The Cause of the World, if there is one, is Personal

“An effect uncaused is a contradiction, and… an event uncaused is an absurdity”
~ Thomas Reid, (Letter to James Gregory, in Reid 1967, p.88)[1]

I have recently picked up and started selectively reading through Timothy O’Connor’s Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will,[2] in which he highlights an interesting insight of Thomas Reid’s concerning agent causation. Many quotations are reproduced from Reid’s various works, and I am only interested in re-reproducing a few here to highlight what may be a latent argument for the creator and designer of the universe’s being personal. Reid doesn’t seem to intend his comments to insinuate such an argument, and neither does O’Connor, but it looks to me like the seeds are there nonetheless. The argument is born of an analysis of what kind of causation libertarian-free acts of the will would have to be (namely, efficient causes which are ‘pushy’ or ‘productive,’ as some say). Reid says:

“I am not able to form any distinct conception of active power but such as I find in myself… But, if there is anything in an unthinking inanimate being that can be called active power, I know not what it is, and cannot reason about it. (Letter to Lord Kames, Reid 1967, p.59)”[3]

Reid is here trying to put the commonsensical intuition about free agency and having the power to act upon the world into words, and notes that nothing other than a free agent can conceivably have this ‘active power’ as he calls it. According to Reid (according to O’Connor) “our common sense view of ourselves [is] that we are often the immediate causes of our own volitions— we ‘exert active power’ to determine how we shall act.”[4] Reid says elsewhere:

“I should have noticed that I am not able to form a conception how power, in the strict sense, can be exerted without will; nor can there be will without some degree of understanding. Therefore, nothing can be an efficient cause, in the proper sense, but an intelligent being.”[5]

O’Connor elaborates a little bit by adding, for clarification, that “producing or not producing some event in a given set of circumstances presupposes an inclination toward either of these options, which itself requires the alternatives’ being conceptualized in some manner.”[6]

These comments lead to two different arguments, one weaker than the other, for thinking that if there is an efficient (i.e., read here ‘productive’) cause of the universe, then that efficient cause is personal.

First Argument

The first argument would go like this:

  1. If the universe has a cause, then it is an efficient cause.
  2. If x is an efficient cause, then x has an ‘active causal power.’
  3. If x has an active causal power, then x is an intelligent being with a will.
  4. If x is an intelligent being with a will, then x is personal.
  5. Therefore, if the universe has a cause, then it is a personal agent with both intelligence and will.

Second Argument

The more modest argument would go like this:

  1. If the universe has a cause, then it is an efficient cause.
  2. The only efficient causes about which we can reason or which we can understand, are the active causal powers of intelligent and personal agencies.
  3. Therefore, (if the universe has a cause) if we can reason or understand anything about the universes’ cause then it must be a personal agency with will and intellect.

This second argument is more modest insofar as it allows the ‘Theophobe’ to take solace in the possibility that the universe does have a cause, and about it we can understand absolutely nothing. However, we can add epistemological arguments to the effect that, if we are presented with some phenomenon P which begs for an explanation, and the only available explanation is E, then we ought always, ceteris paribus, to (at least tenuously) adopt belief in E, or at least prefer adopting E to acknowledging P without having any explanation for it at all.

These arguments bear a very close family resemblance to the now popular argument offered by William Lane Craig, but I think there is an important difference. Craig gets to his conclusion by surveying possible causes and disqualifying them all one at a time, until the only one left is a personal transcendent cause.

“The cause of the universe must be an ultramundane being which transcends space and time and is therefore either an unembodied mind or an abstract object; it cannot be the latter; hence, it must be the former, which is to say that this being is personal.”[7]

The reason it cannot be an abstract object, according to Craig, is that abstract objects are ‘causally effete’ as he explains:

“But abstract entities, by definition, by their very nature don’t causally impact anything. The number 7, for example, is causally effete. It has no causal effects. It has no impact upon anything. So the principle of causality, if it exists, is utterly impotent causally. It doesn’t do anything.”[8]

The argument(s) I have offered, however, proceed(s) in reverse, from the concept of an efficient cause (i.e., a cause with an ‘active power’) to its necessarily personal nature (i.e., having both will and intellect). Perhaps Craig’s argument and these ones could thus be put together as natural dialectical compliments of one another.

