Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reply to Clayton on Russell

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; but, apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. I may say that when I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, 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. 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." The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause.

Clayton says: I don't see that Russell failed to take account of this point: 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.You say, "Cosmological arguments always tell you what needs a cause. Contingent things. Things that begin to exist". He doesn't think that cosmological arguments show both that all contingent things need causes _and_ the world is such a contingent thing. He doesn't think that cosmological arguments show that everything that has a beginning needs a cause _and_ the world had a beginning. Now, you might disagree with _this_ point, but I don't think Russell is guilty of quite the strawman you've suggested.

But it seems to me that there are attempts on the table (Russell could have been forgiven for not knowing about the Kalam argument, but the Thomistic argument is another matter) that try to point to a characteristic that the physical world possesses, namely contingency, which God does not possess, such that the world needs a cause and God does not. These attempts may fail, but Russell surely knew that they existed, and nevertheless he presents a one-parapraph refutation of all cosmological arguments that simply presumes that all attempts like this fail. In the process he makes theists look really retarded, because it looks as if advocates of these arguments simply had to be reminded of the simple point that James Mill made to his son John Stuart Mill, and the cosmological argument is a cooked goose. In fact a good deal of the impact of the paragraph has to do with not only that the argument can be refuted, but that this is something that can be done on one's lunch break.

I suppose you can say that here Russell is giving us the "short version" of an argument that can be defended at greater length. And of course lots of people do that sort of thing. You might think that in fact the universe has no cause-requiring properties that God would not equally possess. But in any event he makes it look easy, when it really isn't.

10 comments:

Clayton said...

If we're focusing on "Why I'm not a Christian", Russell's remarks were delivered at some sort of dinner for non-philosophers so you'll have to forgive him for not dotting very 'i'.

These attempts may fail, but Russell surely knew that they existed, and nevertheless he presents a one-parapraph refutation of all cosmological arguments that simply presumes that all attempts like this fail.

This is presumably what R had in mind when he remarked, "If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God". He knows full well that if you restrict the principle by asserting "contingency", he'll ask what grounds you have for asserting that the world exists contingently. If you say we need causes for things that come into being, he'll ask why we should think that the world came into being. And, I'm sure he knew his Hume well enough to know to say that whatever 'secret spring' allows us to say that in spite of the ability to conceive of God's non-existence God exists necessarily is the sort of spring we cannot have grounds for asserting on conceptual grounds that the world lacks that spring. Maybe there are super fancy empirical grounds for running a cosmological argument, but R also seemed to be keenly aware that there were not such strong scientific grounds at the time he delivered his talk to worry about.

You seem to criticize R for suggesting that it's easy to refute the cosmological argument and, well, IT WAS! It was if you are addressing the versions of the argument that he dealt with. They were horrible. The grounds for making the identification Aquinas makes in each of his five ways are exceptionally weak and Russell fastened on that fact and (to my mind) managed to bring out the weakness of these arguments in a perspicuous way. Is it harder to deal with the versions of the cosmological argument that we have now? Perhaps, I'd like to think that the philosophers of religion working today have come to appreciate the failures of traditional arguments and can offer us something better than what was on offer during Russell's time.

Gregory said...

A problem that I have had with the "philosophical" side of the Kalam Cosmological argument, based upon the impossibility of actual infinity, is that it is an unintended refutation of the existence of God. After all, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

But the idea that the totality of the world somehow removes the need to inquire of some "cause", seems to me to be mistaken. What we call "caused" entities are regarded as temporal; and are dependent on some "cause". Specific "caused" entities are contiguous and inter-dependent with other contingent entities, past and present. Furthermore, this chain of causation stretches into the distant past, until we arrive at some ultimate cause; or a universe that is eternal.

The possibilities open here are exhausted by 3 categories:

1) An eternal universe
2) A temporal, self-caused universe
3) A temporal, extraneously caused universe

Possibility #1 runs counter to the science of Big Bang Cosmology. Arguments for an eternal universe may resurface if current trends in Astrophysics shift away from the Big Bang spectrum. However, it is currently impossible to maintain this view with significant empirical credibility or support.

