Monday, September 15, 2014
The stock caricature in question is, of course, the “Everything has a cause, so the universe has a cause” argument. As I’ve pointed out many times (e.g. here and here), no major proponent of the idea of a First Cause ever actually defended this stupid argument. Indeed, all the major proponents of arguments for a First Cause would reject the claim that “everything has a cause,” and on entirely principled rather than ad hoc grounds. Hence the stock retort to this caricature has no force whatsoever against their actual arguments. That stock retort is of course to ask “If everything has a cause, then what caused God?” and then to suggest that if God need not have a cause, then neither need the universe have a cause. Maybe, those who attack this caricature suggest, it is the universe itself (or the event that gave rise to it) that is the first or uncaused cause.
The “curious blind spot” Clarke is referring to is contemporary Anglo-American philosophers’ amazing inability or unwillingness to see that in routinely trotting out this objection they are attacking a straw man that bears no interesting relationship whatsoever to what writers like Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. actually said.
In fact, as Clarke notes, Aquinas explicitly denies that everything has a cause. He held that “to be caused by another does not appertain to a being inasmuch as it is being; otherwise, every being would be caused by another, so that we should have to proceed to infinity in causes -- an impossibility…” (Summa Contra Gentiles II.52.5). For writers like Aristotle, Plotinus, and Aquinas and other Scholastics, it is not the fact of something’s existence as such, or of its being a thing per se, that raises causal questions about it. It is only some limitation in a thing’s intrinsic intelligibility that does so -- for example, the fact that it has potentials that need actualization, or that it is composed of parts which need to be combined, or that it merely participates in some feature, or that it is contingent in some respect. Hence these writers would never say that “everything has a cause.” What they would say is that every actualization of a potential has a cause, or whatever is composite has a cause, or whatever has a feature only by participation has a cause, or whatever is contingent has a cause.
Accordingly, when they arrive at God via a First Cause argument, there is no inconsistency, no sudden abandonment of the very premise that got the argument going. Rather, the argument is that the only way to terminate a regress of actualizers of potentials is by reference to something which is pure actuality, devoid of potentiality, and thus without anything that needs to be or even could be actualized;
or it is that a regress of causes of composed things can be terminated only by something which is absolutely simple or non-composite, and thus without any parts whose combination needs to be or indeed could have been caused by anything;
or that the only way to terminate a regress of things that cause other things to participate in being is by reference to that which just is being itself rather than something which merely has or participates in being, and thus something which neither needs nor could have had a cause of its own being;
or that the only way to terminate a regress of causes of contingent things is by reference to something absolutely necessary, which by virtue of its absolute necessity need not have and could not have had something impart existence to it; and so forth.