 

[1] O’Connor, Timothy. Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 44.

[2] O’Connor, Timothy. Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[3] O’Connor, Timothy. Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 45.

[4] O’Connor, Timothy. Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 44.

[5] O’Connor, Timothy. Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 45.

[6] O’Connor, Timothy. Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 45.

[7] William Lane Craig, Personal God: Christianity Today Article and God’s Personhood, Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/personal-god#ixzz2yk7s0aBK

[8] William Lane Craig, Debate with Kevin Harris, Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/more-objections-to-kalam#ixzz2yk9UGpuG

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6 thoughts on “The Cause of the World, if there is one, is Personal

  1. I am a dualist who believes in agent causal libertarian free will, unlike most atheists, but I don’t think free will can be put to the use you are trying to put it to here. Consider these two premises of your argument:

    2. If x is an efficient cause, then x has an ‘active causal power.’
    3. If x has an active causal power, then x is an intelligent being with a will.

    These premises can be shortened to “if x is an efficient cause, then x is an intelligent being with a will,” which is false due to the existence of mechanistic causes. In other words, your argument would apply not only to the beginning of the universe but to rocks rolling, rivers running, trees growing, etc., resulting in a sort of Occasionalism.

    • Thank you for your comment. Perhaps this gives me an opportunity to clarify. Suppose that one billiard ball hits another, and that second hits a third. Clearly we want to say (short of espousing some absurd form of occasionalism like that espoused by Malebranche) that the billiard balls stand in some causal relation(s) to each other. However, just as the second is merely an intermediate cause, a sort of mere moved-mover, so also are all physical events on a mechanistic/physicalistic story of the world. When one mountain causes an avalanche, as we say, it stands in some causal relation to the avalanche, but not the same kind of relation that Bill would stand in (to the avalanche) if Bill (freely) caused the avalanche. The idea that Reid is picking up on is that the notion of a libertarian-free cause is productive – that it doesn’t just figure into some causal story as an inevitable intermediary cause in the same way billiard balls do. There is, instead, something ‘pushy’ or ‘productive’ (as some philosophers put it) about libertarian-free causal agency. It is this kind of cause which Reid wants to call ‘efficient’ (as I said, read ‘efficient’ as ‘productive’ or ‘pushy’). Physical objects standing in causal relations in the way of billiard balls or dominoes simply are not, given Reid’s stipulated vocabulary, ‘efficient’ causes. Read this way, I think the argument goes through as at least logically valid, and innocent of equivocation.

      • That does clear up that issue, but I have another concern. Your argument seems to essentially be saying that the cause of the universe must be a “pushy” cause, and that this suggests that the cause of the universe is an agent with libertarian free will, since libertarian free will is the only kind of causation we have observed with this kind of “pushy” quality. However, all observed cases of libertarian free will depend on a functioning brain to work, which suggests that the cause of the universe was not an agent with libertarian free will, since there were no brains prior to the universe.

        So, it seems like we have two options:

        (1) We can allow the fact that all observed instances of X have property Y to count as evidence that a new instance of X has Y. In this case, we have evidence that the cause of the universe did not have libertarian free will, since there were no brains prior to the universe.

        (2) We can deny that the fact that all observed instances of X have property Y counts as evidence that a new instance of X has Y. In this case, we have no evidence that the cause of the universe had libertarian free will, because the fact that the cause of the universe had to be “pushy” is no longer evidence for the claim.

        I don’t see how your argument can work on either alternative.

      • Here I think we need to practice some dialectical compartmentalization. Just as I would say if somebody objected that libertarian free will is incoherent, so I will say in response to you: the argument in the above article is intended to be somewhat provincial. I can’t be made to address everything all at once, since then I’d never get to say anything at all. I think I can answer with propriety that the issue of whether minds are merely brains, or whether mental states are necessarily physically realized, is a question with which I am not intending above to deal; that question takes us too far afield of the present topic. As it happens I do not believe that mental states are necessarily (or even ‘in fact’ all) physically realized, but the labor involved in arguing my way to that conclusion with any force is too demanding to discharge in a comments section of a weakly related article. Presenting such an argument is something I will do, if at all, in another article. I don’t mean to be dismissive, just staunchly pragmatic.

