Introit for the Third Sunday in Lent

Mine eyes are ever looking unto the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net: look thou upon me, and have mercy upon me, for I am desolate and in misery.
Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: my God, in thee have I trusted; let me not be confounded.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Lost In the Comsos, Part II: The Matter of the Ultimate Turtle

In order for any treatment of Catholic belief to make sense, we must begin with its most fundamental elements. The existence of the world as we know it, the thing that batters us about through our five-windowed senses, does not as a rule require a great deal of argument, unless one is talking to a sophomore philosophy major, and so I shall leave that aside. However, the existence of God -- i.e., of a Supreme Being, both self-existent and in some fashion the cause of all other existence, and in most religions believed to be in some sense a personal being -- does call for demonstration of some type, since most people don't find the existence of God to be self-evident.*

Bertrand Russell, contemporary of C. S. Lewis and author of the famous essay Why I Am Not a Christian, selected the classical cosmological argument or argument from causality for special censure. His rebuttal, I gather, has been taken up since by the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.; but not all contemporary atheists fall into this group, such as Camille Paglia.)
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 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; but apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is not one that can have any validity. ... 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 upon a tortoise; and when they said "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject."
Now, in deference to Mr Russell, I must admit that I'm not altogether clear what "the philosophers and the men of science" were doing about causality at that time, though I venture to suggest that whatever it was, it didn't succeed in eliminating the nature or fact of causes.

But the meat of the argument, of course, lies elsewhere. And it's quite true that, if everything requires a cause, the idea of a First Cause is -- well, in direct contradiction to the claim that everything requires a cause, QED. And not a few would-be apologists, when confronted with this terribly obvious fact, have indeed tried merely to change the subject, often by resorting to fideism. I make no secret of the fact that I have very little respect for this kind of philosophical legerdemain, and feel that it borders on dishonesty and intellectual cowardice even at its best.

However, it must be noted that Mr Russell apparently didn't grasp the real nature of the cosmological argument. As stated by St Thomas Aquinas, and maintained by his disciples (among others), the argument is most definitely not that everything has to have a cause; and that is not the form that Russell at first gives the syllogism, even in his own essay. What the argument states is that "everything we see in this world has a cause"; a crucial distinction. The idea is that there are two possible kinds of things: those whose existence is contigent, i.e. calls for some sort of explanation about its origin, and those whose existence is necessary, i.e. a self-existent being or class of beings. The Catholic contention is that the existence of contigent things -- "everything we see in this world" -- requires some necessary being to explain its existence, not that all things must have a cause, which would be a hopelessly self-defeating argument for the reality of God.

In brief, Catholics, and most monotheists, assert that if reality as we know it is to make any sense, there must be a minimum of one necessary being in order to cause contingent things to be.

Now, it's quite true that an Uncaused Cause, while consistent with the Abrahamic notion of the God, is a great deal less specific than the Mosaic thundercloud upon Sinai, the Crucified and Resurrected Logos, or the Exalted One who assumed Muhammad from al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. However, at the moment, we are dealing only with what the cosmological argument professes to demonstrate: not what it makes no claims of demonstrating, or how much more we were expecting it to demonstrate.

The difficulty about the alternatives proposed by Russell is threefold. To begin with, if we admit that a First Cause is necessary but posit that it is the world as a whole, rather than an independent being who made the world,** what we have actually arrived at is a form of pantheism, rather than atheism proper. This form of pantheism need not be of the specifically Hindu or Daoist type that peoples the universe with a plethora of particular deities, but, if "the whole show" is to be considered a self-existent entity, then it is, to that degree, a god, if an impersonal one. (The catch there is how an impersonal god could bring personal consciousnesses -- that is, ourselves -- into existence, since nothing comes from nothing, and correspondingly no agent can bestow what it does not possess; and if we allow the universe to have purposiveness or mind, then we have arrived again at a personal God, if a pantheistic one.)

A wild PANTHEIST DEITY has appeared!

Another flaw in the argument is precisely in the contingency of the universe and the things in it. The first premise laid down by St Thomas and co. is that all the things we experience in this world are contingent, i.e. that any of them might not have existed and might cease to exist; and if everything is contingent, then nothing would exist, because, given enough time, everything would eventually "go out" -- and then there would be nothing to bring anything back.