Possibility #2 has little to recommend it. The idea of self-causation is self-contradictory. But if the premise is granted, then it seems that the same could be said about God's existence and nature. If someone is willing to posit counter-intuitive notions about the universe, then certainly theologians and philosophers can posit whatever notions about God they fancy; and without the stifling impediment of rationally intuitive arguments that run contrary to theism. These strategies could be categorized as secular and sacred forms of fideism, respectively.

So, if possibilities #1 and #2 are unsatisfactory, then we are left with possibility #3.

I'm going to include this quote from Norman Geisler's "Christian Apologetics":

"A point often overlooked in the question of an infinite regress is that there could not be an infinitely long series of causes of contingent beings because there could not even be a one-link chain between the cause of being and the being caused. The very first cause of contingent being could not itself be contingent. No contingent being can cause another being to exist. What does not account for its own existence could not possibly ground the existence of another. How can what is an effect with regard to its own existence be a cause with regard to another's existence? What is in a state of potentiality regarding existence for itself cannot simultaneously be in a state of actuality for the existence of another. The only possible ground for what can pass from potentiality to actuality (viz., a contingent being) with regard to being is what cannot pass from potentiality to actuality (viz., a necessary Being). Those things whose being is an effect cannot be causes of being. What receives its existence from another cannot be the cause of another's existence. Only what is actual can actualize. But every contingent being is in a state of potentiality regarding being. Therefore, no contingent being can cause being. Only a necessary Being can cause the existence of a contingent being. Therefore, the very first being causing the existence of a contingent being must be a necessary Being."

The operative notion here is "ground of being". I think Geisler is right in seeing the universe, on the whole, as a single contigent being, rather than a conglomeration of multiple causes and effects; or chain of interdependent, contingent being.

Brandon said...

If we're focusing on "Why I'm not a Christian", Russell's remarks were delivered at some sort of dinner for non-philosophers so you'll have to forgive him for not dotting very 'i'.

I've seen some of the actual arguments Russell was considering (he shows no significant understanding of Aquinas, but there were late nineteenth-century arguments that fit his description much better than Aquinas's and are indeed problematized by this sort of response), so I have considerable sympathy with the attempt to do Russell justice here; but this is not the excuse to do it with; it is precisely when speaking with non-philosophers that you have to be most careful, because they are not in the position to see the fact that you aren't dotting every i. (It's the same thing with science; a huge amount of nonsense about scientific matters gets propagated because people describing science to the public allow themselves to be sloppy -- and non-scientists are not in a position to know when they are sloppy.)

The grounds for making the identification Aquinas makes in each of his five ways are exceptionally weak and Russell fastened on that fact and (to my mind) managed to bring out the weakness of these arguments in a perspicuous way.

If we're talking about Aquinas, rather than more popular cosmological arguments, I don't think this will work; it's not obvious that, assuming the arguments are sound, the grounds for identifying with God are weak, because Aquinas's discussion is quite extensive. They would only be so if we were looking at single arguments in isolation. But (1) arguments are never really in isolation so we should be suspicious of such an approach automatically; and (2) Aquinas's certainly aren't, since they are (explicitly) summaries of more elaborate arguments his original readers would have had some acquaintance with in one form or another, and Aquinas goes on to discuss the properties of first mover/first cause/necessary being at great length over the course of more than a hundred questions. The list of properties Aquinas thinks can be derived from those argued for in the five ways is quite extensive, and the list doesn't look like a world but like what everyone would call God. Muddleheaded confusion between what is required for an existence argument and what is required for an analysis of features arrived at through such arguments is not a 'perspicuous' account of such arguments.

I'm all for being charitable to Russell, but then we should, if at all possible, be more charitable to him than to imagine that he can be excused on the grounds of being so dimwitted as not to able to turn the page to see that the discussion continued beyond those particular arguments.

