Thomas Gilby OP wrote, "Civilisation is formed by men locked together in argument." Our hope in this blog is to help generate a good healthy argument by challenging common assumptions about the question of God's existence. This blog is a resource for my students--and anyone who is interested--studying topics in the philosophy of relgion at A Level and beyond.

Monday, May 31, 2010

"If everything must have a cause, then what caused God?"

This is, surprisingly, a common objection to Aquinas’ cosmological argument. Those who raise it think they have hold of a logical proof that Aquinas’ argument is circular and self-defeating.

But it’s surprising that it is such a common objection because it in fact betrays a profound misunderstanding of Aquinas’ argument. You’ll find dozens of such objections on Youtube where unsuspecting critics blunder away at a version of the argument that is certainly not Aquinas’.

In fact, nowhere does Thomas Aquinas argue that “everything must have a cause.” In fact, he argues precisely the opposite—that everything cannot have a cause; there must be some being who is not caused, otherwise nothing would exist.

So to respond to this argument by saying, “Then what caused God?” is simply an indication that the interlocutor has missed the point. Aquinas’ Five Ways rest on the premise that there is some entity that is not caused.

So to put it simply: there are only three possibilities for our universe: (1) that it is eternal and that matter or parallel universes or whatever you like have always been around; (2) that the universe has not always been around, but it has popped into existence from nothing, spontaneously and without any outside help; (3) that there is some Uncaused Causer which is the cause of everything else.

The first three of Aquinas’ Five Ways in his Summa Theologica (Prima Pars, Q2, a3) aim to show that options (1) and (2) are not viable—which leaves us with option (3): there is an Unmoved Mover or First Cause behind everything else that exists.

Note too, that in demonstrating the necessity of an Uncaused Causer Aquinas is not claiming to have proven the existence of the God of Christianity or Judaism. Having demonstrated the necessity of an Uncaused Causer he adds—almost incidentally—that this entity is what Christians call God.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


The difference between healthy and non-healthy scepticism

Originally, the sceptics were a class of philosophers in ancient Greece who refused to kowtow to the conventional wisdom of the day. Human nature has this way of lapsing into unreflective thinking, and so it could be argued that, initially at least, the sceptics provided a much needed public conscience. The Greek word skeptesthai means reflect, look or view. Not a bad quality to possess at all; in fact, from Socrates to the Middle Ages (and beyond in those circles which resisted the advent of modernism in philosophy), it formed the basis of dialectical reasoning. But the difference between the scholastic view and the postmodern view of scepticism is that for the scholastic, scepticism was a starting point in reasoning while for the postmodern thinker it is the terminus. All metaphysical questions—questions about moral value, the existence of God, the efficacy of the Church and so on—are, for the postmodern, unanswerable--or else already answered in the negative as a matter of principle. Anything not nailed down by the physical sciences is thus nothing more than opinion, since all criteria must, according to the postmodern project, be physically quantifiable.

Seek the Truth

What does the world teach us about the meaning of truth?

Our world is filled beyond imagining with the traffic of the human voice. The airwaves are jammed packed with words and ideas. Cyberspace is bursting with billions of images, travelling like light from one end of the earth to the other at the press of a button. Instant messages, Myspaces, Blogspots and chat rooms give an equal platform to any and every idea. Newspapers and TV lend an air of expertise to the torrent, but these are often mistaken and biased, too.

The thoughtful insight has its moment on the stage before it is quickly replaced by the latest popular and superficial rant. For a short while, one cause is championed; then dropped as another is scooped up in its place. The images come fast and furious, forming an endless and incoherent monologue. Soon, words themselves begin to loose meaning.

Who can possibly, on his own, sift all of this and find the truth here? The person who wades into this cacophony looking for meaning will surely be disappointed. He knows in his heart that he wants the truth, but he will not know how to recognise it. He will be confused by the vast number of claims being made every fleeting minute. In the end, the disappointed seeker will become cynical or frustrated. He will stop looking for the truth because he thinks that it is too hard to recognise. Instead, he will settle for what most everyone else seems to be doing: living and exchanging in a world of endless opinion.

