Last Wednesday, I discussed St. Thomas Aquinas’ Second Way of demonstrating the existence of God, the Argument from Efficient Causes. This week, I’ll discuss objections to that arguments and offer answers to those objections.
Objections to the Argument from Efficient Causes
Like the Argument from Motion, the Argument from Efficient Causes has inspired a number of objections. Again, I’ll consider the more common objections.
If everything has a cause, what caused God?
Simply put, Thomas never argues that everything has a cause, so this objection relies on a misrepresentation of his argument. He argues, rather, that we see that there are some things that are caused by other things and that nothing can cause itself. The fact that some things are caused by other things is a matter of experience. The fact that nothing can cause itself is a matter of common sense, for nothing can exist before it existed in order to cause itself to exist. There must, then, be an uncaused cause, which everyone understands to be God.
How do we know the principle of cause and effect even applies in a non-sensible world?
In his blog, “The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager: A Skeptics Guide to the Christianity” (2000), Paul Tobin points out Immanuel Kant’s claim that there’s no way we can know if the principle of cause and effect pertains to the non-sensible world the way it does to the sensible world. We can experience in those things we see, hear, touch, smell and taste that there is cause and effect. But, what of those things we can’t experience with our senses? But, the principle of cause and effect applies to sensible things, not because they’re sensible, but because they exist. If a non-sensible thing exists, there’s no reason to think the principle doesn’t apply to it.
There’s simply no way of knowing that the first cause is the first cause.
This is similar to the objection to the First Way that the first mover may not be God, but may be the universe or something else. Again, it’s turning Thomas’ argument around. Thomas doesn’t argue that God is the first cause, but that the first cause is God. This can’t be the universe, for we see that the universe itself is a mass of causes and effects. In other words, it’s clear that the universe is part of the created order, that it exists within the realm of cause and effect and is itself impacted by the principle of cause and effect. The first cause must be uncaused, or we’re left with the absurdity that the universe caused itself. Furthermore, if what we thought was the first cause turns out to be something within the chain of causes, we don’t abandon the existence of the first cause. Instead, we continue our search. It really doesn’t matter, then, if we can ever confirm that “such and such” is the first cause. We know there must be one.
The Argument from Efficient Causes commits the logical fallacy of quantifier reversal.
The fallacy of quantifier reversal is one where the argument concludes, falsely, that because a certain principle applies to all of the members of a group, it must then apply to the group itself. Paul Tobin uses the example of a basketball team. “Suppose that every player in the basketball team has a wife; one then commits the fallacy of quantifier reversal when the fact is extended to state that the basketball team itself has a wife!” But, Thomas doesn’t commit this fallacy at all. The principle of cause and effect applies to the created order, not because it’s the sum total of all causes and effects, but because it is itself within the realm of the created order. Thomas doesn’t argue that “because every causal series must have a first cause, … that there must be a first cause for all such series,” as Tobin rather confusedly suggests. Instead, he argues that our experience shows us that some things are caused by others, and nothing can cause itself. This “nothing can cause itself” includes the created order itself, since it is within the order of creation, and not merely the sum total of all causes and effects.
In quantum physics, things appear out of nothing, with no cause, all the time.
An interesting objection to the Second Way that’s arisen in recent years is the notion that quantum physics (or quantum mechanics) demonstrates that Thomas’ first and second premises are false because there are, in fact, effects that have no cause. A popular example is the decay of radioactive material. Because it’s impossible to know when any particular radioactive atom will decay, the conclusion is drawn that radioactive decay is initiated without a cause. Of course, this simply doesn’t stand up. Just because we don’t know when a radioactive atom will decay doesn’t mean radioactive decay doesn’t have a cause. It only means our knowledge of radioactivity is limited. This sounds something like a “science of the gaps” argument: we don’t know what causes this, so we’re going to conclude that it doesn’t have a cause!” Not only is that irrational, it’s also scientifically lazy. Should we cease and desist our research on the causes of radioactive decay because we don’t yet know the answer to what causes it? That would be the exact opposite of scientific inquiry.
Physics describes the behavior of physical objects. But, when one arrives at the level of very small objects, such as atoms, electrons and quarks, traditional physics is limited. Physicists then turn to quantum physics, which describes the behavior of atoms and those particles of which atoms are made. These very tiny objects act in very strange ways. They seem to pop into existence and pop out of existence unpredictably and within a vacuum, that is, without any cause at all. But do they? Dr. David Albert, professor of philosophy at Columbia University and author of Quantum Mechanics and Experience, writes in his New York Times article, “On the Origin of Everything” (March 23, 2013) that:
“Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states – no less than giraffes or refrigerators or the solar system – are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields – what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings – if you look at them aright – amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.”
Which is the same as saying that quantum physics in no way suggests that there can be an effect without a cause.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.