Andrew T. said...

Victor writes:

"...hat try to point to a characteristic that the physical world possesses, namely contingency, which God does not possess, such that the world needs a cause and God does not."

My question is whether there is anything else besides God that does not possess the characteristic of contingency. If not, then I think Russell's original argument is sound.

Clayton said...

Brandon,

I think we're going to disagree about how generous we ought to be to Aquinas. I thought that there was some agreement amongst contemporary commentators that his five ways often contained logical howlers. It's been a while since I've looked at those arguments, but I thought Kenny does a pretty good job showing how completely hopeless those arguments were.

Perezoso said...

The only possible ground for what can pass from potentiality to actuality (viz., a contingent being) with regard to being is what cannot pass from potentiality to actuality (viz., a necessary Being).

Petitio principii, of a sophisticated sort. Really, it's not necessary to indulge in the quaint thomistic jargon, as Russell realized.

For one, it's an empirical issue; we cannot via some aristotelian logic magically create reality, but require confirmed premises (the scientists themselves have not reached a conclusion on the formation of matter, energy, force, etc. and theologians are not qualified to offer an informed decision on that issue).

The status of "necessary" itself an issue. An infinite series of events is not a contradiction; ergo, not necessarily mistaken. In terms of observable, classical physics, matter cannot be created (or destroyed), but transformed, converted.

Brandon said...

I think we're going to disagree about how generous we ought to be to Aquinas. I thought that there was some agreement amongst contemporary commentators that his five ways often contained logical howlers. It's been a while since I've looked at those arguments, but I thought Kenny does a pretty good job showing how completely hopeless those arguments were.

Well, that wasn't my point at all; the point you had made was that "The grounds for making the identification Aquinas makes in each of his five ways are exceptionally weak and Russell fastened on that fact and (to my mind) managed to bring out the weakness of these arguments in a perspicuous way." I had assumed that you meant this to be the dilemma mentioned prior to this; in which case it would be simply an absurd comment. It's possible I simply misunderstood your point; if so, I still don't understand how what Russell said is supposed to relate in the least to Aquinas, logical howlers or no.

Kenny's book is not all that good, though; for instance, his discussion of the First Way is at one point not even consistent with his own translation of it, his examination of Thomas's own defense of particular claims elsewhere is patchy and unsystematic (this is often a problem with Kenny, I find), and at several points he anachronizes. Very sloppy and inconsistent.

exapologist said...

Plantinga does a quick take-down of Aquinas in God, Freedom, and Evil, and along the lines of pointing out a logical howler, as Clayton put it. There (pp. 79-80 in my copy), he points out that Aquinas is guilty of an illicit quanitifier shift.

Brandon said...

Wow, we're actually going from Kenny, who (while much better at the psychology than the metaphysics) at least has some basic idea of background and Thomas's discussion elsewhere, and takes the trouble, however inconsistently, to do real research on the matter, to Plantinga, who, whatever his strengths elsewhere, has not and does not? One has to interpret arguments properly in order to point out logical howlers in them.

Look, there's plenty that can be said about Aquinas; for instance, about the fact that our textual tradition for the Third Way is messed up (the manuscripts aren't unanimous about the reading, it's unclear whether the majority reading is itself a textual corruption, and it's not clear what the larger argument -- since the Five Ways are all explicitly summaries rather than fully developed arguments -- is supposed to be), or about, say, the fact that it's still uncertain how the Fourth Way is supposed to work as a demonstration given Thomas's own Aristotelian principles. But we should hold ourselves to basic rational standards if we're going to go around throwing accusations of 'logical howlers' instead of simply identifying problems with the underlying metaphysics.

Gregory said...

The crude empiricism of Perezsoso is so wide of the mark that I'm inclined to ignore the criticism.

He says:

For one, it's an empirical issue; we cannot via some aristotelian logic magically create reality, but require confirmed premises (the scientists themselves have not reached a conclusion on the formation of matter, energy, force, etc. and theologians are not qualified to offer an informed decision on that issue).

