Heard John Legend on radio. Perfect choice for people who like piano-heavy music, but find Elton John to be a little too rowdy for them.
Causation and The Origin of the Universe: A Response to Edward Feser
For some time now, I’ve been meaning to respond to a post on Edward Feser’s blog. The post is criticism of Sean Carroll in his recent debate with William Lane Craig. I have a few problems with Feser’s presentation. The first of these issues can be seen in what follows:
It is also only fair to note that, while I have enormous respect for Craig, I don’t myself think that it is a good idea to approach arguments for a First Cause by way of scientific cosmology. I think that muddies the waters by inadvertently reinforcing scientism, blurring the distinction between primary (divine) causality and secondary (natural) causality, and perpetuating the false assumption that arguments for a divine First Cause are essentially arguments for a “god of the gaps.” As I have argued many times, what are in my view the chief arguments of natural theology (i.e. Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic and other Scholastic arguments) rest on premises derived from metaphysics rather than natural science, and in particular on metaphysical premises that any possible natural science must presuppose. For that reason, they are more certain than anything science itself could in principle ever either support or refute.
Scientism, as usually defined, is the view that science is the only way of knowing. In the past I’ve drawn a distinction with two attitudes that are often conflated.1 I don’t agree with what I call maximal scientism. Furthermore, I don’t agree that the inclusion of modern cosmology in a discussion of a first cause reinforces scientism. It doesn’t reinforce scientism any more than the inclusion of abiogenesis in a discussion on the origin(s) of life reinforces it. If one recognizes that modern cosmology—like Carroll stated in his debate—concerns itself with the behavior, per se, of the universe, one can see why it has to be consulted in any discussion of a first cause. This is a statement that I will not qualify during the course of this response since I’ve chosen to focus on the metaphysics that underpin this discussion.
This also does nothing to blur any line between primary and secondary causality. The notion of primary causality is dubious and despite the impression Feser wants to give his readers, it’s not a concept employed in all views within metaphysics. For instance, a naturalistic metaphysics will not make use of the distinction; moreover, it will have no need for it. To demonstrate this, I will draw from a few metaphysical frameworks that make no use of primary (divine) causality. To that we now turn.
Examples of naturalistic metaphysics can be found in Robin Le Poidevin’s Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism, and Quentin Smith’s paper Causation and the Logical Impossibility of a Divine Cause. I will draw strongly from Le Poidevin and Smith. I will also draw from my own analysis of causality. I will go beyond Le Poidevin and Smith who argue that a god cannot be the efficient cause of the universe’s existence; I will also argue that a god cannot be the material cause of the universe’s existence.
Before exploring this, it is useful to consider two of Aquinas’ Five Ways: The Argument From Motion and The Argument From An Efficient Cause.2 Feser alludes to these arguments. Also, since they’re the only ones of Aquinas’ arguments with any application to this discussion, it’s fair to assume that these are the arguments he was alluding to even if he only implied them. In the past I’ve argued that both arguments are self-contradictory and fail due to question begging. For instance, to arrive at a First Mover that was put in motion by no other violates the stipulations of P4, P5, and P6—namely that nothing can be in actuality and potentiality in the same respect; that nothing can move itself; and that everything that’s in motion is put in motion by something else. If P4-6 are sound, then a First Mover is ruled out. So either P4-6 are sound—thus ruling out the conclusion of the argument or P4-6 are unsound—thus making the argument invalid.
However, I’m going to work from the assumptions of these arguments and instead show that they’re conceptually flawed. Both arguments are variations of the same argument since being a Prime Mover and being the First (efficient) Cause are two ways of saying that something is the first in a series—two ways of saying that nothing precedes it.
In his debate with Sean Carroll, William Lane Craig presented what Le Poidevin calls the temporal Cosmological Argument. Le Poidevin states that a theist could argue that since the universe has a beginning, this feature requires it to have a cause.3 The temporal route doesn’t help the theist’s case since, on my view, the temporal condition reduces to another condition. To see this, we have to first familiarize ourselves with Hume’s conditions: temporal, spatio-temporal, and nomological.4 Hume’s conditions reduce to a more fundamental condition—which I’ll call the material condition.
To convenience Feser, I will do my best to avoid scientific terminology and employ more neutral terms throughout the discussion. Rather than talk about the Big Bang or a cyclical universe or a multiverse, I will instead speak of the beginning of the universe as point A. Hume’s temporal condition is satisfied by point A since nothing can precede point A. Conversely, if point A was the beginning of the day at midnight, we can’t logically speak of a second before that point since point A is axiomatically the beginning of that day.
