Reply to Prof. Feser’s Third Question

Ed, your third question and accompanying commentary was this:

In response to a reader’s comment, you wrote:

I think Bertrand Russell’s beautifully succinct critique of all causal arguments holds good: “If everything requires a cause, then God requires a cause. However, if anything can exist without a cause, it might as well be the universe as God.” Exactly.

Now, your Secular Outpost co-blogger and fellow atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder agrees with me that this is not in fact a good objection to arguments for a First Cause, because it attacks a straw man. Specifically, Lowder has said:

[N]o respectable theologian or theistic philosopher has ever made the claim, “everything has a cause.” Yet various new atheists have proceeded to attack that straw man of their own making. I remember, when reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, where he attacked that straw man and cringing. There are many different cosmological arguments for God’s existence and none of them rely upon the stupid claim, “everything has a cause.”

You won’t find that mistake made by Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, Paul Draper, or (if we add a theistic critic to the list) Wes Morriston.

End quote. Now it would seem that what Lowder calls a “mistake” is one that you, Keith Parsons, have made. But is Lowder wrong? If he is, please tell us exactly which theistic philosophers who defend First Cause arguments – Avicenna? Maimonides? Aquinas? Scotus? Leibniz? Clarke? Garrigou-Lagrange? Craig? — actually ever gave the argument Russell was attacking.

My response: In effect, I responded to this in a reply I made to Jeff. Let me quote that:

“What about Russell’s claim, to which Ed adverts, that (paraphrasing): “If everything has a cause, then God has a cause. On the other hand, if something can exist without a cause, then it might be the universe rather than God.” Does this attack a straw man? Well, as usual, it depends on how we read it. Is Russell charging that theists make the following argument?

If everything has a cause, then there has to exist something without a cause.
Everything has a cause.
Therefore, something (i.e. God) exists without a cause.

I think it is safe to say that you will not find such an argument outside of the paper of a “C” student in Phil. 101. The conclusion contradicts the second premise and the first premise is necessarily false since the antecedent contradicts the consequent. If Russell is caricaturing theistic philosophers as the authors of this or a similarly bad argument, he is indeed attacking a straw man.

Once again, however, I think that there is a good idea here that can be turned into a much more challenging argument. I would propose the following quasi-Russell argument

(QRA):

QRA: If everything has an explanation, then God has an explanation, or, if it is possible that something does not have an explanation, then the universe might be that unexplained “something.” Symbolically, I would represent this argument as follows:

[□(∀x)Hxe → □Hge] v [◊(∃x)~Hxe) → ◊(x = u)]

I think Ed would have no problem with the left disjunct and would argue that God has an explanation in the sense that he is self-explanatory.

I would opt for the right since I consider brute facts to be possible, and that the universe (or, rather, its primordial state or fundamental aspects) can be brutally factual.”

The problem here, of course, involves the word “cause” which even philosophers often use imprecisely. The notion of “cause” has also changed over the history of Western philosophy. Penelope Mackie gives a succinct statement of some of those changes in here essay “Causality” in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy:

“In modern philosophy (as in modern usage in general) the notion of cause is associated with the idea of something’s producing or bringing about something else (its effect); a relation sometimes called “efficient causation.” Historically, the term ‘cause’ has a broader sense, equivalent to ‘explanatory feature.’ This usage survives in the description of Aristotle as holding ‘the doctrine of the four causes.’ The members of Aristotle’s quartet, the material, formal, efficient, and final cause correspond to four kinds of explanation. But only the efficient cause is unproblematically a candidate for a cause that produces something distinct from itself.”

My hypothesis is that Russell, an author of two comprehensive histories of philosophy, was using “cause” in the broader, historical sense that was much closer to “explanation” than to “efficient cause.” This was certainly the sense I intended when I endorsed Russell’s comment. In that case, I don’t think Russell’s statement, or my endorsement, was quite the straw man Jeff decries!

About Keith Parsons
  • Greg

    Hmm. Russell’s argument was: “If everything has a cause, then God has a cause. On the other hand, if
    something can exist without a cause, then it might be the universe
    rather than God.” If we read “cause” as “explanation,” as you have, then we have: “If everything has an explanation, then God has an explanation. On the other hand, if
    something can exist without explanation, then it might be the universe
    rather than God.” You seem to be correct that, on this read, Feser accepts the first horn of the dilemma.

    But the second horn is still stating that that which exists without an explanation “might be the universe rather than God.” The “rather than God” clause would seem to commit Russell, on this reading, to believing that some theists have suggested that God exists without an explanation (which would bring us to Feser’s fourth question, and whether any theists hold that). But that seems to contradict the alteration made to the first horn in order to save him from precisely that error. So the argument seems to lack consistency; it would seem to target two groups of theists, those who believe God has an explanation, and those who don’t.

    It’s also worth noting that if we read “cause” as “explanation,” then Russell’s statement loses most of its force. Consider:

    (1) “If everything has a cause, then God has a cause.”
    (2) “If everything has an explanation, then God has an explanation.”

    (1) makes a nice horn for a dilemma (assuming someone actually holds the antecedent). It would put anyone who wants to use the antecedent and hold that God exists in a bind, for it entails the clearly undesirable conclusion that God is caused by something. But (2) does not make a very impressive horn, though; it puts no pressure on the theist to hold it.

    If we take Russell’s retort to be an argument (the theist is confronted with this dilemma) rather than a description of beliefs (we either believe that everything is explained, including God, or we don’t), then the reading of “cause” as “explanation” runs into the above incongruencies.

    As such, while I do regard your QRA as more forceful, it is because it is not a reconstruction and clarification of Russell’s argument, but a different argument altogether.

  • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

    Even on an interpretation in which Russell means “efficient cause,” I don’t see that he is guilty of a straw man. He provides a dichotomy (Either everything has a cause or not everything has a cause) but he does not attribute either disjunct to anybody. He then draws tow conclusions from the dichotomy. First, if everything has a cause, God has a cause. Second, if not everything has a cause, then the universe might be such a thing. Again, he does not attribute these conclusions to anybody. He is just drawing the inferences to show that neither horn of the dilemma implies that God exists.

    So he is not guilty of a straw man because he is not trying to characterize anybody’s view. Much less is he guilty of a false dichotomy; the dichotomy is genuine. He is offering a dilemma that he thinks shows that the cosmological argument is not a good argument. The problem with his argument is the second inference. From the fact that some thing(s) exists that does not have a cause, it does not follow that the universe could very well be such a thing.

    I happen to think that the universe may very well be a thing that does not have a cause. But Russell’s justification is invalid. From the fact that there exists things that do not have causes, we cannot conclude that any particular thing might not have a cause. So, for example, the following inference is bad:

    (1) Not everything has a cause.
    Thus, (2) The Golden Gate bridge might not have a cause.

    This is obviously bad. It is implausible to believe that the Golden Gate bridge could exist without a cause (or without causes). The fact that some thing(s) exists that does not have a cause does not make it plausible that the Golden Gate bridge does not have a cause. Russell needs to provide some reason to think that the universe might not have a cause. That things do exist without a cause is not enough of a reason.

    • Kerk

      In other words, he creates his own version of the CA and argues that it’s no good. Ok, it’s not a straw man then. You are right.

      • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

        Kerk,
        Russell’s dichotomy is not a version of the CA. I don’t know what version of the CA you think Russell has created.

        • Kerk

          The thing is, none of the major versions of CA agree with the premise “everything has a cause,” so how is it even applicable to them?

          Ok, maybe some goofy philosopher somewhere in the Middle Ages believed that, but I bet, Russel did not care about refuting the most weak version of the CA.

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            Russell doesn’t assert that anyone thinks that everything has a cause.

          • Scott Scheule

            Interested parties can read the actual passage here: http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/russell0.htm
            I have no idea why Jason is so intent on denying the plain reading of the passage, but as anyone can see, Russell is perfectly clear what he’s talking about.

          • Greg

            That is pretty decisive, Scott. Given the context of the argument, it is clear that Russell meant “efficient cause,” not “explanation.”

            “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.”

            So the first horn is attacking a view that major philosophers don’t hold, and the second horn begs the question against precisely what defenders of cosmological arguments are arguing about — where, if that not everything has a cause, God can be shown to exist.

            It also seems clear that Parsons’ argument is quite simply a different argument. Russell meant “efficient cause”; that must is evident from his discussion of things “coming into being.” (Though interestingly, he is only addressing the issue of accidentally ordered series and temporal regresses, which are not even what, say, Aquinas’s First Cause argument makes use of.)

          • Greg

            “where, if that not everything has a cause, God can be shown to exist.”

            Sorry for this mess. I meant: “whether, if it is not the case that everything has a cause, it can be shown that God exists.”

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            Let me quote a very relevant portion of the passage:

            “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.”

            You will notice that Russell does not say, “It is maintained that everything has a cause.” Rather he says, “It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause.”

            Nothing could be plainer. Russell is not committing the straw man fallacy that you accuse him of. Russell is a smart guy. There is a reason he said “everything we see in this world” rather than “everything.” What is that reason? He is fully aware that purveyors of the first cause argument don’t think that everything has a cause.

          • Greg

            But if he is aware that purveyors of the first cause argument don’t think that everything has a cause, then whence the horn “If everything must have
            a cause, then God must have a cause”? If everything in this world has a cause, and God is not in this world (as any proper signification of the term “God” contains), then the first horn is irrelevant.

            You could say that that is what the second horn is for. But if he realizes that the claim is about things in this world and that proponents of first-cause arguments believe God is not in this world, then why would he not say so in the second premise? And why cite Mill, who makes the attribution that you don’t want to ascribe to Russell, with such admiration?

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            Not it is not irrelevant. It merely draws our attention to the point that this option is not viable for the theist and so they have to take the second option.

          • Greg

            He says, “That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause.” He clearly thinks that the sentence has some direct relevance to the purported fallaciousness of the first cause argument. He did not merely think that is constituted an irrelevant horn to a dilemma which no one has ever been tempted to grasp.

            I’ll leave any interested readers to take a look at the passage in question. I think we really have to twist Russell’s words to make it seem as though he did not think himself to be characterizing some cosmological arguments with the first horn. We can accept that Russell was a great logician while admitting that he said some pretty foolish things on philosophy of religion.

    • Scott Scheule

      Russell brings this up in “Why I’m Not a Christian” as a refutation of, quote, “the argument of the First Cause.” It’s patently obvious he’s referring to the historical First Cause argument, because, among other things, he says the argument “does not carry very much weight nowadays,” implying it once carried more. The idea he wasn’t trying to characterize the historical First Cause argument is silly, which is why Parsons didn’t take that tact.
      Or perhaps there’s some other place where Russell discusses this, where it seems he’s referring to some other argument, in which place, I’d love to see it.

      • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

        I think that you and I have a different understanding of what it means to characterize an argument. If I say, in response to some argument of yours, “Either x is true or else not-x is true.” I am not characterizing your argument. I am pointing out, correctly, that the law of excluded middle applies in this instance. So, if someone asserts that there must be a first cause, for example, I might assert Russell’s dichotomy. But that doesn’t mean that I have characterized their argument. I am drawing their attention to a dichotomy.

        Now, Russell thought he could turn this dichotomy into a dilemma that shows that the CA does not prove that God exists. I argued about that he was wrong about that. But he was not characterizing an argument by asserting the dichotomy.

        You are probably correct that he was responding to the First Cause argument. But the first disjunct in the dichotomy is not meant to represent the First Cause argument. It is an option, that is all. He is saying that this is one possibility. He is not saying that proponents of the FC argument assert it or that they are committed to it. What proponents of the FC argument (or any CA argument, for that matter) are committed to is this: either everything has a cause or not everything has a cause.

        Russell’s argument is that any proponent of the FC is committed to his dichotomy. The dichotomy is a dilemma in which neither horn is proof that God exists. End argument. He is wrong about what he says about the second horn of the dilemma; that is the only problem with the argument, but it is a big one. This argument does not mischaracterize anybody because it does it does not attempt to characterize anybody.

        • Scott Scheule

          Jason,

          1. Russell says he’s talking about the historical First Cause argument.

          2. He says, quote, “That very simple sentence ["Who made God?"] 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.”

          3. If that’s not characterizing “the argument of the First Cause,” I don’t know what is.

          I find it hard to believe you and I are reading the same passage.

          To your example, let’s say, as Russell did, you specify you’re talking about an argument of mine. Let’s say, as Russell did, you say you’re going to tell me the fallacy in my argument. Let’s say, as you say Russell did, you say: “Either x is true or else not-x is true.” Let’s say I respond (as Feser does): “But I never said x! No one ever said x! Everyone has always said y! That’s a strawman.” Are you denying I’ve got a point?

          Again, Parsons is a smart guy. He didn’t make the argument you’re making. There’s a reason.

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            “Let’s say I respond (as Feser does): “But I never said x! No one ever said x! Everyone has always said y! That’s a strawman.” Are you denying I’ve got a point?”

            Yes. You do not have a point.

            Russell would correctly respond: “I never said that you said x. I said that either you say x or you say not-x. So, you say you don’t say x. Fine. Then you say not-x.”

            This is not hard.

            I don’t understand your point about Parsons not responding as I respond. Are you suggesting that Parsons is infallible?

        • Greg

          Russell says: “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.”

          The Mill quote very clearly suggests that Russell had in mind cosmological arguments that appeal to an “everything has a cause” causal principle. If God made me, then God would have to be made by something else. That is the direct source of the first horn of his dilemma.

          Maybe Mill duped him into thinking that people actually make arguments like that. But that is what he seems to be targeting.

          Not to mention, Russell seems to have made a hasty generalization about First Cause arguments here:

          “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.”

          Aquinas’s cosmological arguments, for instance, do not make use of temporal regresses, nor do they appeal to a premise that the world began in time. Russell’s comments here only seem to apply to a subset of cosmological arguments, and a historical minority at that (the kalam arguments).

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            If Russell has in mind a version of the CA that appeals to a “everything has the cause” principle, then why did he not say, “this argument is committed to the claim that everything has a cause.”

            Indeed, when he does characterize the argument he says something quite different, “It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause.”

          • Greg

            He is pretty clearly impressed with Mill, who said, “My father taught me that the question, Who made
            me? cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question,
            Who made God?” Given that he segues into his first horn with no qualifications, I find your interpretation rather lacking. He seems to be taking the claim that “everything we see in this world has a cause” as a basis for a more general claim that “everything has a cause”; the Mill quote would not make sense otherwise, for then Russell would disagree that the question Who made me? immediately suggests the question Who made God?.

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            You maintain that Russell asserts that the CA is committed to the claim that everything has a cause. This is rather bizarre given that, in this rebuttal, he allows for the option that not everything has a cause.

            Why would he offer that if he believes that purveyors of the CA are committed to the claim that everything has a cause? Why not just say, “This can’t be right because then God would have a cause.”?

          • Greg

            Let’s step back and take a look that everything he says in formulating his dilemma:

            “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.”

            I don’t think we can explain his admiration for Mill except on the hypothesis that he thought the cosmological argument relied on a premise that everything has a cause. Otherwise, Mill’s quote there would not at all show him “the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause.”

            Now, what I think Russell is doing with his second horn is implying that if the theist were to drop the requirement that EVERYTHING have a cause, then he’d still be in trouble. As Feser has commented in the past (http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/07/so-you-think-you-understand.html), a number of atheists (though certainly not all) do something like that; they imply that the “everything has a cause” cosmological argument is the standard version, and write as though alternate versions are attempt to repair the obvious flaws in the premise “everything has a cause.”

            I haven’t said that Russell asserts anything about what theists are committed to. In that passage, I don’t think he is very clear. But what does seem clear is that he finds Mill’s characterization of the cosmological argument to be demonstrative of the problems with First Cause arguments.

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            My reading of Russell’s view concerning the relevance of Mill is as follows: Mill showed him that any stopping (really, starting, since we are going backward) point in the causal chain is arbitrary. Russell doesn’t think there is a principled reason to stop at God rather than the universe. That is what he realized when he read Mill. If we have to stop somewhere, why not stop at the universe? That’s it. Again, I think Russell’s argument for this is not good. But it is not a straw man.

            By the way, Russell is correct that purveyors of the first cause argument need a principled reason to think that we even can stop at God (or, rather, to think that God doesn’t need a cause). I don’t think there is one. But that is just to say that I don’t think the First Cause argument is any good. I am inclined to agree with Schopenhauer: the notion of a first cause is a contradictio in adjecto. This was not Russell’s point, but Schopenhauer got it right. If only Mill had read Schopenhauer’s dissertation.

            Back to the point: Again, asserting a dichotomy is not to characterize anyone’s view. And to the extent that Russell does characterize the First Cause argument he says, “It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause” not “The FC asserts that everything has a cause.”

          • Joe K.

            Uh. I’m pretty sure he was just starting the paragraph in a plain way. The CA (at least in view here) usually starts from the idea of someone seeing the world and saying, “Hey, where did this come from? It must have been caused to exist, otherwise it wouldn’t be here. Since it was caused to exist, something else must of caused it to exist.” And so on. He’s taking the specific to the general, a pretty common way to write. This follows the whole tone of the work.

            Moreover, he literally writes “If everything has a cause…” when he is addressing the argument.

  • Robert Coble

    I am hesitant to jump into Great White Shark-infested waters, but…

    No offense, but wasn’t the point to provide a citation of “theistic philosophers who defend First Cause arguments – Avicenna?
    Maimonides? Aquinas? Scotus? Leibniz? Clarke? Garrigou-Lagrange? Craig?
    — [who] actually ever gave the argument Russell was attacking”?

    If so, the reply given (while perhaps interesting in itself and worthy of further investigation) does not address the question raised by Dr. Feser. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, one can only assume that no such argument was made by a theistic philosopher, or that no citation has been found, or that the respondent carried out no search of the relevant sources, among the various possibilities. Consequently, the charge that Russell’s argument IS a “straw man” must stand until someone (anyone?) can produce evidence to the contrary. I think it certain that the other side CAN produce the arguments actually made by theistic philosophers, and those arguments are NOT what Russell made.

    Addendum:

    In New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, Dr. Robert J. Spitzer directly addresses Bertrand Russell’s “rather dismissive treatment of the First Cause argument.” Ibid, pp 220-224.

    Quoting from the first part of his response:

    ” The major thrust of Russell’s argument concerns the first of the above problems, namely, the assumed universality of the causal principle. Russell believes that “First Cause arguments” are based on the assumption that “everything must have a cause.” If any metaphysician seriously assumed this, then he would be liable to Russell’s judgment that his argument is (stupidly) open to the question, “What [Who] caused God?” Fortunately, I can attest that very few metaphysicians in history were stupid enough to argue Russell’s “universality of causation,” making his rendition of “First Cause arguments” a STRAW MAN. (Emphasis added.) It should be noted that in the three philosophical proofs given above, it was never assumed that “everything has a cause.” Indeed, the assumption was quite the contrary.

    “In the metaphysical proof (given in chapter 3), a complete disjunction was given: In all reality there is either only conditioned (caused) realities or there is at least one unconditioned (uncaused) reality. This proof does not assume that everything has a cause, but rather demonstrates that an unconditioned reality (i.e., an uncaused reality) would have to exist if the hypothesis that “all reality is conditioned” entails that nothing exist. It does entail this. And hence, the proof does not fall prey to the question, “What [Who] caused God?” because this question, within the context of the proof, would be “What [Who] caused the unconditioned (uncaused) reality?” which is, of course, absurd. The Lonerganian argument rests on grounds similar to the metaphysical one (see Chapter 4, Section II.A.) and so does not fall prey to Russell’s objection for the same reasons.”

    Dr. Spitzer’s argumentation is very carefully developed, step by step, in considerable detail. The book is worthy of deep study if you are interested in deciding for yourself whether “reasonable and responsible belief” in God is possible on a basis other than “blind faith” based on an appeal to the authority of a HOLY BOOK.

    One swallow does not a summer make, nor one onion a spring garden.” But when you have two theistic philosophers asserting that Russell’s argument is a “straw man,” well, then things are beginning to look a little different from that perspective.


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