Why Russell was wrong I: The First Cause Argument

dominoesThe New Atheists are, in many ways, the intellectual children of Bertrand Russell. Out of respect for Russell, I hasten to add that theirs is a much more superficial position than his. Still, his speech “Why I’m not a Christian” is an almost perfect distillation of the New Atheist project. As such, I’d like to take a few posts to respond to it.

He begins, after his introduction, with the First Cause argument, which I will address in this post:

Perhaps the simplest and easiest to understand is the argument of the First Cause. (It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God.) That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have;

Russell gives no reason here why “philosophers and the men of science” have discredited the notion of cause. There is, in fact, no philosophical or scientific reason why we should reject the concept of causation, and to do so would be to reject science itself.

It is, of course, possible that Russell is simply saying that modern academics have rejected the types of causation to which Aquinas appeals in his First Cause argument (teleology). But, again, this has neither been refuted in philosophy, nor disconfirmed by science. Moreover, none of the other major forms of the argument depend on teleology. If this is all Russell is saying, it is a non sequitur with respect to the overwhelming majority of first cause arguments.

Rather, all Russell is doing is repeating modern prejudices, which simply dismiss, rather than answer, the ideas he is rejecting.

Russell continues:

I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.

This is a common, and rather obvious, mistake to make in response to the First Cause argument. Excepting your pastor Bob or the guy on the street, no defender of the argument has ever claimed that “everything must have a cause”. No version of it argument offered in the history of philosophy has rested on this idea. To argue against it is, at best, a straw man fallacy, and, at worst, an attempt at poisoning the well.

The reason why God is a better prospect than the universe for a causeless object is that God, unlike the universe, is not a contingent object (the Leibnizian version of the argument), that God, unlike the universe, is not an actualized potential (Thomsitic version), and that God, unlike the universe, did not begin to exist (Kalam version).

None of these, and none of the other versions not mentioned here, have ever been based on the idea that everything must have a cause. However, Russell’s entire objection is based on the assumption that all of them are based on it.

It might, perhaps, be excusable that Russell opened with this straw man objection in order to address less sophisticated versions before moving on to the actual first cause argument. However, he follows his discussion of the idea that everything has a cause with this:

Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause.

And then moves on to the next argument.
This reminds me of nothing so much as the New Atheist modus operandi. After having stomped upon the weakest version of an argument from the opposition (or, really, a caricature of its weakest version), is is declared that the general idea is so silly that we need not bother with the actual argument.

In fairness, this is probably not what Russell himself is saying. It is, however, what so many of his fans are doing on a consistent basis.

Rather, the First Cause argument begins with the simple observation that there are things in this universe (not ‘everything’ but simply most or all of the things we interact with on a daily basis) that cannot account for their own existence. While one such thing can cause another to come into being, such as a potter making a jar, there needs to be some terminus of existence.

Something must be holding up the whole system, or got it started in the first place. To claim that there is simply an infinite chain of such causes (“turtles, all the way down” as they say) makes no more sense than to say that an infinite chain of boxcars can pull a caboose down a railroad track without need of an engine on the front (because each boxcar is pulled by the one in front of it).

None of this requires that “everything must have a cause”, much as Russell seems to think it does.


22 responses to “Why Russell was wrong I: The First Cause Argument

  • Webeers

    Very well laid out. Nicely written. Been a very lone time since exposure to Russell but one does run into more anemic variants of his arguments quite often. The New Atheism seems much more vitriol than anything else.

  • Debilis

    And, yes, I’ve been left with much the same impression of the New Atheists; they frustrate me to no end.
    I’m trying to take as the silver lining that they motivate me to learn in trying to correct the problems with their arguments.

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  • Webeers

    I made an amendment to my post by linking to your excellent review of Russell’s non-argument at the end of my rebuttal. I really loved it. An your are right, I react the same way when I see these old canards resurrected by these new school atheists in various blogs. What makes it worse, they often go unanswered. But you are right, it does spur one on to study and, at my age (60+) to recall what has been learned.

  • 500 Questions

    “The reason why God is a better prospect than the universe for a causeless object is that God, unlike the universe, is not a contingent object…” What exactly is the Universe contingent upon that God is not?

    Also, please name the mysterious things in the Universe that “cannot account for their own existence.” Can God account for his own existence?

    If we assume that there MUST be something that is without cause, then we can either presume that the stuff of the Universe has no cause (or the stuff that preceded it, or surrounds it, or whatever) or that some kind of “God” exists and it has no cause.

    I would argue that the Universe is a better prospect, since:

    1. It actually exists. Unlike God, who is made of invisible spirit stuff that has never been observed or confirmed.

    2. The Universe less complex than God. If something must exist, a simple structure seems more probable than an extremely advanced one (i.e. a plethora of dumb atoms is less complex than an extremely intelligent God).
    How does an extremely intelligent brain “just exist”? From whence does all its knowledge come?

    3. The Universe is often wasteful and disorderly. From countless stillborn animals, to entire galaxies that mindlessly collide with one another. Nature has no mind to manage the Universe, God does.

    4. The Universe doesn’t have to create something from nothing. If something MUST always exist, isn’t it more likely that the thing that exists IS the thing that has always existed? Why invent another thing that magically creates the thing that exists?

    In short, if we hypothesize that a god was the first cause, we still have to jump the hurtles of what spirit is (how can nothing be something?), how it acquired complex knowledge, how it gained the ability to create something from nothing, and why it mismanages what it has created. Why insist on jumping all these hurtles when a natural explanation explains them all?

    • Debilis

      To start, I’d be quick to admit that this doesn’t prove God’s existence.
      And before I get to points of disagreement, I should acknowledge that this is an intelligent response. The thoughtfulness is appreciated.

      But, to get to my own response:
      Everything I know in the universe lacks the ability to account for its own universe. Mountains, computers, quarks, people, and my left shoe all need some explanation for their existence that references many things outside themselves.

      But God is a necessary object by definition. God, as he has traditionally been understood, is the kind of thing which it is logically impossible for him to not exist. In Thomistic terms, God is pure actuality, rather than an actualized potential. One can say that there is some problem in the details with this (meaning that God doesn’t exist), but one cannot simply say that God can’t account for his own his own existence without an argument supporting the idea that there is something wrong with the idea.

      Regarding the preferability of the universe as that which can account for its own existence:
      1. To say that the universe has “existence” as an advantage over God is to beg the question. It assumes that God does not exist.
      Even if this were merely to say that the universe were confirmed in its existence is to assume that there are no other good arguments for God’s existence (again, question begging).

      2. God is not a brain. This sounds a great deal like Dawkins’ “Boeing 747” argument, which (if you check his definition of complexity) assumes that anything complex is made out of physical parts. As God is simple, by this (and almost every other) definition, it would not be applicable.
      The universe, on the other hand, is a complex arrangement of physical parts.

      3. This objection has assumes a great deal about God. That is to say, it is an excellent refutation of a god who, in addition to being knowledgable and powerful, is concerned about efficiency. Personally, I have no idea why any being with infinite resources should be concerned about efficiency.
      In fact, the ancients considered the size of the universe to be a reason to believe in God. I wouldn’t say that myself, but don’t see any logical reason to say that it is evidence against God’s existence.

      4. Not only have the discoveries of cosmology made it increasingly less probable that the universe is eternal, there is no reason to think that God created something from nothing. Traditionally, abrahamic theists have believed that God created the universe out of his pre-existing power.
      Perhaps most importantly, the Kalam is the only first cause argument that depends on the idea that the universe isn’t eternal. This point doesn’t address any of the others.

      To put all this more simply, there is no reason whatsoever to think that the universe can account for its own existence. Given this, we automatically need to adopt something that could account for it.

      This doesn’t automatically mean that thing is God, but it does have several of the traits of God and is therefore a significant point in the discussion.

      Otherwise, apologies for the length of that (I’m terrible at sound-bytes), and best wishes to you in general.

  • Michael Hawkins

    The First Cause Argument is easily one of the worst in the theistic arsenal:

    For something to be caused, a force must be exerted. Force is measured as mass x acceleration, F=ma. Acceleration is measured as the change in velocity of an object over time. That should be clear enough. Now let’s look at this terrible argument from believers.

    They say God is eternal. He exists outside time. Okay, let’s go with that. That means they believe he caused the Universe to exist from somewhere outside it. But do you see the problem? They already said he is outside time. As we just learned, something which is caused has a force placed on it. Something which has a force placed on it has mass and acceleration. Something which has acceleration has gone through time. Without any time, God cannot cause anything.

    Science tells us, quite clearly, what is involved in causation – most importantly of which for my point is time. Yet in the premise of the believer’s argument is the explicit exclusion of time. They’ve defeated themselves. Any honest believer should immediately abandon this line of argument.

  • Debilis

    This has two basic problems, however.
    First, this problem exists for non-theists as much as theists in trying to explain the origin of the universe. It is clear, quite apart from any consideration of God, that we can’t assume the cause of the universe is going to follow all the physical laws that govern the universe.

    Also, this speaks only to the Kalam, which is a latecomer to the argument. No other form is speaking of God as an efficient cause of the universe (causing the Big Bang), but as an explanation for the existence of the universe, completely apart from any talk about a moment of origin. This objection does not even address those arguments.

  • Michael Hawkins

    These other version merely replace “cause” with “contingent”. They aren’t notably any different except that they come closer to being honest in randomly declaring that God is being excepted from having a cause for no given reason.

    Again, the First Cause Argument is the weakest argument you guys have; it gets defeated sometime in the first or second quarter of the autumn every year in high school classrooms.

    • Debilis

      The reason is that contingent reality, by its nature, cannot be the source of its own existence. It seems a very obvious point that not everything can have a cause.
      I’m sure that many high-schoolers reject the argument, but this is different from giving a clear reason why everything must have a cause (which is what you seem to be suggesting here in saying that God cannot be an exception to this rule).

      That being the case, what is your reason for claiming that everything has a cause?

  • Michael Hawkins

    The whole reason they call it contingent is because they’ve observed that a thing which exists is caused. And then, conveniently enough, they further observe that the cause of that thing was itself caused. And so forth. It’s the same essential argument each time. Someone just found a thesaurus at one point.

    Clever rhetorical turn on the high school quip, but it remains true that very basic physics, such as that surrounding the explanation for f=ma, defeats the First Cause argument. That is, the argument (in all its forms) posits a cause that exists outside (or at least without) time. Since “cause” (or “contingent”) is another way of describing a force, and since a force requires acceleration, and since acceleration requires us to measure the change in velocity over time, it isn’t possible to form a coherent argument where one contends that something can be caused outside/without time.

    On other points, I should be more clear in what I mean. When I say God is randomly excepted from having a cause, I mean that theistic arguments assume he doesn’t need a cause, but I don’t find any convincing reason why this should be so. Declaring that he is infinite or outside time is no better than declaring that unicorns exist.

    To your last question, if you mean “everything” as in the whole Cosmos, then I’m not saying it all has a cause. We don’t know what ‘brought’ the Universe into existence. It could have been some causal agent as we would understand it. It may have been some quantum state where causality doesn’t seem to exist. Perhaps it was a sort of causation working sans time under different physical constraints and conditions. Whatever it was, we can’t say it was a force unless we (at least) posit the existence of time (which, of course, we can’t do beyond 13.7 billion years ago unless we’re just interested in speculation).

    • Debilis

      Yes, people realized that the causes we see in the world are themselves caused. Then, people realized that even an infinite chain of these things can’t account for its own existence. That was when someone said “there must be something that can exist without being caused”.

      But, no, physics (high school or otherwise) does not refute the point, because we aren’t discussing physics. There is no reason to think that the explanation of contingent things is itself a physical force. This is why Einstein didn’t scoff at the idea.

      None of these arguments simply assume God doesn’t need a cause, they point out that all the reasons why we believe that the universe needs a cause are not true of God.

      Causality exists in quantum states (it is deterministic causality that is questionable in them). But why do you accept the possibility that there is a causation which can work sans time here, but don’t accept that this could apply to a theistic explanation as well?

      Why should a God living outside the universe be subject to the physical laws of this universe?

  • Stephanie Ann Foster

    I really appreciate your ability to examine an argument in specific, and your dedication to pointing out and avoiding fallacies wherever you encounter them. Combined with this is vivid imagery (the poisoned well and the locomoting boxcar) that helps carry the argument forward for those of us that are much less well-read on the issue (like myself). Well done. I’m so glad that you’ve undertaken this project!

  • mtemples

    “Excepting your pastor Bob or the guy on the street, no defender of the argument has ever claimed that “everything must have a cause”. No version of it argument offered in the history of philosophy has rested on this idea.” That is an astonishing statement. For only one example, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmological-argument/, is this: “Thomas Aquinas held that among the things whose existence needs explanation are contingent beings that depend for their existence upon other beings. Richard Taylor (1992, 99–108) discusses the argument in terms of the universe (meaning everything that ever existed) being contingent and thus needing explanation.” The terms “the universe” and “the world” always have meant “everything.” Unless everything is included, the arguments have little vitality.

  • mtemples

    “The reason why God is a better prospect than the universe for a causeless object is that God, unlike the universe, is not a contingent object (the Leibnizian version of the argument), that God, unlike the universe, is not an actualized potential (Thomsitic version), and that God, unlike the universe, did not begin to exist (Kalam version).”

    The first of the three is simply saying God is uncaused because God is uncaused. The second, nor is the universe. The universe is only some things, and an extremely small slice of the potential of all things. The third, nor did the universe. That it began is conjecture, not fact. A conjecture for the benefit of the Kalam argument.

    • Debilis

      Greetings, and best to you in general.

      Though I can’t settle the entire first cause argument in a single blog entry, I can say that there is more to those reasons than this. To elaborate a bit:

      The first reason is that God is a metaphysically necessary object. That is to say, God is not the kind of thing that could logically not exist. One can question this trait of God, but Leibniz gives reasons for why he thinks this. It is much more carefully thought than simply saying that God doesn’t have a cause. Moreover, it makes no sense to say that the universe is logically necessary: that there is no logical possibility that some slightly different universe, or no universe, could have existed instead.

      The second is very similar, it is logically possible that the universe could have been another way, whereas this is not the case with God. Again, Aquinas gives reasons. He doesn’t just claim this.

      Third, the idea that the universe began to exist is not a conjecture designed to prop up the Kalam. Rather, the Kalam was revived due to the fact that there is very strong evidence that the universe began to exist. Every cosmologist I’ve read (whether a theist or atheist) agrees that it did begin to exist.

      It seems strange to me that this part of the argument is controversial at all. I can understand a great deal of disagreement about what caused the universe, but to say that the universe needs a cause, and that God (if he exists) fits the bill, is rather straight-forward. The real question is whether there is some other possible cause that is not a transcendent God.

  • David King

    Reblogged this on Bustin' the Crust and commented:
    Debilis handily explains and defends the First Cause argument against the standard criticisms.

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  • kW

    What does contingent, actualized potential and ‘begin to exist’ imply? … Enough said

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