Uber-Turtles and the Argument from Cause

After actively engaging others in discussions on Christianity over the last ten years, I have become more and more convinced that logic in the hands of some atheists is like matches in the hands of children. While many skeptics use logic responsibly, some misuse or abuse logic becoming a danger to themselves and others. Today's case in point is an address that was made by a skeptic named Diana Mertz Hsieh who gave a speech before the San Diego Ayn Rand Salon entitled Why Be An Atheist?

In the address, Ms. Hseih attempts to give a logical analysis of arguments for theism, agnosticism and atheism and to absolutely no one's surprise concludes that the only logical, rational and reasonable arguments support atheism. The only problem is that her analysis is, to put it bluntly, poor.

She begins with an analysis of the cosmological argument from cause through what I will call the Uber-Turtle analogy. She says:

The Cosmological Argument attempts to prove God’s existence by arguing: "Everything has a cause. And so every cause must itself have a cause. Since we cannot have an infinite chain of causes, there must therefore be a First Cause, something that was not itself caused by anything else. God is that First Cause."

The most obvious problem with this argument is that it is self-contradictory. First, it says that everything must have a cause. Everything. Then, it says that there must be something (God) that does not have cause. The premise contradicts the conclusion. It’s as if I argued the following: "The earth is held up in the sky by a great turtle. What supports that turtle? Yet another turtle. Every turtle must be supported by a turtle below it. Since we can’t have an endless chain of turtles, however, there must be an uber-turtle, one that does not be supported by other turtles."

Here, the postulation of an uber-turtle that does not need to be supported contradicts the premise that all turtles must be supported by other turtles. The cosmological argument has the very same problem: the postulation of a God that is uncaused contradicts the premise that all causes must themselves have causes.

I find it odd that one of the time-tested arguments for the existence of God can so easily be dismissed as "contradictory." The validity of the cosmological argument, which comes in several forms, is still debated by philosophers today. As an example, see the Stanford Philosophy Encyclopedia's entry on the Cosmological Argument which makes it clear that variations of the cosmological argument remain the subject of much discussion. So why is it that Ms. Hsieh can so easily dismiss the argument? Obviously, because her description of the cosmological argument from cause creates a strawman.

If the Cosmological Argument from Cause were actually, "everything has a cause, God does not have a cause," then I would agree that it is absolutely contradictory. The argument, however, does not make that claim.

One of the earliest statements of this argument comes from St. Thomas Aquinas. In his great work, Summa Theologicae, Aquinas argued for the five ways to know that God existed. The second of the five ways was the Cosmological Argument from Cause which he described as follows:

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.

The key phrase that Ms. Hseih omits is the very first clause of the second sentence: "In the world of sense". The world of sense certainly means the physical world. It has no applicability to the spiritual or extra-natural world. Most theists (and, in fact, most honest atheists) recognize that the claim that "everything has a cause" is limited to the natural world. I personally know of no theist who would express the belief that "everything has a cause" would extend to the extra-natural world.

To that end, most theists are much more careful about how they state the cosmological argument from cause. They will not say in an unqualified way that "everything has a cause." Rather, they will say things like "all created things have a cause," or "all natural things have a cause."

Equally importantly, the very nature of the argument shows that Ms. Hseih's argument is untenable. The argument commences with the observation that we live in a cause and effect universe where every effect has a cause. Thus, if my pen falls off the table, something caused it to happen. Perhaps it fell because of a strong wind. What caused the wind? Perhaps it was caused by a cold front. Well then, what caused the cold front? The question "what caused X?" can continue backwards into infinity, but that's where the problem arises. It puts us in the problem of the infinite regress. The argument from cause presents a solution: there must be a first efficient cause -- the uncaused cause. It is inherent in the argument. To somehow read the argument as saying that it is "self-contradictory" because it argues that there is no uncaused cause but that God is the uncaused cause shows either a deep lack of respect for honest intellectual engagement or very sloppy thinking.

The Uber-Turtle analogy that she posits is much the same. If she means that each and every turtle that exists must be supported by another turtle, then the argument certainly has an infinite regress which makes it logically untenable. However, if she would just examine her own argument, she would see that the point of the argument is that something has to happen to break the endless chain of turtles. She posits an Uber-Turtle as the solution. However, since this Uber-Turtle violates the general rule, there must either be something wrong with the rule or something different about the Uber-Turtle. In the case of the Uber-Turtle, we can believe that the rule is wrong since there appears to be no reason to differentiate the Uber-Turtle from the turtles it is supporting other than that it is the very bottom of the stack. In the case of the argument from cause, we have only one area where "causation" has become suspect -- in the wild world of quantum mechanics. But even in that world, scientists debate whether causation doesn't exist or causation simply isn't observable. All agree, however, that this lack of causation (if it exists) appears limited to the quantum world. Thus, it is unlikely that there is something wrong with the rule that all natural things have causes. That means that there must be something different about the first cause, God, and the difference can be explained by the fact that the first cause posited is not part of the natural world.