Finding the truth has never been easy. Most philosophical, scientific, technological discoveries—and often even religious awareness, too—come after hard labour, sometimes spanning decades, centuries and millennia. A man or a woman can spend a whole life in the pursuit of just one strand of human wisdom. Consider the life of a physicist, who gives thirty or fort years to discover one reality: that the nucleus of an atom is made of protons and neutrons. Think of the life of one scholar of an ancient language who spends the same amount of time translating just one short book of the bible.

The truth, at the best of times and in an ideal condition, is hard to find. Locating it depends on a number of factors including: the attitude of the seeker; the intelligence of the seeker; the nearness to us of the thing we want to know.

The seeker of the truth must be open minded, but not indiscriminate. Being open minded does not mean accepting everything as being equal to the truth, or accepting everything as being equal as opinion. It means being willing to seek everywhere without being a slave to prejudice. This entails a willingness to change. It requires a pure heart that admits its own weakness and welcomes the light of truth.

The seeker of the truth must be intelligent. “Intelligence” is the ability to form a judgement, to choose wisely between what is good and bad, between what is sound and what is false. Intelligence doesn’t mean simply being clever. True intelligence speaks of a person’s character, not simply what information they carry in their head.

The seeker of the truth must come to the understanding that the cause of truth is further away from us, while the effect of truth is nearer to us. This is both the reason for the difficulty in knowing the truth and the method by which it is to be known.

Imagine an object sitting in front of you. You see that it is something tangible; you pick it up, it has weight and texture. You know that it is real, but you do not know what it is and so you ask, “what is this thing?” You have come into contact with the effect of something, and now you wish to know what causes it. “What is it made of?”; “What is it for?” Knowing the answer to these questions will explain some of its causes; later, we may add to our questions, “Who made it?” and, “Why was it made?” When we have exhausted all of these questions, we can say that we have knowledge of the thing.

From here, we can move to higher planes of truth: we can form complex judgements about the world in which we live, judgements which will be based on what we have come to know through careful questioning. But we will find as we move along that things that are further away are harder to know. A distant planet is harder to know than a cup on the table in front of me. There is also distance in time; the customs of an ancient civilisation are harder to know than the one we live in. There is also distance in being: the causes of Justice are harder to know than the causes of peanut butter. The further things are from us, the harder they are to know. The hardest of all is to know what “being” itself is.

Ultimately, the search for truth will bring us to ask questions about where we come from and where we are going. What will happen to me when I die? Why am I alive in the first place? Why is there something at all, rather than nothing?

Human kind has been searching for answers to these questions since the dawn of time. Because the answer to them is furthest away from us, they are hardest to know. But over the millennia, the collective discovery of humankind has been the same: there is a higher power responsible for our existence. There is a dimension to reality that evades us. There is more to this life than meets the eye.

This collective awareness of mankind is persistent; it is loud and clear. It is unwavering and repetitive in every age, in every culture, among all peoples: there is a higher power; we have a destiny beyond this mortal existence.

Do not let the cynicism we spoke of earlier cloud this reality for you. It is a reality that bears within it great beauty and great joy. Do not let that cynicism dissuade you from seeking it. Nor should the seemingly conflicting responses to this reality be a cause for cynicism. Some people point to the fact that there are so many different religions as evidence that this great truth is unknowable. It is not evidence that it is unknowable: it is evidence that this greatest of all truths is the hardest to find. Things that are very hard to find are always subject to multiple theories. This is true of world religions as it is for science. This is the human condition.

Do not be confused by multiple religions. Rather, be amazed and heartened that religion is such a consistent and powerful expression of human yearning. Understand that they all cry out with a single voice in recognition of the same thing: we are born of the Divine. With that as a starting point, a true search is possible.

Leibniz's Principle of Sufficient Reason

Comparison of Aquinas' treatment of infinite regress with Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason

One can see that Leibniz’s cosmological argument, although not as fully developed as Aquinas’, relies on the assumption that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes.