A theist may argue that point A is contingent. This will lead us to an Argument From Contingency or to either of the Aquinas arguments aforementioned. Point A will now be spoken of in a spatio-temporal manner rather than just a temporal manner. God, however, cannot stand in relation to point A in the way that’s normally conceived. This is why I stated that Hume’s conditions reduce to the material condition. Line x and line z are bound by link y. Line x and line z are at times mistaken for mere events in meeting the spatio-temporal condition. This fails to account for link y. Any two events meeting the temporal and spatio-temporal condition only meet those conditions because they reduce to objects having normative dispositions.
A normative disposition is the tendency of an object to stress in a certain way when acted on by another object. That is to say that if a fragile object comes into contact with a non-fragile object, the fragile object will shatter in nearly every case. This is, of course, related to the height at which the object is dropped and the initial velocity of the object. Did the glass cup, for instance, fall from a human hand toward the floor or was it accelerated by a human hand toward the floor? Each outcome may be different because a glass cup doesn’t always break if casually dropped from a certain height.
Given normative dispositions, even complex causal chains reduce to the material condition. When we speak, for example, of the events leading up to the first World War, we speak of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, the Annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and so on. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to assume the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 is the sole cause of the first World War. It meets the temporal condition because it is an event that happened before July 28, 2014—which is the date Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. It meets the spatio-temporal condition because the two events are spatially near to or in contact with one another. As previously stated, both conditions reduce to a material condition because a bullet ejected from a firearm has certain dispositions; a human being also has certain dispositions. When a bullet comes in close contact with a human heart, the result is usually fatal. Eyewitness accounts state that Ferdinand was shot in the chest.5 If a bullet ejected from a firearm and a human heart didn’t have the normative dispositions that they have, this event would have been attempted murder rather than an assassination. It therefore (probably) wouldn’t have been one event leading to the first World War. On the material condition, we can reduce this even further and speak of the brain state of a murderer—who in this case was a young, Serbian nationalist. For our purposes, we needn’t go that far.
Tangentially, as Feser mentioned, the Aristotelian holds that event causation is parasitic on substance causation (¶ 20). This is to say that they recognize dispositions, but not explicitly. Overall, my qualm with Aristotelian metaphysics is its emphasis on teleology. Any account of causality shouldn’t include a feature of purpose—whether inherent or ex post facto (i.e. teleological)—because causality, unless we introduce agent-specific causation (e.g. human will), doesn’t feature purpose. To extend agent-specific causation to the universe as a whole is to engage in agency over-detection. It’s akin to primitive views of lightning coming from the hand of Zeus or bodies of water being subject to Neptune’s devices.
We thus have a material condition that must be satisfied when speaking of causality. Causality, to me, is a byproduct of normative dispositions.6 Hume’s secondary conditions (temporal and spatio-temporal) are only met when the material condition is met. Hume has a third condition that is also satisfied by the material condition. Hume’s nomological condition states that every object like the cause always produces something like the effect. It’s a generalization principle that invokes laws of nature. Every law of nature, however, is reducible to a material object. Gravity is an attractive force that is proportional to the mass of an object. Like electromagnetism, it is manifested in a field capable of acting on physical objects. Without material objects, gravity wouldn’t emerge—at least not in any discernible sense.
This naturally leads us asking if a god satisfies the material condition that underpins Hume’s conditions. If god is immaterial, we must either (i) admit that an immaterial being cannot dispositionally interact with a material object (i.e. the universe) (ii) posit a strange interaction between the hypothetically immaterial and the material. The former is to concede that Aquinas’ arguments, the Argument From Contingency, and the KCA fail to support the existence of a god; the latter is to concede without conceding because anyone will be hard pressed to find examples of such interaction.
Quentin Smith alludes to a similar concept—namely Hector-Neri Castaneda, Galen Strawson, David Fair, Jerrold Aronson and others’ Transference definition of a cause.7 He cites Castaneda as stating that ”the heart of production, or causation, seems, thus, to be transfer or transmission.”8 Smith also states the following:
Castaneda’s full theory implies a definition that includes the nomological condition: c is a cause of e if and only if (i) there is a transfer of causity from an object O1 to an object O2 in a circumstance x, with the event c being O1’s transmission of causity and the event e being O2’s acquisition of causity; (ii) every event of the same category as c that is in a circumstance of the same category as x is conjoined with an event of the same category as e.
In the same vein as normative dispositions, if god is immaterial, how can he transfer causity to material objects. Castanda’s (ii) meets Hume’s nomological condition and my more fundamental material condition. To get around this issue, the theist would have to introduce a brand, so to speak, of causation that makes discussions like this unintelligible. To put it bluntly, it would be the invocation of nonsense to preserve nonsense.
