I condemn false prophets, I condemn the effort to take away the power of rational decision, to drain people of their free will - and a hell of a lot of money in the bargain.

Gene Roddenberry

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Causation and The Origin of the Universe: A Response to Edward Feser

For some time now, I’ve been meaning to respond to a post on Edward Feser’s blog. The post is criticism of Sean Carroll in his recent debate with William Lane Craig. I have a few problems with Feser’s presentation. The first of these issues can be seen in what follows:

It is also only fair to note that, while I have enormous respect for Craig, I don’t myself think that it is a good idea to approach arguments for a First Cause by way of scientific cosmology.  I think that muddies the waters by inadvertently reinforcing scientism, blurring the distinction between primary (divine) causality and secondary (natural) causality, and perpetuating the false assumption that arguments for a divine First Cause are essentially arguments for a “god of the gaps.”  As I have argued many times, what are in my view the chief arguments of natural theology (i.e. Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic and other Scholastic arguments) rest on premises derived from metaphysics rather than natural science, and in particular on metaphysical premises that any possible natural science must presuppose.  For that reason, they are more certain than anything science itself could in principle ever either support or refute.

Scientism, as usually defined, is the view that science is the only way of knowing. In the past I’ve drawn a distinction with two attitudes that are often conflated.1 I don’t agree with what I call maximal scientism. Furthermore, I don’t agree that the inclusion of modern cosmology in a discussion of a first cause reinforces scientism. It doesn’t reinforce scientism any more than the inclusion of abiogenesis in a discussion on the origin(s) of life reinforces it. If one recognizes that modern cosmology—like Carroll stated in his debate—concerns itself with the behavior, per se, of the universe, one can see why it has to be consulted in any discussion of a first cause. This is a statement that I will not qualify during the course of this response since I’ve chosen to focus on the metaphysics that underpin this discussion.

This also does nothing to blur any line between primary and secondary causality. The notion of primary causality is dubious and despite the impression Feser wants to give his readers, it’s not a concept employed in all views within metaphysics. For instance, a naturalistic metaphysics will not make use of the distinction; moreover, it will have no need for it. To demonstrate this, I will draw from a few metaphysical frameworks that make no use of primary (divine) causality. To that we now turn.

Examples of naturalistic metaphysics can be found in Robin Le Poidevin’s Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism, and Quentin Smith’s paper Causation and the Logical Impossibility of a Divine Cause. I will draw strongly from Le Poidevin and Smith. I will also draw from my own analysis of causality. I will go beyond Le Poidevin and Smith who argue that a god cannot be the efficient cause of the universe’s existence; I will also argue that a god cannot be the material cause of the universe’s existence.

Before exploring this, it is useful to consider two of Aquinas’ Five Ways: The Argument From Motion and The Argument From An Efficient Cause.2 Feser alludes to these arguments. Also, since they’re the only ones of Aquinas’ arguments with any application to this discussion, it’s fair to assume that these are the arguments he was alluding to even if he only implied them. In the past I’ve argued that both arguments are self-contradictory and fail due to question begging. For instance, to arrive at a First Mover that was put in motion by no other violates the stipulations of P4, P5, and P6—namely that nothing can be in actuality and potentiality in the same respect; that nothing can move itself; and that everything that’s in motion is put in motion by something else. If P4-6 are sound, then a First Mover is ruled out. So either P4-6 are sound—thus ruling out the conclusion of the argument or P4-6 are unsound—thus making the argument invalid.

However, I’m going to work from the assumptions of these arguments and instead show that they’re conceptually flawed. Both arguments are variations of the same argument since being a Prime Mover and being the First (efficient) Cause are two ways of saying that something is the first in a series—two ways of saying that nothing precedes it.

In his debate with Sean Carroll, William Lane Craig presented what Le Poidevin calls the temporal Cosmological Argument. Le Poidevin states that a theist could argue that since the universe has a beginning, this feature requires it to have a cause.3 The temporal route doesn’t help the theist’s case since, on my view, the temporal condition reduces to another condition. To see this, we have to first familiarize ourselves with Hume’s conditions: temporal, spatio-temporal, and nomological.4 Hume’s conditions reduce to a more fundamental condition—which I’ll call the material condition.