In an essay he wrote in 1697 called On the Ultimate Origination of Things, Leibniz writes,
“However far you go back to earlier states, you will never find in those states a full reason why there should be any world rather than none, and why it should be as it is. Therefore, even if you suppose the world eternal, as you will still be supposing nothing but a succession of states and will not in any of them find a sufficient reason... it is evident that the reason must be sought elsewhere.”

Leibniz argues that there must be a sufficient reason to explain the universe. He illustrates his point with an analogy like the one above:

“Let us suppose the book of the elements of geometry to have been eternal, one copy always to have been written down from an earlier one; it is evident that, even though a reason can be given for the present book of a past one, nevertheless out of any number of books taken in order going backwards we shall never come upon a full reason... why there are books at all, and why they were written in this manner.”

When one has a question about the origin of being, multiplying more and more being does not answer the question. Even by multiplying being to infinity, we still lack an answer. We need instead a sufficient reason or, as Aquinas calls it, an Unmoved Mover.

Aquinas on Infinite Regress

Our tendency is to think of infinite regress in a purely temporal way: an endless series stretching back in time, without end.

In his First Way (the Argument from Motion), Aquinas argues that we cannot go on indefinitely looking for a cause for things that are moved by another.

Aquinas does not use the term “infinite regress”. Like the label ‘cosmological’ itself, these are terms added by later commentators to his argument. Aquinas says of the relation between things that move from potency to act: “this cannot proceed for infinity” (Hic autem non est procedere in infinitum). His meaning is that the state of affairs cannot be dragged out endlessly to avoid admitting an Unmoved Mover.

The argument against infinite regress is not simply a temporal infinite regress. This is more of a concern for form of the Kalam version of the cosmological argument (at least William Lane Craig’s version of it) but it is not the focus of the First Way.

Aquinas is more concerned about the relationship between things that are ‘moved’ from outside of themselves—things that move from potency to act, from ‘becoming’ to ‘being’. You cannot have an infinite class of things in a state of becoming without anything that brings them into being.

Consider for example a student who is learning a new language you have never heard before. You ask him, “How are you learning to speak this language?” or, in Aristotelian more terms, “What act is bringing about your actualisation as a speaker of this language?”

He replies, “I am being taught by a teacher.” There’s no surprise there; we would expect as much. But imagine his teacher then comes into the room, and we ask her the same question, and she gives the same answer. So far, we’re still not very surprised: just as the student is learning now, so the teacher also needed to learn from someone.

But imagine more and more people kept entering the room and kept giving the same answer. Eventually we would start to wonder, “What is the source of this language? I understand that people are being taught it all over the place, but where does the language come from?”
Even if a billion people all gave the same answer, the same question persists: where did this language come from? You can see that even if an infinite number of people gave the same answer, the question is still not answered.

The problem has nothing to do with time. The problem has to do with the ultimate source of the language: where did it originate? How have these people learnt this language? The question is the same for one person, a million, a billion or an infinite number. All we’re doing by adding more and more people to the explanation is simply postponing the problem.
Aquinas wants to know, what is the source of all being? We do not answer the question by simply adding more and more beings to the argument: the world, the solar system, the Big Band, some quantum fluctuation—whatever. None of them answer the question: what is the source of all actualisation?

Debate on Causation

Debate on causation in physics between Kevin Sloway and Richard Healey taken from the Reasoning Show podcast.

Kevin: Okay. Let's say we have an object A. It could be a chair. Now, there's something else that is necessary for its existence. And that's something other than itself. We have a duality. So, we have a thing A, and a thing that is not-A.

Richard: What is the "not-A" ?

Kevin: It could be its environment. It's something that is not the chair. It's everything that is not the chair. So you could say that there's an interdependence between the two, where they cause each other. Not in time, but where each is dependent upon the other.

