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Introduction to Philosophy

Thomas Aquinas, "The Argument from Efficient Cause"

Abstract: Thomas' First Cause Argument for the existence of God is outlined and briefly clarified. Some standard objections to that argument are listed.

  1. Thomas' Argument from Efficient Cause begins with the empirical observation of causal sequence in the world. Hence, this argument is an à posteriori argument, and the conclusion is not claimed to follow with certainty.
    1. The Argument from Efficient Cause:
      1. There is an efficient cause for everything; nothing can be the efficient cause of itself.
      2. It is not possible to regress to infinity in efficient causes.
      3. To take away the cause is to take away the effect.
      4. If there be no first cause then there will be no others.
      5. Therefore, a First Cause exists (and this is God).
    2. The nature of causality is a difficult field of study. Centuries after Thomas, David Hume raises serious objections to cogency of the concept of causality. Examples illustrating a few of difficulties of the concept of causality which are missed by Thomas' notion of the efficient cause of factor are as follows:
      1. Problem of Accidental Correlation. How can a distinction be maintained between a universal accidental correlation and a necessary connection? Simply because substances or events of the kind B always follow substances or events of the kind A does not imply that A caused B. Cf., the variety of the informal fallacy of False Cause called post hoc ergo propter hoc. It is conceivable that such a sequence of generally occurring states of affairs is attributable to an improbable accidental or chance series of occurrences or is attributable to factors other than causality.
      2. Problem of Simultaneous Causation If actual causal relations are examined closely, any supposed causal connection would be seen to be instantaneous.
        1. Immanuel Kant cites these examples:
          • If I view as a cause a ball which impresses a hollow as it lies on a stuffed cushion, the cause is simultaneous with the effect. Critique of Pure Reason (A203=B248) … A glass [filled with water] is the cause of the rising of the water above its horizontal surface, although both appearances are simultaneous. Critique of Pure Reason (A204=B249).
        2. Note that if the coupling of the cars of a train to the locomotive are rigid and the parts of the train are not elastic, as soon as the engine moves, the caboose moves. There would be no gap in time.
        3. We say the vibration of a string on a musical instrument causes a sound, but the string does not vibrate first followed later by the sound.
        4. Consider the striking of a match causes the match to light. If we look closely, there are actually an indefinite number of sequences of causes as friction of the striking causes the rapid vibration of red phosphorus atoms which in turn are transferred individually to the sulphur compounds and then individually to the molecules of wood. The sequential agitation of chemicals may be analyzed as moving at the speed of light among an indefinite number of points of ignition—which, from an Einsteinian point of view, can be seen as instantaneous.
        5. Finally, consider how old the universe would be if causes are simultaneous with their effects. Time would seem to be an illusion.
      3. Problem of Uncaused Events. Consider Thomas' sequence of causes. The cement of the universe (to use David Hume's phrase) is not just a linear sequence. If the sequence of causes were infinite, there would be no cause which was " taken away."
        1. Causality can be seen as a web of interrelated events whereby each event is connected to each and every other event directly or remotely. (Any loose end or non-connected event would count as an event not subject to the laws of nature and so would be a miracle.)
        2. To list all of the conditions for the occurrence of an event would be to include a description of the state of the universe down to the location and momentuum of each and every elementary bit of physical substance.
        3. There might be different lines of webs of causality leadings to multiple first causes.
      4. Finally, of course, there is no proof that a First Cause is the same entity as the beings noted in the conclusion of the other Five Ways.
  2. Summary list of common objections to Thomas' Argument from Cause:
    1. There seems to be a contradiction in the argument. The first premise states, "There is an efficient cause for everything, nothing can be the efficient cause of itself." Is, then, God something or nothing? If God is something, then we can ask the question of children, "What caused God?" If God is nothing, then God's existence is not proven. If God is claimed to have a privileged status, then the argument becomes viciously circular.
    2. Thomas oversimplifies the nature of causality in terms of a temporal sequence of causes. Contemporary physics (as the best epistemological result to date) has many different notions of relations of events—including no causality (only correlations between events), simultaneous causation, backward causation, causation at a distance (cf., Bell's Theorem or quantum entanglement), or merely mathematical description.