Given this, even a retreat to metaphysics doesn’t help Feser’s case. The arguments he prefers are conceptually flawed. One of Carroll’s refutations is that causality may not apply to the universe as a whole. It’s actually a basic criticism of the KCA; the argument commits the fallacy of composition.9 Though we may assume that the universe has a cause or is contingent, nothing about the nature of causality makes clear that a divine, immaterial cause is tenable. When accounting for the material condition satisfied by every event since point A, to speak of an event that doesn’t satisfy this condition and that occurred prior to point A is simply hard to come by. Epistemically, we might be mistaken in assigning first place in a series to point A; point A may not be point A. However, even if that’s the case, point A wouldn’t be immaterial; moreover, it would be something akin to the point we mistakenly thought of as point A. The First (efficient and material) Cause and the Prime Mover are wholly material—containing normative, though primordial, dispositions enabling them to interact within the universe and in the confines of its laws.
In the interest of brevity, I will divide my response into two parts—this being the first of the two. In my next response, I’ll cover Feser’s genetic appeal to the definition of the laws of nature; Aristotelian metaphysics,; and Feser’s moving of the goalposts.
Works Cited & Notes
1 However, scientism in a good sense implies scientism in a bad sense. Perhaps it is apt to call good sense scientism minimal scientism and bad sense scientism maximal scientism. Proponents of maximal scientism get science wrong. It’s unfortunate that even some scientists are proponents of maximal scientism. Science isn’t dogmatic. Though it can lead to fact, science isn’t immutable. In other words, today’s theories, no matter how successful, are not tomorrow’s theories. Even a theory as successful as general relativity is subject to adjustments and even falsification. Though not all proponents of maximal scientism think this way, science doesn’t have all the answers. Science shouldn’t intrude on and isn’t superior to other endeavors.
Science can, however, illuminate other endeavors. Archaeology and history already employ Baye’s Theorem. Philosophers of mind (especially those that aren’t into the backward, anachronistic woo woo of Cartesian dualsim and similar views) are informing their views with the latest developments in neuroscience. Ethologists are informing their views on morality with science; for instance, few of them have a keen interest in the emerging field known as neurocriminology. This is minimal scientism at its best. C.S. Peirce, though perhaps unconsciously or subconsciously, agreed with the position of minimal scientism.
2 Gracyk, Theodore. "Argument Analysis of the Five Ways". Minnesota State University. 2004. Web.
3 Le Poidevin, Robin. Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, p.6. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.
4 David Hume, “An Abstract of A Treatise of Human Nature’, in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (New York: Bobbs-Merril, 1955), pp. 186-7.
6 "Dispotions, Causality, and the Kalam Cosmological Argument". Tumblr: Academic Atheism. 13 May 2014. Web.
7 Hector-Neri Castaneda, “Causes, Causity, and Energy,”, in Midwest Studies in Philosophy IX, eds. P. French et al (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); Galen Strawson, “Realism and Causation”, The Philosophical Quarterly 37 (1987), pp. 253-77; David Fair, “Causation and the Flow of Energy”, Erkenntnis 14 (1979), pp. 219-50; Jerrold Aronson,”The Legacy of Hume’s Analysis of Causation” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 7 (1971), pp. 135-36.
8 Hector-Neri Castaneda, “Causes, Causity, and Energy,”, in Midwest Studies in Philosophy IX, eds. P. French et al (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p.22
9 The predicate in this argument is has a cause for its existence. All objects in the universe have a cause for their existence. The argument is true distributively, but it is not true collectively. It doesn’t follow that since all things in the universe have a cause for their existence that the universe in its entirety has a cause for its existence. The argument is valid; however, the argument isn’t sound.
if atheism is defined by “lack of belief in God” then babies and dogs are atheists
don’t be a baby atheist. define atheism as disbelief in God. thank you
This rejection of the wide definition of atheism (lack of belief in gods), in favor of a possible narrow definition (disbelief or belief that there are no gods) is basically nonsensical, as things like furniture or dogs lack the intellectual capacity to properly reason about a belief, thus they are unable to have a belief or lack a belief either way. The concept of atheism or theism simply doesn’t apply to them. If the word “single” could be defined as “a lack of marriage”, you’d still know better than to start pointing out furniture, rocks, or dogs if I asked you if anyone at a certain event was single, because thinking something like that could apply to those things is ludicrous.
While it’s true that a baby could be considered an atheist because it lacks a belief in god, this actually does nothing to invalidate the definition of atheism as a lack of belief in god or gods. It’s entirely possible for someone to start out with a default state of lacking a belief in god(s), and, as they grow older and their mind develops, and they learn to properly use reason, to continue to lack belief in gods because they find the evidence or logical arguments for god presented to them to be unconvincing, thus providing them with no reason to leave their default state of lacking belief in a god. It’s also completely possible for someone who was raised in one religion or another to return to the default state of lacking a belief if they take a look at their religion and decide that they have no reason to continue believing it.
The following video explains why atheism can be widely defined as a lack of belief in far more detail. Please watch and learn: