The 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.
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.