        As it happens though, perhaps I can say one thing which you may agree with and find somewhat persuasive. I can recast the argument in the post above as an argument against materialism (whether reductive or non-reductive) about the mind. I imagine the argument could go something like this:

        1. The universe has a cause (assumption, for simplicity and sake of argument)
        2. If the universe has a cause, then it is an efficient cause.
        3. If x is an efficient cause, then x is personal mind.
        4. Therefore, there is a personal cause of the universe.
        5. If the universe has a cause, then that cause cannot be essentially material/temporal/spacial (for those properties belong essentially to the universe).
        6. Therefore, the personal mind which caused the universe must be immaterial (non-physical).
        7. Materialism about minds is true if and only if necessarily every mind is physically realized.
        8. If there is a personal immaterial mind which caused the universe, then it is not the case that necessarily every mind is physically realized.
        9. Therefore, materialism about minds is false.

        If you think that my definition of ‘materialism about minds’ is unfairly strong, then we can restate it as:
        7*: Materialism about minds is true if and only if no mind both exists and is not physically realized.
        Then we adjust the argument from 7*-9 accordingly and come to the same result.

        Finally, I will give in to the temptation to respond, in only the briefest way, to your interesting ‘dilemma.’ My claim will be that (1), as stated, is not a problem for my argument (I note that (1) should be stated with a ceteris paribus clause somewhere). First, obviously there being no brains prior to the universe does not entail that there are no minds which are (temporally or ontologically) prior to the universe. More to the point, however, I would deny that every mental event is physically realized, and I will argue that there is good reason to think that not every mental event is physically realized. First, I might argue conceptually that we have good reasons to think that not all minds are physically realized even if the only ones observed are/were physically realized (in the same way as a physicist may argue that we have good reason to accept the multiverse hypothesis even if we have not (and indeed cannot in principle) observe other universes or observationally confirm that there is a multiverse ensemble). Second, I might argue that we have reason to believe that not all mental states of which we are aware are physically realized. Here I might appeal to any reason to think both that God exists and is a mind, but I might just as easily appeal to near-death or out-of-body experiences as evidence of some sort against the belief that every (observed) mental event has a property P such that x has P if and only if x is physically realized. I would likely not restrict myself to these two avenues, though, and would advance philosophical reasons to think that materialism about the mind in principle, come what appearances may, is a bad philosophical hypothesis, and that, having disqualified it as a plausible position, nothing is left which should preclude us in principle from accepting that minds are essentially immaterial.

        I hope that mollifies you to some degree. Thank you for your comments.

      • First of all, as I said in my first post, I’m a dualist. I think materialism is false as a matter of observation. I just don’t think that there is any good reason to think that the mind is a substance that can exist independently of a brain. My position is close to Chalmers’ naturalistic property dualism.

        However, my dualism is not strictly relevant here, since the arguments you have made could easily be recast as arguments against the claim that minds require brains rather than arguments against materialism. I’ll deal with them from that perspective.

        Your deductive argument against materialism is essentially the same as the argument in the blog post you made above, so I will make the same dilemma objection to it. Either the fact that every observed X is Y is evidence that X requires Y, in which case we have evidence that minds require brains, or it is not evidence, in which case we have no evidence that an efficient cause to the universe must be a mind.

        You have responded to my dilemma objection already, saying “obviously there being no brains prior to the universe does not entail that there are no minds which are (temporally or ontologically) prior to the universe.” But I thought I made it clear how I justified that inference, i.e., by appealing to the principle that if all observed X is Y, then it is reasonable to expect X’s in the future to be Y. I do not see how you can reject this principle without also losing the ability to argue for your claim that efficient causes have to be personal, which was the dilemma.

