Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fletch St Thomas and First Cause

Yesterday (January 28th) was the feast day in the Church of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the great philosopher, and a Doctor of the Church. He wrote much about the Nature of God, including his massive Summa Theologica. To that end, this reminded me of a part of a book by another Thomas (Thomas E Woods), called "How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilisation", where he takes the idea of Aquinas' First Cause and simplifies it for the reader. I will link to the page on Google books HERE, but also excerpt it below -

Saint Thomas's views are best understood if we begin with thought experiments from the secular world. Suppose you want to purchase a pound of turkey at the deli counter. Upon arrival there, you find that you must take a number before you can place your order. Just as you are about to take a number, however, you find that you are required to take a number before you can take a number. And just as you are about to take that number, you find that you must first take yet another number.Thus you must take a number to take a number to take a number to be able to place your order at the deli counter.

Suppose further that the series of numbers you are required to take is infinite. Every single time you are about to take a number, you discover that there exists a prior number you must first take before you can take the next number. You will never get to the deli counter under such conditions. From now until the end of time you will be forever taking numbers . Now if you were to come across someone in the grocery store walking around with half a pound of roast beef that he had purchased at the deli counter, you would instantly know that the series of numbers must in fact not go on forever.



We have seen that with an infinite series of numbers no one could ever reach the deli counter. But the person with the roast beef must somehow have managed to get to the counter. Thus the series cannot be infinite.Consider another example. Suppose you wish to register for a college course, and you therefore pay a visit to the registrar, Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith tells you that in order to register for that particular course, you must see Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones, in turn, instructs you to see Mr. Young. Mr. Young sends you to Mr. Brown. If this series went on infinitely-if there were always another person you had to see before you could register-it is abundantly clear that you would never be able to register for the course.

These examples may appear quite remote from the question of God's existence, but they are not; Saint Thomas's proof is in a certain way analogous to them both. He begins with the idea that every effect requires a cause, and that nothing that exists in the physical world is the cause of its own existence. This is known as the principle of sufficient reason. When we encounter a table, for example, we know perfectly well that it did not come into existence spontaneously. It owes its existence to something else: a builder and previously existing raw materials. An existing thing Z owes its existence to some cause Y. But Y itself, not being self-existing, is also in need of a cause. Y owes its own existence to cause X. But now X must be accounted for. X owes its existence to cause W.

We are faced, as with the examples of the deli counter and the college course, with the difficulties posed by an infinite series. In this case, we are faced with the following problem: Every cause of a given effect itself demands a cause in order to account for its own existence; this cause in turn requires a cause, and so on. If we have an infinite series on our hands, in which each cause itself requires a cause, then nothing could ever have come into existence.

Saint Thomas explains that there must, therefore, be an Uncaused Cause-a cause that is not itself in need of a cause. This first cause can therefore begin the sequence of causes. This first cause, Saint Thomas says, is God. God is the one self-existing being whose existence is part of His very essence. No human being must exist; there was a time before each one came into existence, and the world will continue to exist after each one perishes. Existence is not part of the essence of any human being. But God is different. He cannot not exist. And He depends on nothing prior to Himself in order to account for His existence.
I think I had heard this type of thing before, but seeing it put in this way struck me the first time I read it, so much so that I actually burst out laughing for several minutes at how brilliant and logical and, well, true it was.

18 comment(s):

leftrightout said...

Not quite brilliant, and unlikely to be true. Ths is simply the cosmological argument for god, which, even if it IS correct tells us nothing at all about the nature of the god, or indeed which god.

Christopher Hitchens puts it quite clearly here.

http://youtu.be/Aq0sZfUWuGA

leftrightout said...

1) Everything that exists has to have something that caused it to exist

2) Therefore the universe has to have something that caused it to exist

3) (missing step)

4) Therefore God created the universe

Matthew said...

Can you demonstrate why it is unlikely to be true? Using logic, both these examples show that an infinity of prior causes cannot demonstrate why something exists.

I think the point is not about the nature of God, or which God, but about God's existence [or otherwise].

I watched Christopher's argument and the problem with his approach is that he assumes that the Creator needs to be created. I remember talking about that exact point when I was asked the same question 15 years ago. The point is that the Creator, to use Christopher's term (which may be a quote of someone else), brought the cosmos into being. You will of course know that time cannot exist without space, and if there was no space then there was no time. Therefore, if there is no time then there can be no event, and if there is no event then there can be no creation. Therefore the creator cannot, by necessity, be created.

Put another way, there is no "before" in an existence where there is no space. Neither can one say where the existence is either.

I think Christopher assumes that the creator has to be created, but he has to show that is necessary, and possible, before that part of his argument can be established.

I note that he didn't provide a basis for his own existence though, and focused only on his comment of the system offered in the question.

I do however agree that even if this is established, then that only establishes Deism, not Theism and not the Christian God.

Muerk said...

God's being isn't contingent on anything. We exist because of our parents, the stone exists because it was forced out of a volcano etc. etc.

God otoh _is_ being. God described himself to Moses as "I AM". God is not a being, who has been created by something else, his very nature is being. His being is where the entire cosmos receives its being from.

leftrightout said...

Muerk, read my 4 point post above.

First, you have failed to prove the necessity of an uncause first cause.

Second, even if there is an uncaused first cause, there is no proof that it is a god.

Third, if there is an uncaused first cause, and it is a god, which god? There are so many to choose from.

Fourth, there is no necessity for any uncaused first cause to be a good, it could still be a physica process.

There is much we are still to learn about our universe, but inserting "god" in the gaps is not the way to incerease our knowledge.