Ms Hseih concludes her discussion of the Cosmological Argument from Cause with the following assertion:

However, the deeper problem with this argument lies in the idea that there must have been some cause, some mechanism by which existence emerged out of non-existence. For the theist, a Creator, a God, explains how existence came to be. But, as Objectivists, we know that nonexistence isn’t some special kind of entity. We know that existence never emerged from nonexistence. Existence is all that has ever been and all that ever will be. So there is no need to postulate a God to explain why we have existence rather than non-existence.

So, according to Ms. Hseih, we know that "existence is all that has ever been and all that ever will be." I am no expert on Objectivism, but I don't believe Objectivism supports this statement at all. Objectivism, according to Wikipedia, has several axioms. The first two Axioms are the Axiom of Existence and the Axiom of Identity. I have always understood the first axiom to stand for the proposition that something exists outside and independent of human consciousness. Wikipedia seems to support this understanding:

The first axiom [of Objectivism] states that something other than one's own consciousness exists. If it did not, according to Rand, consciousness itself would be an impossibility. Rand believes that this principle is self-evident (its truth is given in perceptual experience) and such that any attempt to refute it implicitly assumes it. This axiom entails metaphysical realism, the view that things are what they are independently of the mental states (beliefs, desires, etc.) of individual cognizers.[2] Metaphysical realism is also accepted by Aristotle, Francis Bacon, and G. E. Moore (and many 20th Century scientific realists), though it is denied by idealists such as Berkeley, Leibniz, and Hegel. Objectivism rejects the view that one could, in principle, be conscious exclusively and entirely of one's own consciousness. Objectivism holds that consciousness is not possible without the prior existence of something, external to consciousness, for consciousness to be conscious of: "To be aware is to be aware of something."

In other words, according to this philosophical theory (which is not a widely accepted view to my knowledge), something exists outside of ourselves or it would not be possible to have consciousness at all. To me, the acceptance that something exists outside of ourselves is largely not controversial except in certain philosophical quarters that disagree that we can trust our senses or any knowledge of the real world. Thus, while the exact means of working this out in Objectivism may be disputable, I feel confident that the central point that something exists "out there" is largely uncontroversial.

The second axiom, the Axiom of Identity, proceeds to make it clear that what exists outside or ourselves that we have consciousness of is finite.

Objectivism regards identity as the essence of existence: "Existence is Identity." The corollary of this is the Law of Identity, which states that everything that exists has an identity, and that whatever has an identity is an existent. In saying this, Objectivism is asserting more than the tautology of self-identity (i.e., "everything is identical to itself"). It is asserting that everything that exists has a specific identity, or nature, which consists of its attributes and the values of those attributes (as Rand wrote, "to be is to be something in particular"). Objectivism holds that all attributes (properties and characteristics) that constitute an existent's identity have specific values, so that each exists in a specific measure or degree; in this respect "identity" also means specificity. Therefore, according to Objectivism, everything that exists has a specific, finite nature.

Thus, if my understanding of Objectivism is accurate, it seems really hard to believe that it has anything to say about the argument from cause. After all, it is merely a philosophy that gives meaning to the question of how we can perceive and trust in the exitence of the physical world. Simply because things exist does not mean that they have always existed or that there is no first cause. Moreover, to the extent that the second axiom is applicable, it seems to suggest that whatever exists outside is finite in nature. Thus, unless Objectivism has an answer as to how the universe can be eternal (despite evidence that it came into existence around 13 billion years ago) and an exception to the general rule that "everything that exists has a specific, finite nature", I don't understand how Objectivism can establish that "[e]xistence is all that has ever been and all that ever will be."

While my criticism of her second argument is certainly uncertain due to a lack of familiarity with Objectivism, I feel quite confident that her objection to the argument from cause on the basis of contradiction is simply erroneous.


Jason Pratt said…
Incidentally, you do know at least one theist who would express the belief that "everything has a cause" would extend to the extra-natural world. {waving hand!} {g!}

We positive aseitists are admittedly pretty rare. But I do mention the notion on occasion when it seems pertinent. Most recently I did so in the July 4th Cadre article "The Heart of Freedom", where I spoke about it at some length. I'll be returning to the topic again at some length in my "Ethics & the Third Person" series (once I get my work together back here at Pratt Central in other regards. {g}) I strongly contend that it has a central connection to orthodox trinitarian theism, and among other things is the key to field-goaling the horns (so to speak) of the Euthyphro Dilemma.

Again though, we're pretty rare; and your explication of privative aseity seemed accurate enough to me. Just thought it was funny you hadn't noticed yet. {g}

Back to my hole for a while--I'll be intermittent over the next few weeks, though I'll try to keep an eye on any discussion going on in this thread. (Over on Victor Reppert's Dangerous Idea site, he's been doing this semester's long series of posts, including some reposts and updates on the CosA and privative aseity, though I don't think he calls it by the latter name.)

BK said…
I will go back and re-read your heart of freedom article. For whatever reason (probably because I was skimming too much), I didn't understand you to be saying that. I will be interested in reading that a little more carefully.

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