This is a brilliant non-empirical argument. The question of whether scientists or theologians are qualified to make "informative" statements about reality is, itself, not decided empirically....and could never be decided by pure sensory intuitions.

Instead, it reflects an unjustifiable partisan bias. Unjustifiable, I mean, in terms of empiricism. But if non-empirical arguments are adduced to justify this claim, then whence the argument?? Furthermore, it's self-contradictory to utilize Aristotelian "logic" and then proceed to tell us that it has no informative value.

From the standpoint of natural and empirical realities, Aristotelian "logic" is a non-physical, non-empirical entity; whatever else you want to say about it. Perhaps it would behoove individuals who wish to make the kind of strategy that Perezoso does to ask themselves this:

"What atomic or quantum structure correlates with 'begging the question' or 'Aristotles Categories'?"

Here's Paul Davies assessment of contemporary theoretical physics:

"Most theoretical physicists are by temperament Platonists. They envisage the laws of physics
too as perfect idealized mathematical relationships and operations that really exist, located in an abstract realm transcending the physical universe. I shall call this viewpoint physical Platonism to
distinguish it from mathematical Platonism. Newton was a physical Platonist, and cast his laws of
mechanics and gravitation in terms of what we would now call real numbers and differentiable
functions. Taking Newton’s laws seriously implies accepting infinite and infinitesimal quantities, and arbitrary precision. The idealized, Platonic notion of the laws of physics reached its zenith with the famous claim of Laplace, concerning an omniscient demon. Laplace pointed out that the
states of a closed deterministic system, such as a finite collection of particles subject to the laws of Newtonian mechanics, are completely fixed once the initial conditions are specified.....In spite of the fact that we now know Newtonian mechanics is only an approximation, physical Platonism remains the dominant philosophy among theoretical physicists.


--Paul Davies in Fluctuations and Noise Letters (2007)

Let me underscore Davies point by quoting from Leon Lederman and David Schramm's "From Quarks to the Cosmos" pg. 24,25:

"Maxwell wrote each of these experimental laws in a form of mathematics known as differential equations. These equations precipitated a crisis: the five experimental laws (i.e. Coloumb and Faraday's) taken together demonstrated a mathematical inconsistency. The resolution of this crisis was perhaps the most revolutionary scientific event of the 19th Century. Maxwell knew that because the laws were based on experimental fact, they had to be correct....He generalized Faraday's lines of force into stresses and strains in a medium that would fill space. He called this medium aether....Maxwell added his possibility to his mathematical equations describing the observed laws, and the contradictions vanished!!

Ahh....science is indeed very inventive!!!

The problem with modern skepticism is it's insistence on a sharp division between the "rational" and "empirical"; it's implicit Occamism and it's partisan preference for methodological and metaphysical naturalism. Contemporary theoretical physics operates, according to Davies, in an empirical and meta-empirical fashion. Therefore, Perezoso's crude empirical triumphalism runs counter to a large segment of the "science" that he wishes to defend.

Classical "thermodynamic laws" unravel when you approach the cosmic singularity. We cannot "observe" the conditions of that time...but the theoretical models offered by modern physics posit a breakdown in the fabric of "space-time" as you approach the initial singularity.

The "Big Bang" is literally miraculous because there is no "law" that can possibly explain the initiation of that primitive event.

An atheist can reply to the oddity of the event with:

"Well, it just is what it is"

and

"that's just what happened, I believe it, and that settles it"

But the theist can say:

"God is Who He is"

and

"God did it, I believe it and that settles it"

The question is whether we think the singularity was "causal" or "non-causal". The atheist is left in a "non-causal" ghetto, since there's no "law" to appeal to in grounding this unprecedented event. The theist can still appeal to a "cause" qua creative intention; in a similar way in which we think of an engineer, an artist and a craftsman.

J.P. Moreland likens the kind of "causation" involved in the creation of the universe to "libertarian" agency; which is neither event-event nor state-state causation.