a creature like me acts, it presupposes a thing to act on. I cannot paint a picture, for example, without paint and canvas. In my case, that is because I act by a kind of physical contact with things, and so unless there is something already there for me to contact, I cannot act and cannot produce any effect. And this means I will not be the cause of the sheer existence of things, but only of a new thing coming into existence in a pre-existing material—and this is also true even of other non-corporeal causes besides the first cause, but for reasons I will not get into here. I can also cause the existence or continued being of things that are mere properties or movements, of course. For example, I can cause the motion of the brush not just to begin, but to continue. And I can cause the glass in my hand not only to come to be in a certain place, but to remain there, if I am holding it up. But I cannot be the cause of the existence of a more substantial thing, like a painting, or a house—I can only cause such things to come into existence. In short, if the effect we are talking about is motion or change or quality, there might be a series of causes acting in concert, but if the effect we are talking about is the very existence of a substance, the “series” is very short, since it goes right from the effect to the first cause.)
Perhaps a quick explanation of step [c] is in order here. In the book, I try to explain mainly why a changeable, movable thing cannot be the first cause. Here I will try to sketch out a reason why nothing with parts can be the first being. Whatever has parts cannot be unless its parts exist. A whole sphere cannot exist unless its hemispheres exist, for example. And it is possible at least in some cases for the parts of a whole to exist without the whole existing, as the parts of a car can exist before the car exists, and while the car exists, and after the car exists. But in no case can a whole exist without its parts existing. So the existence of the parts always has a certain priority to the existence of the whole. No whole, then, can be the first being, a thing to which existence belongs of itself and independently of existence belonging to anything else, since existence belongs to it only because existence belongs with a certain priority to its parts. And the same goes for them, if they have parts. If we come to the points in a body that are in no way distinguishable into different parts, and which therefore have no size, these things do not exist of themselves and independently either, since they are more like properties of a thing than things in their own right. The tip of a pencil is (roughly) a point, but it cannot exist without the pencil, even if the pencil can exist without it. So nowhere in a whole can we find independent existence, and consequently we must look outside the whole for the source of its existence (and not just its coming into existence).
One could also say that a whole cannot exist unless its parts are together. But why are the parts together? Not just because they are distinct things outside each other, since not all things of that description are joined into a whole. Then for some other reason. And whatever that is, it will be a cause (of some kind) of the existence of the whole. So the existence of the whole is caused, and does not belong to it simply of itself. If we now turn our attention to the parts themselves, we can repeat the argument in their case. Therefore nothing that is composed of parts (whether they are physically separable or not makes no difference to the reasoning) can have its existence of itself. Therefore it has it from another. And this whole reasoning is about existence, not merely coming into existence. In fact, if we suppose that there is a whole which has always existed (as Aristotle thought was true about the “sphere of the fixed stars,” for example), this reasoning shows that such a thing would have always derived its existence from an outside cause, and continues to do so, even though it never came into existence at all. In a similar way, the Fifth Postulate causes the Pythagorean Theorem to be true even though the Pythagorean Theorem never began to be true at some point. Or the number 2 causes all other even numbers to be even, although they never began to be even.
Sometimes people imagine that once a thing exists, it should need no cause of its staying in existence, as if there could be a kind of “ontological inertia”—as though the easiest thing to do is to stay in existence, so no cause is needed to sustain that. I will mention two reasons why that thinking is defective.
First, it simply ignores the arguments showing that there is a cause of the existence of something (such as the argument outlined above showing that anything with parts or anything changeable needs a cause of its existence). Suppose I show that I depend on Euclid’s Fifth Postulate (his so-called “parallel postulate”) not just to come to know the Pythagorean Theorem, but also to know it (which is the case, by the way). Then as long as I know the Pythagorean Theorem, my knowledge of the Fifth Postulate must be at work, too, and cannot have just disappeared. If someone imagined that there might be such a thing as “intellectual inertia,” so that I could just continue to know something after coming to know it, without relying on any prior knowledge anymore, this is simply denying (contrary to fact and without evidence) that there is a cause of my knowing the Pythagorean Theorem. That is ignoring the real relationship between the Theorem and the Postulate—the Postulate does not just cause me to come to know the Theorem, but to know it. So as long as I know the Theorem, my knowledge of the Postulate also exists and operates. Similarly, my desire for health causes my desire for surgery—and it does not merely cause my desire for surgery to begin to be, but simply to be. If my desire for health and life go away before I have surgery, then my desire for surgery will go away, too. To suppose I might have some kind of “appetitive inertia” by which I simply continue to desire things after I have begun to desire them, independently of any influence from any other desire, is simply to ignore the way in which my desire for something like surgery depends on my desire for something like health. The one depends on the other for its being, not just for its coming into being. The same goes for the first cause. The argument outlined above establishes that there is only one thing that has existence of itself, and therefore everything else has existence (and not just coming into existence) from another thing. As long as anything besides the first cause exists, then, the existence that it has is an effect coming forth from the first cause.
Second, this way of thinking overlooks the radical nature of causing the very existence of a substance. If something is causing my very being, and causing the being of everything that is in my substance, then what is there in me that is not being caused by such a thing? What is there in me that is not from this cause? Nothing, of course. So what is there in me that might receive and retain the donation of that cause once that cause has stopped acting? Again, nothing. But nothingness has no power of retaining anything, or any power of any kind. All there is in me is what is from the first cause, so if the first cause stops causing, stops giving, there is nothing left of me. So as long as there is something left of me, the first cause must also be in existence and acting.
I hope that this has been of some use to you, Joseph. Your question is one that I know many people have, and it is a deep and difficult one to which it is impossible, really, to do perfect justice in an online exchange. Nonetheless, I thought it would be better to say something rather than nothing. On the other hand, I judged it wiser to stick to more basic points in the book, since a shorter book that provokes important questions and outlines some answers is probably better than an insufferably long one that no one will read!
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