        You also write that “I might argue conceptually that we have good reasons to think that not all minds are physically realized even if the only ones observed are/were physically realized.” But there is no way to argue for a mind that doesn’t have a brain without falling prey to some form of the dilemma I have been presenting. To argue for a disembodied mind, you have to appeal to the attributes of all known minds, but one of the attributes of all known minds is dependence on a brain, so any argument for a disembodied mind will be inconsistent.

        Finally, you write that “I might appeal to any reason to think both that God exists and is a mind, but I might just as easily appeal to near-death or out-of-body experiences.” Appealing to independent reasons to think that God exists is fine, provided they are good reasons, but then why do you need this argument in the first place? And I don’t think near death or out of body experiences can really be taken seriously from a scientific perspective.

        Anyway, if you feel like it would be inappropriate to continue the discussion here, feel free to start a new blog post on some of the subjects we’re discussing. The conversation should be great.

  2. “Feel free to start a new blog post on some of the subjects we’re discussing. The conversation should be great.” I’m sure it would/will be, and I look forward to it.

    I am not familiar with Chalmers’ naturalistic property dualism, so perhaps I’m wrong in assuming that it is a form of (albeit non-reductive) materialism/physicalism. I thought at least that it would maintain the view that the mind is (necessarily) physically realized. Is this correct?

    You reiterate your dilemma: “Either the fact that every observed X [has] Y is evidence that X requires Y, in which case we have evidence that minds require brains, or it is not evidence, in which case we have no evidence that an efficient cause [of] the universe must be a mind.” Let’s take a closer look at both sides of this dilemma. First, is it the case that the inference I’m making goes from ‘All X have Y’ to ‘All X require Y’? I want to suggest that this isn’t the right way to read the argument(s) I presented above.

    I have argued that all efficient causes of which we can conceive are personal (having intellect and will). I am inferring from this that if there’s another instance of an efficient cause (and we can conceive of it) then it is (conceptually-necessarily) personal too. However, the argument I’m making is innately stronger than the following parody: all minds of which we are aware are physically realized, and if some x is a mind of which we aren’t (as of yet) aware then x is likely to be physically realized. The difference between my argument and this parody is that my argument is supposed to tread on a conceptual necessity. Impersonal efficient causes are inconceivable, full stop, whereas immaterial minds are not. Consider the following two arguments as further illustrations:

    1. All observed instances of grass have the property of being coloured greenly.
    2. X is an as of yet unobserved instance of grass.
    3. Therefore, X is likely to be coloured greenly

    And:

    1. All observed instance of grass have the property of being extended in space.
    2. X is an as of yet unobserved instance of grass.
    3. Therefore, X is likely to be extended in space.

    I am actually ripping this example off of myself, from my former blog (to which I direct you if you’re interested: http://thirdmillennialtemplar.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/minds-and-brains-justification-for-immaterialism-about-the-mind/). The dis-analogy should be obvious: the second argument’s conclusion is too modest. We don’t just want to say that it is likely, given previous observations, that if something is an instance of grass it is more likely to be extended in space. We want to say that grass is (conceptually) necessarily extended in space (if it weren’t thus extended, then it wouldn’t be ‘grass’). Whereas, we can easily imagine grass that isn’t green; say redly coloured grass, or purple grass, or whatever. Similarly an efficient cause is, of conceptual necessity, a personal cause, whereas a mind is not, of conceptual necessity, physically realized. While I agree that if every observed X has property Y, then our observational evidence is good evidence for believing that an unobserved instance of X will also (likely) have property Y, I do not think this is the right way to read the arguments I’ve offered above. So, I maintain that there is a misunderstanding at play in the first horn of this dilemma.

    Concerning the second horn of your dilemma, I want to call a possible problem to your attention. The second horn is: “[that] every observed X [has] Y is not evidence [for thinking that X requires Y], in which case we have no evidence that an efficient cause [of] the universe must be a mind.” It simply wouldn’t follow that if the inference from ‘all observed X’s have Y’ to ‘future observations of X will be observations of X’s having Y’ were invalid (for some reason) then we would have no evidence that the universe has an efficient cause. Perhaps if these were the only arguments that we had (or could have in principle), then that would be the case, but it isn’t (or at least it is yet to be demonstrated that it is). So, perhaps your second horn should read “[that] every observed X [has] Y is not evidence [for thinking that X requires Y], in which case [the arguments presented above] that an efficient cause [of] the universe must be a mind [fail].”