Russell's reply was that he saw no reason why there should not be an infinite succession of contingent things, each caused by a predecessor -- things caused by other things, forever. The difficulty with this, I think, is the "turtles all the way down" problem:
After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady. "Your theory that the sun is the center of the solar system, and that the earth is a ball which rotates around it, has a very convincing ring to it, Mr James, but it's wrong. I've got a better theory," said the little old lady. 
"And what is that, madam?" inquired James politely. 
"That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle." 
... James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position. "If your theory is correct, madam," he asked, "what does this turtle stand on?" 
"You're a very clever man, Mr James, and that's a very good question," replied the little old lady, "but I have an answer to it. And it is this: the first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him." 
"But what does this second turtle stand on?" persisted James patiently. 
To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly, "It's no use, Mr James -- it's turtles all the way down."
I suppose we can only hope that Mack doesn't belch.

Elephants and turtles both seem pretty strong. I don't see what all the fuss is about.

This, of course, is not disproof. The fact that the human mind (or most human minds) will not accept a "turtles all the way down" explanation of existence, since it does not really explain anything, does not in itself show that this un-splanation is untrue. That said, I don't think I'd want to go up as a surety for it, even if I believed it. The thesis that there is something which necessarily exists, on the other hand, has the merit of being obviously rational (whether false or true), even if we don't see why a necessary being should exist; though, when you come to think of it, asking why a necessary being exists is probably a nonsense question.

Finally, there is the pesky little problem of getting something out of nothing. If the only things that exist are contingent, that is, caused (and thus unnecessary), how can "the whole show" be a necessary or uncaused thing?

I've let myself stray a bit into arguing, rather than merely stating Catholic belief, here. It's hard not to; analyzing things is terribly fun. But I hope this has, at least, clarified the difference between the idea of a First Cause and the idea (or failure of idea) that Russell rightly derided.

*Many people claim to find God's existence self-evident, including some saintly individuals; Bl. John Henry Newman, I believe, said so. I can certainly allow that some people have a natural, mystical gift, by which the reality of God is experienced as an immediate fact, rather than arrived at through reasoning or instruction or both; nonetheless, I do suspect that, when most people say that they consider God's existence self-evident, what they tend actually (if unconsciously) to mean is that they do not wish to argue about it.

**There are a few possible meanings for making the world here; the "emanations" of Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism, though wholly distinct from the Judaeo-Christian concept of creation ex nihilo, are still a consistent interpretation of the cosmological argument's implications.


  1. I think what Russel was referring to, at least in terms of "scientists getting going," was quantum mechanics. It posits that there are many effects on the subatomic scale that simply lack causes; that the behaviour of the most basic constituents of reality are at least somewhat random and chaotic. Packets of matter and energy wink in and out of existence for no rhyme or reason, giving rise to observable, measurable phenomena like vacuum energy. Since the universe seems to have begun as a symmetrical singularity of infinite density (and no dimensions), it would have operated in accordance with these sorts of quantum effects. This does nothing to disprove the existence of God, of course. But modern physics as currently formulated does not require a first mover to explain the existence of the reality we observe. It could have simply burst into existence randomly; that's perfectly consistent with quantum mechanics and the universe we actually observe.

    1. Thank you for the clarification -- I had forgotten all about the quantum theories that were being developed at the time. It may well have been what Mr Russell had in mind, and I believe I've seen the argument advanced before (i.e. that, as you say, God may or may not exist but the argument from a first mover doesn't work).

      However, I think there's a catch in it. When the quantum physicist says that, at a subatomic level, things happen at random and with no reason or cause, I think he is overstepping the bounds of what his science really tells him. It is quite true that his science tells him nothing of what the causes of things at that level are -- whether that is because their causes are of a kind undetectable to human science, or because our science is not yet sufficiently sophisticated to detect those causes. Either might be the case.

      But one thing that (it seems to me) neither quantum physics nor any other science could tell us is that contingent things can occur causelessly; a wholly different thing from saying that their causes are unknown or unknowable. By their nature, contingent things demand a cause. One could assert that the things studied by quantum physicists are self-existent, though there doesn't seem to be any particular reason to think so, and the argument looks rather spoiled by the way subatomic particles seem to keep winking in and out of existence. But physics can't possibly tell us that the things it studies require no causes, for the same reason it can't tell us that two and two make five: it violates, not the observed, but the rationally possible.