To convenience Feser, I will do my best to avoid scientific terminology and employ more neutral terms throughout the discussion. Rather than talk about the Big Bang or a cyclical universe or a multiverse, I will instead speak of the beginning of the universe as point A. Hume’s temporal condition is satisfied by point A since nothing can precede point A. Conversely, if point A was the beginning of the day at midnight, we can’t logically speak of a second before that point since point A is axiomatically the beginning of that day.

A theist may argue that point A is contingent. This will lead us to an Argument From Contingency or to either of the Aquinas arguments aforementioned. Point A will now be spoken of in a spatio-temporal manner rather than just a temporal manner. God, however, cannot stand in relation to point A in the way that’s normally conceived. This is why I stated that Hume’s conditions reduce to the material condition. Line x and line z are bound by link y. Line x and line z are at times mistaken for mere events in meeting the spatio-temporal condition. This fails to account for link y. Any two events meeting the temporal and spatio-temporal condition only meet those conditions because they reduce to objects having normative dispositions.

normative disposition is the tendency of an object to stress in a certain way when acted on by another object. That is to say that if a fragile object comes into contact with a non-fragile object, the fragile object will shatter in nearly every case. This is, of course, related to the height at which the object is dropped and the initial velocity of the object. Did the glass cup, for instance, fall from a human hand toward the floor or was it accelerated by a human hand toward the floor? Each outcome may be different because a glass cup doesn’t always break if casually dropped from a certain height.

Given normative dispositions, even complex causal chains reduce to the material condition. When we speak, for example, of the events leading up to the first World War, we speak of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, the Annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and so on. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to assume the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 is the sole cause of the first World War. It meets the temporal condition because it is an event that happened before July 28, 2014—which is the date Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. It meets the spatio-temporal condition because the two events are spatially near to or in contact with one another. As previously stated, both conditions reduce to a material condition because a bullet ejected from a firearm has certain dispositions; a human being also has certain dispositions. When a bullet comes in close contact with a human heart, the result is usually fatal. Eyewitness accounts state that Ferdinand was shot in the chest.5 If a bullet ejected from a firearm and a human heart didn’t have the normative dispositions that they have, this event would have been attempted murder rather than an assassination. It therefore (probably) wouldn’t have been one event leading to the first World War. On the material condition, we can reduce this even further and speak of the brain state of a murderer—who in this case was a young, Serbian nationalist. For our purposes, we needn’t go that far.

Tangentially, as Feser mentioned, the Aristotelian holds that event causation is parasitic on substance causation (¶ 20). This is to say that they recognize dispositions, but not explicitly. Overall, my qualm with Aristotelian metaphysics is its emphasis on teleology. Any account of causality shouldn’t include a feature of purpose—whether inherent or ex post facto (i.e. teleological)—because causality, unless we introduce agent-specific causation (e.g. human will), doesn’t feature purpose. To extend agent-specific causation to the universe as a whole is to engage in agency over-detection. It’s akin to primitive views of lightning coming from the hand of Zeus or bodies of water being subject to Neptune’s devices.

We thus have a material condition that must be satisfied when speaking of causality. Causality, to me, is a byproduct of normative dispositions.6 Hume’s secondary conditions (temporal and spatio-temporal) are only met when the material condition is met. Hume has a third condition that is also satisfied by the material condition. Hume’s nomological condition states that every object like the cause always produces something like the effect. It’s a generalization principle that invokes laws of nature. Every law of nature, however, is reducible to a material object. Gravity is an attractive force that is proportional to the mass of an object. Like electromagnetism, it is manifested in a field capable of acting on physical objects. Without material objects, gravity wouldn’t emerge—at least not in any discernible sense.