Matthew said...

both these examples show that an infinity of prior causes cannot demonstrate why something exists

is indeed the answer to why "...the necessity of an uncause first cause."

Again, I'm not debating which entity, God, or otherwise, but the necessity of an uncaused first cause. If the answer isn't an uncaused first cause, then please tell us your solution to the topic.

I think this topic is a fairly straightforward one and of course, it is not designed to prove that the Christian God exists with every facet that we believe he has.

Muerk said...

leftrightout:

You make the fallacious assumption that I am trying to prove God's existence. I'm not because no one ever has and no one ever will prove God exists.

I have no interest in debating the existence of God. I don't think you find God in arguments about philosophy, although they are interesting in and of themselves.

In the end faith is a leap, one however that can be based on a rational choice of the will. I believe that St Thomas was correct and God is the first cause, or rather God is Cause from which all causes flow.

Psycho Milt said...

As various people have pointed out over the years, this merely replaces one difficult explanatory gap with a larger one. If your explanation to the problem of how things came to exist is to posit the existence of something that has the power bring things into existence but didn't need to be brought into existence itself, you've effectively 'explained' nothing.

I.M Fletcher said...

PM, but a Creator is still one of the options. I find it funny that scientists/atheists go out of their way to discount any possibility that God created the universe. They would rather come up with theories about how two atoms rubbed together (who created the atoms?) or that matter somehow transferred over from a parallel universe (who created that universe?).

They try anything to discount the idea that their might be a creator. I think somehow it comes down to human pride. Atheists don't want their to be a God because they would rather not be dependant on anyone (apart from the nanny Government). They want to feel in control of everything, and understand it all, too.

In short, they want to be gods themselves..

leftrightout said...

PM, but a Creator is still one of the options.

Perhaps, but it also the least likely, the one with the least observaBle evidence. Or do you have some proof science has overlooked?

I find it funny that scientists/atheists go out of their way to discount any possibility that God created the universe.

I find it hilarious that people can be so ignorant of the atheist / scientist position. Just what is it that makes the majority of scientists atheists. do you think?

Atheists don't want their to be a God because they would rather not be dependant on anyone (apart from the nanny Government). They want to feel in control of everything, and understand it all, too.

Hornswaggle.

For myself, and the atheists I know, we are interested in seeking the truth. Find us proof of your position and if it offers a better explanation to those we currently have, we will be happy to test, and possibly, adopt your theory.

We have looked at the evidence for god, for special creation, and we find it wanting. It does not fit with the observable facts.

Wishful thinking is not scientific.

scrubone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
scrubone said...

Wishful thinking is not scientific.

Glad we established that. I for one do not base my faith on wishful thinking, but on the evidence I have seen with my own eyes.

A few years ago, our church had a video that showed a 3d computer generated simulation of some of the processes of a cell. That short clip was the most powerful evangelism tool I have ever seen. Because you are right - Wishful thinking is not scientific, never was and never will be. And even the least educated man knows wishful thinking when it is presented in all it's glory.

But the thing is LRO, if God appeared in the clouds and announced his existence to the entire world, would you believe in his existence?

scrubone said...

(Correction to above)
1) Every effect has to have a cause

2) Therefore the universe has to have cause

3) The universe cannot cause itself (because it would have to exist and not exist at the same time), so the cause must be outside it, eternal, and powerful.

4) Therefore God created the universe

As for the "which God", it's clearly a God that claims to have made the universe. Interestingly, many do not make that claim but merely claim to be extra-powerful actors in that universe.

scrubone said...

Lecture on Causality here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lSSTobOhQw

leftrightout said...

I for one do not base my faith on wishful thinking, but on the evidence I have seen with my own eyes.

If you had the evidence, then you would have no need for faith. Faith, by definition, relies on a belief that does not rest on logic or evidence. Faith depends on irrational thought and produces intransigence.


But the thing is LRO, if God appeared in the clouds and announced his existence to the entire world, would you believe in his existence?


I would follow the evidence. If it was a conjurer's trick, of course I would reject it. If it were a god who could truly make the sun stand still, would I have a choice but to believe. And yet, god never provides such proof of his existence, and his adherents keep insisting we must have faith. regardless of the evidence.

have you ever heard god speak to you?

Psycho Milt said...

PM, but a Creator is still one of the options. I find it funny that scientists/atheists go out of their way to discount any possibility that God created the universe.

Sure it's one of the options. The supernatural is always one of the options, just not a very convincing one for people who want some evidence to base their views on - scientists, for example.

I.M Fletcher said...

I believe that God and science are intertwined. We probably just don't understand many things yet.

Years ago, the thought of flicking a switch to make light would have seemed like magic; likewise planes that fly faster than the speed of sound, a communications device you could carry around that played movies and took photographs, the x-ray machine and many other things.

ZenTiger said...

If it were a god who could truly make the sun stand still, would I have a choice but to believe.

It's more the point that if there were a god who could create a universe that makes the sun spin and the world spin and the galaxy spin etc; that is so finely tuned and balance it is able to support the miracle of life and existence in general.

You look for a god that you say needs to be explained only by exception, ignoring what he has created, and ignoring therefore, the rules of the universe, and that leads you astray. You stack the argument by looking at things the wrong way around.

Aquinas has used logic to reasonably infer that whatever caused the universe could be defined as god. That is indeed a possibility. He goes on to consider what other values we can ascribe to God, and he slowly reveals a far greater picture than we get from the first postulate.

Saint Thomas of Aquinas was a philosopher who applied reason to great effect. some of these questions on God and the universe can are considered from this discipline in a way that is useful, as science is not the answer for every-thing. Expecting science to be the answer for everything and anything is foolish, notwithstanding the usefulness of scientific knowledge.

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