Causation

Quinquae Viae: The Five Ways of Aquinas (Part 2)

“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.”

Someone mentioned to me that in my last blog post my discussion of Aquinas’ notion of motion was unclear, and that perhaps I could have left my analogy of potential and kinetic energy out of it. The informer argued that that fit more properly into the notion of cause, in that the table being removed is what causes the ball to change from potential into Kinetic energy. I informed him that this is simply a misunderstanding on his part of the distinction that I was trying to make. It is not the reason that the change happens because of but rather that an actuality exists (in that case, namely gravity) that changes potentiality into actuality. These actualities can be any number of causes, matter, gravity, force, etc.

The point is this. Any cause must be an actuality. This leads to the conclusion above however:

Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.

Why? Simple, for the same reason that we did in our last post, namely, that nothing can cause itself to be or to change. For anything to be an efficient cause of itself, nor is it possible to go on to an infinity of prior causes. This is because any infinite number of prior causes would be actually infinite, and this is absurd. There are multiple reasons for this, which you can find in one of my earlier posts, but also one that I don’t think I’ve mentioned before.

No Infinite Set can be created by adding a finite number to any already existing set. Or, in other words, it’s impossible to reach an actually infinite set by addition.

This is because for any number x, you can always add x+1 to produce the next sum. Since an actually infinite set must contain all infinite members at the same time, the fact that you can always add 1 to any sum to get a new number shows incompleteness in the set.

Unfortunately, or perhaps: as typical, this winds up simply to be a modern restatement of ancient ideas expressed by believers in the creation of the universe at a fixed point in time (for example: John Philopinus, and Al-Ghazali.) which state that if you were to count down from infinity to zero, there is no reason you should finish yesterday rather than today.

So we’ll not dwell much on this point, let us instead move to the more interesting point in light of modern science. Can an object cause itself (or can a cause cause itself)?

In “The Grand Design” Stephen Hawking posits that “The universe creates itself out of nothing.” The argument given for this is that, “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” 1 At first glance, you might think that this is a bit absurd, but it does rely on some fundamental assumptions.

A) Something can be created from nothing.

This part is generally only applicable on the quantum scale, but could be reasonably asserted given that ‘nothing’ is defined as ‘the quantum vacuum’. The quantum vacuum is however an incredibly complex series of interactions of energy that have measurable effects. (For example, interactions in the vacuum create “zero-point energy” which can be observed in phenomena like the ‘cosmological constant’.) 2

Because it has measurable effects, it cannot be properly defined as ‘non-being’ but given this qualifier we shall continue.

B) Laws can create something.

Generally speaking, when talking of ‘laws’ or ‘rules’ we do not speak of them as causing things to occur. And even in the cases we do we are speaking of prescriptive laws in personal agents. “The law is what caused George not to kill Hannah.” And even more accurately speaking, in that circumstance what caused George to not do it was the fear of the punishment and not the law itself. The law of Gravity is a ‘descriptive’ law, not a prescriptive law, meaning it describes the way something usually behaves or acts, and the way it appears, but not the way it should or ideally will. Descriptions are naturally passive things that are disconnected from the actual thing that they describe.

Given this, I think this premise is unfounded.

It’s also a case of a mistaken mechanism, to mistake a nominal construction for an object with a positive existence. To mistake a construct like the law of gravity, as something that has existence in its being is part of the flaw of their reasoning. 3

So even given the qualified redefinition it seems as if A) does not prove what it seeks to prove, that something can come from nothing (or without cause(since the quantum vacuum is a cause). Since the statement is self-referentially incoherent, then it cannot and does not make sense to say that ‘the first cause created itself’.

This is what Aquinas is getting at, this incoherence of non-causal causes. So he gives this argument that no efficient cause can be caused by a prior efficient cause back to infinity.

This post was short, but hopefully I’ll be able to get back into posting regularly from here on out. Thank you for your patience.


  1. Page 180 
  2. Sean Carroll, Sr Research associate – Physics, California Institute of Technology, June 22, 2006 C-SPAN broadcast of Cosmology at Yearly Kos Science Panel, part 1. 
  3. Of course mathematical Platonists might make an argument here. Even if it can be shown that Platonic objects exists, we have to wonder how they cause things, being themselves abstract. 
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