This naturally leads us asking if a god satisfies the material condition that underpins Hume’s conditions. If god is immaterial, we must either (i) admit that an immaterial being cannot dispositionally interact with a material object (i.e. the universe) (ii) posit a strange interaction between the hypothetically immaterial and the material. The former is to concede that Aquinas’ arguments, the Argument From Contingency, and the KCA fail to support the existence of a god; the latter is to concede without conceding because anyone will be hard pressed to find examples of such interaction.

Quentin Smith alludes to a similar concept—namely Hector-Neri Castaneda, Galen Strawson, David Fair, Jerrold Aronson and others’ Transference definition of a cause.7 He cites Castaneda as stating that ”the heart of production, or causation, seems, thus, to be transfer or transmission.”8 Smith also states the following:

Castaneda’s full theory implies a definition that includes the nomological condition: c is a cause of e if and only if (i) there is a transfer of causity from an object O1 to an object O2 in a circumstance x, with the event c being O1’s transmission of causity and the event e being O2’s acquisition of causity; (ii) every event of the same category as c that is in a circumstance of the same category as x is conjoined with an event of the same category as e.

In the same vein as normative dispositions, if god is immaterial, how can he transfer causity to material objects. Castanda’s (ii) meets Hume’s nomological condition and my more fundamental material condition. To get around this issue, the theist would have to introduce a brand, so to speak, of causation that makes discussions like this unintelligible. To put it bluntly, it would be the invocation of nonsense to preserve nonsense.

Given this, even a retreat to metaphysics doesn’t help Feser’s case. The arguments he prefers are conceptually flawed. One of Carroll’s refutations is that causality may not apply to the universe as a whole. It’s actually a basic criticism of the KCA; the argument commits the fallacy of composition.9 Though we may assume that the universe has a cause or is contingent, nothing about the nature of causality makes clear that a divine, immaterial cause is tenable. When accounting for the material condition satisfied by every event since point A, to speak of an event that doesn’t satisfy this condition and that occurred prior to point A is simply hard to come by. Epistemically, we might be mistaken in assigning first place in a series to point A; point A may not be point A. However, even if that’s the case, point A wouldn’t be immaterial; moreover, it would be something akin to the point we mistakenly thought of as point A. The First (efficient and material) Cause and the Prime Mover are wholly material—containing normative, though primordial, dispositions enabling them to interact within the universe and in the confines of its laws.

In the interest of brevity, I will divide my response into two parts—this being the first of the two. In my next response, I’ll cover Feser’s genetic appeal to the definition of the laws of nature; Aristotelian metaphysics,; and Feser’s moving of the goalposts.

Works Cited & Notes

1 However, scientism in a good sense implies scientism in a bad sense.  Perhaps it is apt to call good sense scientism minimal scientism and bad sense scientism maximal scientism.  Proponents of maximal scientism get science wrong.  It’s unfortunate that even some scientists are proponents of maximal scientism.  Science isn’t dogmatic.  Though it can lead to fact, science isn’t immutable.  In other words, today’s theories, no matter how successful, are not tomorrow’s theories.  Even a theory as successful as general relativity is subject to adjustments and even falsification.  Though not all proponents of maximal scientism think this way, science doesn’t have all the answers.  Science shouldn’t intrude on and isn’t superior to other endeavors.

Science can, however, illuminate other endeavors.  Archaeology and history already employ Baye’s Theorem.  Philosophers of mind (especially those that aren’t into the backward, anachronistic woo woo of Cartesian dualsim and similar views) are informing their views with the latest developments in neuroscience.  Ethologists are informing their views on morality with science; for instance, few of them have a keen interest in the emerging field known as neurocriminology.  This is minimal scientism at its best.  C.S. Peirce, though perhaps unconsciously or subconsciously, agreed with the position of minimal scientism.

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2 Gracyk, Theodore. "Argument Analysis of the Five Ways"Minnesota State University. 2004. Web.

3 Le Poidevin, Robin. Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, p.6. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.

4 David Hume, “An Abstract of A Treatise of Human Nature’, in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (New York: Bobbs-Merril, 1955), pp. 186-7.

"Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, 1914,". EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (1998).

"Dispotions, Causality, and the Kalam Cosmological Argument". Tumblr: Academic Atheism. 13 May 2014. Web.

7 Hector-Neri Castaneda, “Causes, Causity, and Energy,”, in Midwest Studies in Philosophy IX, eds. P. French et al (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); Galen Strawson, “Realism and Causation”, The Philosophical Quarterly 37 (1987), pp. 253-77; David Fair, “Causation and the Flow of Energy”, Erkenntnis 14 (1979), pp. 219-50; Jerrold Aronson,”The Legacy of Hume’s Analysis of Causation” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 7 (1971), pp. 135-36.

8 Hector-Neri Castaneda, “Causes, Causity, and Energy,”, in Midwest Studies in Philosophy IX, eds. P. French et al (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p.22 

The predicate in this argument is has a cause for its existence.  All objects in the universe have a cause for their existence.  The argument is true distributively, but it is not true collectively.  It doesn’t follow that since all things in the universe have a cause for their existence that the universe in its entirety has a cause for its existence.  The argument is valid; however, the argument isn’t sound.

I maintain that thoughtful Atheism affords greater possibility for human happiness than any system yet based on, or possible to be founded on, Theism, and that the lives of true Atheists must be more virtuous—because more human—than those of the believers in Deity, …

Atheism, properly understood, is no mere disbelief; is in no wise a cold, barren negative; it is, on the contrary, a hearty, fruitful affirmation of all truth, and involves the positive assertion of action of highest humanity.

Charles Bradlaugh, Founder of the National Secular Society, “A Plea for Atheism” Humanity’s Gain from Unbelief (1929)

Newfound Molecule in Space Dust Offers Clues to Life’s Origins

By: Megan Gannon

The discovery of a strangely branched organic molecule in the depths of interstellar space has capped a decades-long search for the carbon-bearing stuff.

The molecule in question — iso-propyl cyanide (i-C3H7CN) — was spotted in Sagittarius B2, a huge star-making cloud of gas and dust near the center of the Milky Way, about 27,000 light-years from the sun. The discovery suggests that some of the key ingredients for life on Earth could have originated in interstellar space.

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The Possibility Of An Evolutionary Timeline Shift

By: Rayshell Clapper

For those involved in and interested in the history of life and its evolution – including the inception of multicellular eukaryotes (organism with cells) – Virginia Tech released some very exciting news recently.

According to research conducted by Shuhai Xiao, a Virginia tech professor of geobiology, in conjunction with partners from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, there is new evidence that indicates complex multicellularity (plant and animal life) actually appeared about 60 million years before previous information had indicated. The study found three unusual fossils that show that multicellular organisms may have appeared 600 million years ago and not in the Cambrian Explosion as was previously thought.

According to the University of California Museum of Paleontology, the Cambrian Explosion marks an important time period in the history of life on Earth because this is the time that was thought to have had the Earth’s most expansive growth spurt. That is, until now.

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Birds Evolved From Dinosaurs Slowly—Then Took Off

An 80-million-year transition was capped with a burst of feathered diversity.

By: Dan Vergano

Birds evolved from dinosaurs in patchwork fashion over tens of millions of years before finally taking to the skies some 150 million years ago, paleontologists report.

Birds are defined by a plethora of traits that are unique to them, such as feathers, hollow bones, a wishbone, and beaks. Paleontologists once supposed that the earliest bird, 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx, represented a great evolutionary leap from dinosaurs. But over the past two decades, new discoveries have revealed that many of its avian traits had evolved in dinosaurs long before.

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xenocratic said: Greetings! I am learning so much , simply by browsing your blog.. Thank you so much.

You’re very welcome. I’m really happy to hear that. It’s always a pleasure to share knowledge and understanding.

All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.