Richard: I'm not sure I'd want to call that a causal relationship. It's an interesting dependence relationship. Let me give you an example of something else that looks like that kind of dependence relationship. Suppose somebody makes a statue out of a lump of clay. They say, "It's necessary for the existence of that statue, that it be constituted of clay." There's a necessary connection, they might allege, between the existence of the statue, and the existence of something, without which it could not exist, namely, the lump of clay which constitutes it. I take it that that's the sort of thing you are talking about, but I would not call that a causal relationship at all but a relation of constitution, whatever that comes to.

David: If you define "cause" as something that is necessary for something else to exist, then the clay would be a necessary cause of the statue, because without the clay, there would be no statue.

Richard: How about this:- I don't think you're going to like this one, but tell me why not.....Isn't the statue also necessary for the existence of the statue, so that it is the cause of itself?

David: That would seem very technical to me, that one.

Richard: You don't like it, so there has to be another condition than merely "be necessary for the existence of something".

David: I don't think it means anything. If we define a cause as something that is necessary for something else to exist, then the statue causing itself doesn't fall into that definition.

Richard: Because the word "else" got in there. Good. I admire it, but it's not going to get you everywhere you need, because you need to explain to me what "necessary" means.

David: Without the clay, the statue couldn't possibly exist. It's necessary to its existence.

Richard: Now "possibility" got stuck in there, and that's as bad as "necessity". Philosophers typically distinguish different grades of "necessity", and a correlative grade of "possibility". They talk about logical necessity, metaphysical necessity, physical necessity, and so on. What kind of necessity did you have in mind?

David: Absolute necessity. For example, a car cannot exist without its parts: the engine and its wheels.... If you take all those things away, there would be no car. So there's a necessary connection there. And the same with space, time, molecules.....

Richard: That's not sounding like the kind of necessity that's discussed in the context of causal relations between events. That's to say, my dropping something and its landing on the floor: someone might say, "It had to land on the floor, given you dropped it and there was nothing in the way. So, necessarily it landed on the floor." That's not the kind of necessity you're talking about?

David: No, there's no certainty there, between linkages of events, but nevertheless you still need a floor for something to hit the floor, so there's a necessary connection there.

Richard: I'm still not quite sure what concept of "necessity" you're playing with. But I can see why you'd think that such a grade of necessity is not likely to be challenged by developments in empirical science.

David: Even empirically, I can't see how any observation or test by science can actually prove or disprove causality.

Richard: Yes, but you used that word "causality": is that simply the claim that nothing pops into existence without cause?

David: Yes.
Richard: When you think of the causal relation, what do you think it relates? Do you think it relates things or do you think it relates events?

David: I don't make any distinction between things and events.

Richard: I think you need to. Suppose I say, "My mother is necessary for my existence," I think you'd agree that in some sense that's got to be true. There, what seems important is "my mother" and the event of "my coming into existence", and indeed, not just anything about my mother, but my mother had to be in certain states, and there had to be various events involving my mother. So that's what the causal relation really relates: those states and events involving my mother, and the event of my being born and continuing to exist afterwards.

David: I agree with that, but obviously it's not just your mother. Your mother was only one of countless other things, for instance, oxygen, space, the evolution of the species, etc. All these things are contributing causes. And they've all been necessary, because if they were absent then you wouldn't exist. So, your mother is just one of an infinite number of necessary causes.

Richard: Are they all necessary, though? Couldn't I have existed without a few of them? Given the way I actually came into existence, there were various events that preceded my coming into existence. Well: they could have been a bit different, and yet I'd still have been me.

The Human Brain

Some Basic Facts

The cortex (sometimes called ‘grey matter’) represents the outer layer of the brain and is only about 2 – 5mm thick. It is home to our mental activity, thanks to the 100 billion or so neurons (excitable cells) that form trillions of axons—or bridges linking one neuron to another. When stimulated, the neuron sends electrical impulses down the axon to the synapse. The synapse is a gap between axons. Ions (charged atoms or molecules) composed of sodium and potassium are fired across the synapse and down the axon to the next neuron. In this way, neurons (which on their own are not very ‘smart’) can “communicate” with tens of thousands of other neurons in a fraction of a second.