    3. By Occam's Razor, (the principle of simplicity or the principle of parsimony), we cannot assume that time has a beginning, middle, and end as assumed by Thomas' argument on the historical basis of Aristotle's description of plot in his Poetics,. If we assume that the universe was always existent, we do not have to account for a beginning. The early Greek philosophers, for example, did not assume there was a beginning of time.As Isaac Newton points out in his "Rules for Reasoning in Philosophy":
      • Rule I. We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. To this purpose the philosophers say that Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.
    4. By the principle of simplicity, it is arguable that an infinite regress in causes is more reasonable than the notion of an infinite, all powerful God who created a world with non-moral evil (i.e., "acts of God" such as flood, hurricane, earthquake, or plague). If God is perfect as a cause, so must be the effects of that cause. And, as well, since causes are proportioned to the effect, the Deity must be as finite as the universe is finite. Again, as Isaac Newton points out in his "Rules for Reasoning in Philosophy":
      • Rule II. Therefore to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes. As to respiration in a man and in a beast; the descent of stones [meteorites) in Europe and in America; the light of our culinary fire and of the sun; the reflection of light in the earth, and in the planets.
    5. If the first premise "There is an efficient cause for everything; nothing can be the efficient cause of itself" is true, then the occurrence of miracles is ruled out. A miracle is a violation of a law of nature. Ruling out miracles is not something Thomas would want to do.
    6. One can envision many possibilities. Even if there were a first cause, it would not necessarily follow that this first cause was God any more than the second cause in the sequence is God. It could be that there are many gods as first causes. It could be that the universe of causes circle back on itself so that there is no first cause, but every effect has a cause.
    7. Also, it does not follow that the first cause would be the same entity as the conclusion of the other arguments: Unmoved Mover, Necessary Being, Greatest Good, or Great Designer. A separate argument would be necessary to show that all these "gods" are the same God.
    8. Fallacy of Composition. Simply because causality occurs within the universe, it does not logically follow there must be a grand cause for the exisence of all of the separate causes in the whole universe. Moreover, Thomas' assertion that "To take away the cause is to take away the effect" would not hold for an infinite regress of causes since there is no cause taken away.
Further Reading:
  • Causation The historical background to the concept and a short list of related terms are summarized in this entry from the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • “Causation in the Seventeenth Century” Willis Doney in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas maintained by the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia Library discusses contrast of the causal ideas of Hume, Bacon, Hobbes, and Boyle with those of Descartes, Malebranche, and Spinoza. The article concludes with a summary of the notions of force used by Newton and Leibniz.
  • Cause. A discussion of causality in Greek, Scholastic, and Modern thought is outlined in the Catholic Encyclopedia. A short summary of Hegel's and Schopenhauer's doctrines together with cause in science, common sense, and the law is also included.
  • Cycles. A history of the theory that cosmological and historical events recur on a regular basis is traced by George Boas in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas.
  • The Metaphysics of Causation. Jonathan Schaffer reviews some of the main contemporary arguments over the immanence, individuation, direction, and selection of causation. An extensive bibliography is also included in this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • Spooky Action at a Distance: An Explanation of Bell's Theorem. An explanation of the history and experiments supporting Bell's Theorem. One commonly cited result is how one electon of a pair can instantaneously affect the other electron of the pair million of miles away. This clear account by Gary Felder requires only high-school math.
  • Thomas Aquinas, "The Cosmological Argument." Scroll down the page for a short reading selection of Thomas' five arguments for God's existence in the textbook Reading for Philosophical Inquiry on this site.
  • What is Occam's Razor? A summary of the variety of ways Occam's Razor and related principles have been interpreted by philosophers and scientists is described by Phil Gibbs and updated by Sugihara Hiroshi.
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“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. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, ‘How about the tortoise?’ the Indian said, ’Suppose we change the subject.’ Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, and Other Essays (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 6-7.

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