    Thus, I agree that if every observed instance of a mind had the property of being physically realized, then we would have good observational evidence to believe that some (as of yet) unobserved mind is likely to have the property of being physically realized as well. I just thing that (i) we have good evidence from experience as well as from careful analysis/reflection that minds are not physical, nor, of necessity, physically realized, and (ii) if God exists (which I take the chief demonstrations of which to be provided by other stronger arguments) then it follows that there is at least one mind which exists and isn’t physically realized. Moreover, if we can come to know that God exists (as I believe we can), then, plausibly, many of us do know of at least one mind which exists and isn’t physically realized.

    “To argue for a disembodied mind, you have to appeal to the attributes of all known minds, but one of the attributes of all known minds is dependence on a brain, so any argument for a disembodied mind will be inconsistent.” As we saw, not necessarily. I can make a distinction between conceptually necessary or ‘essential’ attributes, and non-essential ones. Just as Grass is non-essentially green, but essentially extended, so minds, in my submission, are essentially intentional (and so on) but are only non-essentially physical. Even if in the actual world every mind is physically realized, nothing of interest will follow conceptually, just as if every brain has a pinkish-grayish tint nothing of interest will follow conceptually.

    You say “Appealing to independent reasons to think that God exists is fine, provided they are good reasons, but then why do you need this argument in the first place?” Well, the more the merrier! I may be satisfied with a few demonstrations that God exists, that takes no fun out of exploring new arguments for the existence of God. If somebody believes on the basis of an argument which they recognize/believe to be sound (like a cosmological or ontological argument) that God exists, but also finds that the same arguments don’t persuade others around her, she may rightly go looking for other arguments in order to persuade her interlocutors. In fact, this is what philosophers do all the time. A philosopher believes X on the basis of some arguments A, and other philosophers reject A, so the philosopher who believes X on the basis of A goes hunting for more arguments to establish X (arguments, hopefully, which can persuade those she endeavors to persuade). That’s just common practice. Moreover, sometimes having a more impressive cumulative case is itself more persuasive. So, if I find myself sniffing out what may be another argument for what I already believe on the basis of other reasons, then I will jump at the chance to appropriate it. In fact, even if practically everyone agreed with me about some belief X, wouldn’t it be nice to have/explore yet another argument for it? I think it would, but then maybe that’s just why I am, after all, a philosopher.

    You also say “I don’t think near death or out of body experiences can really be taken seriously from a scientific perspective.” Here the question is an open one as far as I’m concerned. I’m not sure how to demarcate science from pseudo-science (that’s a complicated issue in the philosophy of science, and intuitive answers often fall short of justifying making the distinction along the lines we all want to make it). Moreover, I’m entirely open to non-scientific arguments (in fact, the arguments we’ve been discussing so far are all non-scientific (not to be confused with anti-scientific)). Finally, I think there may be some scientifically credible cases for out of body and/or near death experiences. I am not in any deep sense ‘committed’ to that claim, I only note it because I think it really might be true. Consider Dinesh D’Souza’s book “Life After Death: The Evidence” where there is a concerted effort to present good empirically respectable evidence for mental intentional conscious states which are not physically realized by corresponding brain states. For discussions on the evidence pro can con you can visit the following link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dinesh-dsouza/life-after-death-the-view_b_347412.html Notice that among those who have engaged with this kind of evidence we find the likes of Carl Sagan, Michael Persinger, and Ron Siegel; figures who would surely not bother interacting with the evidence at all were it not worth taking seriously. I want to acknowledge that Dinesh D’Souza is a strange reference for anything scientifically respectable, but I note that his work just reproduces the work of others like the physician Raymond Moody. All D’Souza has done is collect the evidence. Whether this evidence is any good is a question open for debate as far as I’m concerned, but it is at least ‘some’ kind of evidence, so we would be remiss if we ignored it entirely.

    Thanks again for your comments.

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