      Now, someone could answer that there is no reason to suppose that nature behaves rationally, and that view may be unanswerable. However, if true, that view knocks the bottom out of the sciences far more neatly than out of any religion, since the entire premise of every science is that nature behaves according to consistent patterns that are discoverable, at least in principle and at least to some degree, by the human intellect. This irrationalist view would fit very badly with Christianity, since it has always tended to view the cosmos as a created thing and a thing created according to order, architected by the Logos. But, while it would embarrass Christianity, it would make physics, as such, quite impossible.

  2. Nah, 'contingent' is just another word for things you believe might not otherwise exist, you seem to want to make the cosmological argument dependent on a distinction in the human mind. You're still unable to answer Russel's claim that it could still be the world as God, as uncaused cause.

    1. It is a distinction in the human mind, certainly; but I think it's a distinction in the human mind because it is a distinction in reality as such -- that is, a distinction that relies, in the last analysis, on combining observation of facts with what is intrinsically possible. ("Of course it is happening in your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?") As I said above, if we forbid the human mind to be a reliable interpreter of reality, it is the sciences far more than religions that are the worse for it. Though I am a layman to the sciences as well as in my religion, my devotion to reason is such that I'm not willing to dispense with that which makes the sciences possible.

      I have not, of course, given any thorough argument for why the Uncaused Cause couldn't be the universe as a whole -- a pantheistic god, perhaps better called something like the Divine or the Absolute (to avoid anthropomorphic confusion with the kind of theism we're used to from the Abrahamic faiths). It is a perfectly tenable position, and is extremely common in religious history; C. S. Lewis points out in "Miracles" that it sometimes seems almost to be the natural disposition of man, apart from the Judaic and Platonic traditions (in which Christianity and Islam are involved). I personally don't think it's a very good thesis, because it seems to me that it either fails to explain consciousness and personality, or else attributes consciousness and personality to the universe as a whole -- which lands us square in the middle of theism again. I'm perfectly fine with landing square in the middle of theism, naturally, but it does make a Russell-like appeal to the universe as an Uncaused Cause *rather than* to a deity seem to me like a rather pointless exercise.

    2. You may say that it's a distinction in the mind because it's a distinction in reality as such, but how? I look, look, look again, and sniff and feel and weigh and measure and listen... and there is nothing about things that tells me that one thing might not otherwise exist whereas another's being is necessary. It boils down to a meta-physical reading of the world which is impossible for most people to understand unless you show that this metaphysical distinction must be made in the first place.

    3. I don't know that I'd go that far; people are not, perhaps, in the habit of making the said metaphysical distinction -- given that it doesn't impinge on daily life a great deal -- but the distinction doesn't seem to me particularly difficult to grasp, even if we assert that one or the other category (necessary and contingent things) has no reality.

      As to how the distinction can be made, I admit I'm not sure how it can be made in such a way as to be watertight to any rebuttal (or, at least, proposed alternative). Every argument can be countered with the "St Elsewhere" thesis, I suppose; that is, that everything is an illusion happening in the mind of some being of which we have no conception (there may even be a vague resemblance here to Berkeleyan idealism). But I would point out that, insofar as we trust the sciences, they themselves admit and in fact insist on contingency as one of the facts they work with, and as one of the phenomena they seek to explain. The second law of thermodynamics, that of entropy, certainly seems to imply that most if not all things are contingent, and particularly that the *arrangement* of matter and energy we experience is contingent. Unless we are to do away with the law of entropy, I think the universe as we know it (and, accordingly, all the things in it) does demand some sort of explanation.

      I don't know that most scientists would make a point of this, partly because many are hostile to the idea of a creator, but mostly because it's something which isn't really relevant to most of the things scientists study. They examine *how* things happen; *why* things happen is not off-limits to a scientist any more than to anybody else, but, even if the answer is "For no good reason," it is an essentially philosophical question.

    4. Sure, i would not deny that (all) things are contingent, only that a distinction can be made between all these things and just one that is not.