Douglas Adams

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Vomit From Fulton Sheen


“For the new atheism is not like the old, theoretical atheism, which prided itself on being intellectually compounded of a little science, anthropology, and comparative religion. The new atheism is not of the intellect, but of the will; it is an act of free and eager rejection of morality and its demands. It starts with the affirmation of self and the denial of the moral law.”
— Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

This is the kind of garbage that draws anger from atheists. Atheism isn’t the rejection of morality. To the contrary, some atheists care more about morality than Christians do. Not only do they care about the important questions in ethics, they also care about its application in the world. Peter Singer, for example, though an advocate of controversial arguments (e.g. infanticide), is one such atheist. He touched on a very important feature of morality. We tend to be more sympathetic to people within our reach. For instance, if a child is drowning in a river by your house, saving her goes without say. But if a child is drowning in Asia, helping him doesn’t occur to most of us. This has nothing to do with a lack of awareness. Most of us are or at the very least should be in touch with current affairs. We should be fully aware of the plights of people in other countries. We also see this in people who donate to charity. Never mind people who don’t care to donate to any cause. People, for instance, donate to the American Cancer Society usually after a relative battles or dies because of cancer. We know nothing of multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy when it doesn’t directly affect us. Do Christians usually care about his feature? No.

Christine Korsgaard is another example. She cares more about animal rights than any Christian I’ve seen. As a former Christian, I would know of such Christians. It says a lot that I can’t name one! There’s also a number of famous and non-famous atheists who care about human rights issues. Atheists are disproportionately in favor of gay rights when compared to Christians. The same goes for feminism and human rights. All this whilst fundamentalists refuse to consider the rights of women and gays. They refuse, for instance, to consider the merits of abortion and even birth control. They advance flimsy arguments stating, for example, that homosexuals are overly fond of public displays of affection as if heterosexuals don’t sometimes forget to get a room!

What Christians care about is moral absolutism and arguments that attempt to conclude that god is the arbiter of morality. We atheists hear things like there can’t be law without a lawgiver as if John Austin’s theory of law (i.e. positivism) is without fatal weakness. He argued that the law is the command of a sovereign. That’s that. He makes no point on what obliges us to obey the law. H.L.A. Hart had pointed and in my opinion, fatal criticisms. He also offered a theory of law that’s much more tenable. If you’re interested, consider primary and secondary rules and his theory which offers that the law is the union of these rules (see The Concept of Law).

The mistake that Christians make is based on the oldest theory of law: Natural Law. Natural Law states that law and morality are equivalent rather than concomitant. Law and morality share similar features, but they aren’t congruent. It follows that law isn’t morality and thus, the mere assertion that law requires a lawgiver says nothing to bolster the case for any of the moral arguments for god.

Ultimately, there’s no clear distinction between atheists of past and present. Atheists have always demonstrated an array of differences. Hopefully this short response proves that there’s nothing anti-intellectual about modern atheism. In any case, I can say a lot more about morality and law. I can say a lot more about this common misconception that atheists are amoral brutes who revel in their so called sin. The mistake Christianity and Islam made is that they attempted to explain human shortcomings genetically. Some mythical fall fails to explain why we have shortcomings. Your religion has done nothing to advance any discussion on human psychology. It has no value in such a discussion; it adds nothing to consider. The fact that you think you’d be depraved in the absence of your beliefs says more about you than it does about us. So please refrain from posting such inflammatory word vomit.

For a people that speak of love, you sure lack a great deal of empathy. Sheen’s comments are intolerant. More importantly, they generalize a diverse group of people. Why would anyone agree with his opinions? More importantly, why would anyone want to confess their shortcomings to a man who is incapable of seeing his own? Your priests and your bishops aren’t exemplary. They themselves aren’t moral or at the very least, they’re moral when it conveniences them. Let’s not forget that a number of them turned their repressed sexual desires onto children; they violated the trust of their parishioners; they disavowed the teachings of their teacher; they abused the power of their office. Also, let’s not forget that their apologists attempted to cover the foul wound. There are still attempts to downplay the scandal. I find it ironic that they still claim the moral high ground. They fell off that imagined pedestal and invoking the name of an unsubstantiated deity does nothing to restore them to that imagined height.