From arguments for the existence of God illustrated by human artifacts, such as trains and chains, it would seem that God as first cause is a numerical first of a series of causes.
In accepting for Catholic Stand my essay, “Trains and Chains and God as First Cause”, managing editor Anthony Lane, proposed two objections for my consideration.
Your definition of a cause, on which your argument depends, holds that it explains itself. But St. Thomas’ Second Way argues from efficient causes, stating explicitly that the intermediate causes are effects of prior efficient causes (cf. STh I, Q.2, A.3 resp.), and as such do not explain themselves. St. Thomas puts it “in the world of sense;” i.e., it is an empirical observation rather than an a priori axiom, which pitches the argument at the unbeliever who has not yet conceded an invisible, immaterial order. This, I believe, is why so many apologists invoke chains and trains.
The answers, which follow, would be too lengthy as comments to the essay.
In my words, Tony’s objections are: (1) my claim that causal sequences are irrelevant to proving the existence of God as the First Efficient Cause of the existence of a created being (and all of creation) is ostensibly a contradiction of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Second Way in the Summa Theologica and (2) my definition of a cause, in its inclusion of sufficiency, is gratuitous.
Efficient Causality and Sequence
In P1, Q2, A 3, St. Thomas writes:
The second way is from the nature of the efficient cause. In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.
One thing to note is that the argument, as stated here, is generic. It makes no clear distinction among types of efficient causes such as that between an efficient cause of local motion and an efficient cause of the existence of an entity. However, God is not a cause at the level of local motion. Therefore, even if it is true that every causal sequence must have a first cause, to concede such would not lead to the specific conclusion of the existence of God.
God as the Cause of Existence
In contrast to PI, Q2, Article 3, St. Thomas’s argument for a First Efficient Cause at the level of existence in On Being and Essence, is not about causal sequences.
“But it is impossible that the act of existing of a thing be caused by a thing’s form or its quiddity, (I say caused as by an efficient cause); for then something would be the cause of itself and would bring itself into existence ‒ which is impossible. Everything, then, which is such that its act of existing is other than its nature must have its act of existing from something else. And since every being which exists through another is reduced, as to its first cause, to one existing in virtue of itself, there must be some being which is the cause of the existing of all things because it itself is the act of existing alone. If that were not so, we would proceed to infinity among causes, since, as we have said, every being which is not the act of existing alone, has a cause of its existence. (translation by Armand Maurer, 1949, p.47)
The crucial clause in this argument is “because it itself is the act of existing alone.” St. Thomas should have ended with that. The next sentence about an infinity of causes is a distraction from the argument. The conclusion is that the existence of any entity, whose quiddity is not its existence, requires as the cause of its existence, the existence of a being, who is solely its act of existing. Then what possible intermediate could there be between these two, the cause and its effect? Surely, not another entity whose quiddity is not its act of existence, i.e. another created entity. Surely, not another entity, who is solely its act of existing, i.e. another God. In the context of efficient causality at the level of existence, why bother stating that the number of intermediates could not be an infinite number, when it can only be zero?
Efficient Causality of Motion: An Eternal Universe or Not
I believe Tony gives the answer. St. Thomas is presenting a persuasion relevant to ‘the world of sense’, rather than a logical argument. He is referring to causal sequences at the level of local motion as not being infinite. St. Thomas interprets Aristotle as presenting a persuasion rather than a definitive argument when Aristotle claims that the opposite is true, namely, that the universe of creatures always existed, i.e. may be understood as regressively eternal.
Secondly, because wherever he (Aristotle) speaks of this subject, he quotes the testimony of the ancients, which is not the way of a demonstrator, but of one persuading of what is probable.
Thirdly, because he expressly says (Topic. i, 9), that there are dialectical problems, about which we have nothing to say from reason, as, “whether the world is eternal.” (P1, Q46, A1)
In contrast to Aristotle’s philosophical position of a possibly eternal universe, St. Thomas maintains that whether the universe of creatures always existed cannot be answered definitively by philosophy. However, St. Thomas maintains that it is known from revelation that the universe did have a beginning.
I answer that, By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist, . . . Hence that the world began to exist is an object of faith, but not of demonstration or science. (P1, Q46, A2)
However, if it cannot be philosophically demonstrated that the world did not always exist, it must be that there can be no definitive philosophical argument against an infinite regression of local motions. In other words, it is not possible to prove philosophically that there is a first cause of local motion, if local motions can be viewed as a series of efficient causes and the universe might be eternal.
Sense and Sequence
It is here where Tony has identified the source of the problem, namely, in the world of sense. Human intellectual knowledge is extrinsically dependent upon sensation. Consequently, our thoughts are always particular and serial. To proceed from one intellectual thought to another, we must replace one composite of sensation with another. Human intellectual activity is rational, step by step, serial. Human intellectual knowledge is not intuitive. It requires reasoning.
We know intuitively the two self-evident principles that things exist and are inherently intelligible in their existence. Most of our knowledge is step by step, just as our sensual imagining is serial.
We are inclined to think that the past is a closed system and serial. As closed, we think the past must be finite, because no human intellect can process an infinite set. In this, we take a limitation of the human intellect to be a characteristic of the object of knowledge. In contrast, we imagine that the future as open and, thereby, as a potentially infinite set of finite stages.
Time and Eternity
Another problem arises in our appreciation of time and eternity.
The now of time, which we experience, has no duration or quantity. It is always now. Then in what sense is now, time? Time is the quality or condition of mutability. We and all other material things are always changing. One of the most obvious mutations is local motion. But, if time is a quality or a condition, which we experience as a nonextended now, how are we able to identify time as a quantity? Quantitative time is a human thought, a human act. It is the mental comparison of one motion or change with another motion of our choice, preferably some cyclic local motion. The human quantification of time is such a grand utility, that we always think of time as a quantity. However, we do so erroneously, if we think of time as an objective quantity independent of human action. Time is not a quantity. Rather, time is actually a quality, the mutable condition of our existence.
In the condition, which is time, entities are always becoming. Entities that exist in eternity are not subject to change. They are all they can be. They do not exist in or experience time, because they do not and cannot change. They exist fully as they ever will. Just like our experience of our now, their now has no quantitative duration.
I believe it is permissible for St. Thomas to have proposed that Aristotle’s argument for an eternal universe of creatures is merely meant to be persuasive. Similarly, I believe it is permissible for me to propose that St. Thomas’s Second Way regarding generic efficient causality as presented in the Summa Theologica is intended to be persuasive, while his argument in On Being and Essence, regarding efficient causality at the level of existence, is intended to be and is philosophically definitive.
The human, step by step thought process, which is dependent upon our serial sensual imagining, colors our appreciation of the very concept of causality, such that we are inclined to talk of causal series of insufficient efficient causes without noticing the self-contradiction in doing so.
‘Insufficient’ Causes or Not
Now, let us consider the objection: Whether the definition of a cause, as requiring sufficiency, is gratuitous in the context of cause and effect.
It is obvious that arguments for a first cause, which employ analogies to the human artifacts of trains and chains as causal sequences, verbally claim to prove the existence of a first cause as the regressive terminal of a finite series of causes. I propose that they do not demonstrate what they claim, even if we accept in principle that there can be no infinite series of finite causes. In fact, what they do demonstrate is that the concept of cause and effect requires that the cause be sufficient.
Let us shorten the train analogy down to the caboose coupled directly to the locomotive. The local motion of the caboose is the effect of the locomotive, which is the cause of the motion of the caboose. Let us add one intermediate cause, namely a unit of rolling stock, a boxcar, between the caboose and the locomotive. In the analogy, the boxcar is labelled an intermediate efficient cause. The motion of the caboose is caused by the motion of the boxcar, whose motion is caused by the locomotive. The boxcar is an intermediate and insufficient cause in a series, which must be finite and terminate in a first cause, the locomotive. Is that a valid interpretation of first cause? No. We could just as well view the boxcar, not as an intermediate and insufficient cause, but as part of the coupling mechanism between the caboose and the locomotive. It is then apparent that the locomotive is the first cause of local motion in this analogy because it is the sufficient cause of the local motion of the caboose.
Let us add 59 more units of rolling stock, intermediate between the caboose and the locomotive. A total of 60 boxcars may be viewed as 60 intermediate and serially insufficient causes of local motion or they could be viewed as one big coupling mechanism between the effect, the motion of the caboose and its sufficient efficient cause, the locomotive. In comparing these two views, it should be apparent that the serial sequence of ‘insufficient’ causes must indeed terminate in a first cause, i.e. first in the sense of sufficiency, and not first in the sense of the terminus of a regressive finite series.
The same conclusion is reached in an analysis of a static or hierarchical sequence of so-called intermediate causes. One such popular analogy, identified as serial causality, is the suspension of a chandelier from a superstructure, nominally the ceiling of a room. If we hang the chandelier directly to the superstructure we have the suspension of the chandelier as the effect and the superstructure as cause of suspension with no intermediates. Consider two other scenarios with intermediates. In one scenario, a rope of 10 feet is placed as an intermediate between the superstructure and the chandelier. In the other scenario, sixty 2-inch chain links are placed as intermediates between the superstructure and the chandelier. In both scenarios, is the superstructure the First Cause of the suspension of the chandelier because, it is numerically prior to an ordered series of insufficient causes whose sum is finite? Or, is it the First Cause because the superstructure is the sufficient cause of the entire suspension? The 10-foot rope is composed of many overlapping fibers. It is hard to imagine the fibers of the rope as a linear series of sequential intermediate, but insufficient causes. In contrast, it is easy to imagine the discretely sequenced sixty 2-inch links as a series of intermediate, but insufficient causes. The lesson is that we should not let our imaginations dictate the conditions and limits of reality.
My judgment is that the analogies of trains and chains demonstrate that the concept of cause and effect requires that there be a ‘first’ cause in the sense of sufficient causality, not that a series of ‘insufficient’ causes plus its terminating cause must be a finite number. Indeed, what these analogies demonstrate is that an ‘insufficient’ cause of an effect is an oxymoron, which may be employed serially for the sake of persuasion outside of a definitive philosophical argument. Its persuasiveness is partially due to the serial nature of the process of human thought, dependent as it is on sensual imagination.
Also, to deny causality to ‘serial insufficient causes’ is not to deny that they are causal factors and, in that sense, secondary causes. The train analogy, in which the each boxcar is identified as an intermediate cause, does not deny that the couplers between the cars are not causal factors. Note that it is precisely in acknowledging the causal insufficiency of the boxcars by labelling them ‘secondary’ causes, that it is apt to identify the locomotive as a ‘first’ cause due to its causal sufficiency.
It should be noted that St. Thomas’s Second Way in the Summa Theologica does not imply that intermediate serial efficient causes are insufficient causes as the analogies of trains and chains make them out to be. He implies that causes appear to be serial “In the world of sense”, i.e. to our senses, as Tony noted. The nature of sensation is serial and so we are inclined to attribute our mode of sensation to the nature of causality.
Our love of, as well as, the impressive and indispensable utility of quantification prompts us mistakenly to perceive time fundamentally as a quantity, when it is fundamentally a quality, the condition of mutability. We quantify local motion as the temporal rate of location. Accordingly, we portray efficient causality at the level of local motion as a series of causally insufficient, quantifiable segments (Zeno of Elia, c. 450 BC, similarly proved that local motion must be an illusion. It would take an infinite number of finite segments of time to cross the room)
We judge serially segmented mediation to be a generic characteristic of efficient causality. In doing so, we include efficient causality at the level of existence. However, this contradicts the conclusion that there can be no intermediary, where (1) the effect is the existence of a mutable entity and (2) the cause must be the entity whose nature is its very self-existence, the immutable, “I AM” (Exodus 3:14).
We should be wary of any argument for the existence of God that features an analogy to human artifacts such as trains and chains. St. Thomas presents no such analogies in P1, Q2, A3: Whether God Exists. An elaboration of P1, Q2, A3 does not require any consideration of series.