  3. Yeah, I have not been able to answer the "universe itself is the cause" problem. Or you could say it was matter, or energy, or something like that. Do we know that uncaused causes are things that exist eternally, for instance? Perhaps it was an uncaused cause that now no longer exists.

    And I don't see any reason why that cause must be conscious. Simply because *we* have consciousness? I have heard the saying, "No one gives what he doesn't have," but doesn't evolution (a pretty decent theory which I accept) rely on creatures giving their children traits they don't have?

    And consciousness is surprisingly tricky to prove or disprove; how do I know the tree in my yard doesn't know it's growing, or that the sun doesn't know it's shining? Because their actions are predictable? That's talking more about free will than consciousness -- and I am not sure I can prove that I have free will, or if my brain is only programmed to think that I do.

    I know you're not intending this as apologetics, but I hope you do address these issues, because I sincerely have trouble with the objections above. I would like to believe, having been Catholic all my life and wanting to remain so, but I am plagued by doubts (including but not limited to the above) which I can't resolve.

    1. The idea of an uncaused cause ceasing to exist is rather problematic, philosophically. I don't know that it is impossible (though I imagine that there are philosophers who have proven that it is impossible to their own satisfaction, and other philosophers who have proven that it's already happened to their own satisfaction). But the whole notion of an uncaused cause is that it is a self-existent being, something that depends on nothing else for its existence, which seems to be the same thing as a necessary being. I can't see any way for such a being to cease to exist, except perhaps by deliberate self-destruction, and I'm not sure that that's even intrinsically possible. All this is an incomplete answer, of course.

      As to evolution, I don't think it implies that creatures give their offspring things they do not possess at all. Darwin certainly didn't; the whole notion of natural selection (as it was then understood) was that those creatures which inherited such-and-such a trait survived, while those that didn't, didn't (or vice versa). I understand that natural selection alone is regarded by modern biologists as an untenable explanation for the whole of evolution, and that mutations have been invoked to account for the introduction of new traits and even, over time, new species. I don't propose to dispute this, although I think it makes a hell of a lot more sense if it's been a process guided by an Intelligence (of whatever kind). But all of these physical variations are, after all, things of which matter is intrinsically capable: they are different arrangements of things that already exist; indeed, if we consider the question at the subatomic level, literally everything consists in differing patterns of the same fundamental elements and particles.

      Consciousness and will, by contrast, can't be reduced to matter -- or, if it can, we must become anthropomorphists -- or more properly hylomorphists -- on a literally universal scale, at least to the extent of attributing consciousness (or the potential for consciousness) to all matter, something for which I personally don't feel there's good evidence. Moreover, that would again lead us back, at the very least, into pantheism.

      As to proving that consciousness is real, well, I admit that I have a hard time taking the question seriously. Not that it doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. But, on the one hand, I can't fathom how consciousness could be illusory (an illusion of whom or what, if there is no consciousness?); while, on the other hand, it's quite impossible to live as though consciousness is illusory. My own opinion -- call it pragmatistic if you like -- is that any philosophy that cannot be lived as though it were true is beneath our consideration, and certainly there's not a great deal of point in considering it.

  4. Thanks for your answer.

    I didn't actually mean that I can't prove that *I* am conscious -- just that I can't prove consciousness in anyone besides myself. I can assume other humans are conscious, because they share a brain structure like mine and their actions are like mine, so one can assume their consciousness is like mine too. But I can't prove that God is conscious, because his mind is entirely unlike mine, and his behavior isn't much like mine either. I also can't prove a tree *isn't* conscious, because although it's true that it doesn't have a brain and doesn't act like I do, there is no part of the brain that we can point to and say "consciousness is here" or a certain behavior that we can be certain ALL conscious beings must exhibit. So, we're back at pantheism, which doesn't seem any better than belief in one God, but it doesn't seem any worse either.

    For evolution to work, it does require mutations. You can get from a gray moth to a black or white moth through natural selection, but you can't get from a bacterium to a fish without quite a few additions -- new traits, appearing through mutation, which the children have and the parents don't. So to believe in a functional sort of evolution, which could actually give rise to the species we see today, we would have to assume that it is possible for traits to arise that a creature's ancestors didn't have.

    Other than that, I think I'd mostly agree with you.