The Argument from Efficient Causality

This is the second in a series of posts responding to a list of 20 arguments for the existence of god from this article. To be fair, the article does state that these arguments don’t make a case except when taken all together, using the metaphor of a rope, but I am analyzing them individually so I have responses when I encounter the argument later in other sources.

We notice that some things cause other things to be (to begin to be, to continue to be, or both). For example, a man playing the piano is causing the music that we hear. If he stops, so does the music.

Now ask yourself: Are all things caused to exist by other things right now? Suppose they are. That is, suppose there is no Uncaused Being, no God. Then nothing could exist right now. For remember, on the no-God hypothesis, all things need a present cause outside of themselves in order to exist. So right now, all things, including all those things which are causing things to be, need a cause. They can give being only so long as they are given being. Everything that exists, therefore, on this hypothesis, stands in need of being caused to exist.

Why do we need to suppose that? If there could be an uncaused being, why couldn’t there be uncaused things? I accept that most things in my experience are caused by other things, but my experience is necessarily limited. I know little about the rest of the universe, and nothing about the ultimate cause of the universe – and outside of the unfounded assumption that there must be one, neither do those who make this argument.

But caused by what? Beyond everything that is, there can only be nothing. But that is absurd: all of reality dependent—but dependent on nothing! The hypothesis that all being is caused, that there is no Uncaused Being, is absurd. So there must be something uncaused, something on which all things that need an efficient cause of being are dependent.

Suppose there exist things that aren’t caused to exist by other things.

Question 1: Why do we need an uncaused cause? Why could there not simply be an endless series of things mutually keeping each other in being?

Reply: This is an attractive hypothesis. Think of a single drunk. He could probably not stand up alone. But a group of drunks, all of them mutually supporting each other, might stand. They might even make their way along the street. But notice: Given so many drunks, and given the steady ground beneath them, we can understand how their stumblings might cancel each other out, and how the group of them could remain (relatively) upright. We could not understand their remaining upright if the ground did not support them—if, for example, they were all suspended several feet above it. And of course, if there were no actual drunks, there would be nothing to understand.

This brings us to our argument. Things have got to exist in order to be mutually dependent; they cannot depend upon each other for their entire being, for then they would have to be, simultaneously, cause and effect of each other. A causes B, B causes C, and C causes A. That is absurd. The argument is trying to show why a world of caused causes can be given—or can be there—at all. And it simply points out: If this thing can exist only because something else is giving it existence, then there must exist something whose being is not a gift. Otherwise everything would need at the same time to be given being, but nothing (in addition to “everything”) could exist to give it. And that means nothing would actually be.

This does answer why things cannot mutually keep each other in being, but we can’t know anything about an uncaused cause. Further, what does it mean to talk about the cause of time? Necessarily, speaking of causing something is speaking of it coming into existence at a point in time after having not existed in a point in time, so without time, nothing can be said to be caused in any way that makes semantic sense. We can argue that time has a beginning, but we don’t have the language to discuss what caused that, because that word depends on time.

Question 2: Why not have an endless series of caused causes stretching backward into the past? Then everything would be made actual and would actually be—even though their causes might no longer exist.

Reply: First, if the kalam argument (argument 6) is right, there could not exist an endless series of causes stretching backward into the past. But suppose that such a series could exist. The argument is not concerned about the past, and would work whether the past is finite or infinite. It is concerned with what exists right now.

We’ll deal with the kalam when we come across it, but I have not found it convincing in my last few encounters.

Even as you read this, you are dependent on other things; you could not, right now, exist without them. Suppose there are seven such things. If these seven things did not exist, neither would you. Now suppose that all seven of them depend for their existence right now on still other things. Without these, the seven you now depend on would not exist—and neither would you. Imagine that the entire universe consists of you and the seven sustaining you. If there is nothing besides that universe of changing, dependent things, then the universe—and you as part of it—could not be. For everything that is would right now need to be given being but there would be nothing capable of giving it. And yet you are and it is. So there must in that case exist something besides the universe of dependent things—something not dependent as they are.

And if it must exist in that case, it must exist in this one. In our world there are surely more than seven things that need, right now, to be given being. But that need is not diminished by there being more than seven. As we imagine more and more of them—even an infinite number, if that were possible—we are simply expanding the set of beings that stand in need. And this need—for being, for existence—cannot be met from within the imagined set. But obviously it has been met, since contingent beings exist. Therefore there is a source of being on which our material universe right now depends.

I’m not entirely convinced I’m understanding this argument, because if I am, it’s ridiculously absurd. I think it is saying that causes for existence of a thing (Bob, for instance) must exist or Bob could not exist. However, the primary cause of Bob’s existence is his parents. Does Bob cease to exist if his parents do? No, of course not. Therefore, a cause need not still exist for contingent beings to exist.

This seems to be an argument that tells us nothing. We might accept that there is a source of being, but that could just as easily be the laws of physics working in the pre-universe as anything else. Indeed, as the Big Bang is the beginning of time as we know it, and it is not coherent to discuss causality before then, it is reasonable to claim that the Big Bang is the efficient cause of everything in the universe.

4 thoughts on “The Argument from Efficient Causality

  1. I think you have some pretty good responses to this specific argument. We don’t need to suppose anything about the nature of how things come into existence (that we don’t know about) when we think of a universal scale, and if we do, we’re probably wrong. An unfounded assumption based on whether or not the universe has a cause based on what appears to be a fallacy of composition, between the universe and things within the universe, is not compelling.

    A lot of these kinds of arguments conflate these things, though, and once I see the two distinct issues treated as selfsame, such as the conflation of abiogenesis, evolution, and sometimes cosmology, I designate that argument as flawed and incoherent. It saves me time, but it’s more-or-less the same bad argument repeated ad nauseam.

    Actually, related to that, I ran into a copy of “Darwin’s Doubt” at the bookstore and thumbed through it. There were a lot of…questionable claims that caught my eye, and upon some research found that the author of the book was actually misrepresenting the studies he used as his sources and conflated, again, abiogenesis with evolution.

    Anyway, going back to the first quoted portion, they make the assumption that there is no first cause and then the bald assertion that nothing could exist. As you point out, if there can be an uncaused being, why not an uncaused object? There is just as much justification to make the latter assumption as the former.

    “Beyond everything that is, there can only be nothing.”

    WHOA! How do you know? What do you mean by “everything that is” and what do you mean by “nothing?” Is “everything that is” limited to that which can only exist within our universe or everything that can exist in every possible universe? I mean, either way, this statement raises questions for me because it’s a claim that’s so far beyond our scope of knowledge that we can only make assumptions.

    I’m not actually convinced that “efficient causes” are still relevant. Aristotle again. Boy they sure so love him. But why should I accept that the universe needs an efficient cause? Why couldn’t it be a material cause? How do they know it isn’t? Just asking…

    “We can argue that time has a beginning, but we don’t have the language to discuss what caused that, because that word depends on time.”

    Yeah! Also, it feels like another fallacy of composition. Is time something which has a cause? I mean, this reminds me of a previous discussion of untime and how something can exist simultaneously without time. The discussion devolved into one side making incoherent arguments using a vocabulary dependent on time (simultaneity is inherently existing within time). And then when pressed about how you can use a vocabulary dependent on time to describe things which are outside of time, the discussion moved on to semantic trickery involving different definitions of words that made no sense in the context of time/untime to try to skirt the inconsistencies.

    I mean, it might be somewhat facetious but my previous argument about unup not being the same as down holds here, I think. Unup is not equivalent to down as untime is not equivalent to…what? What is a positive property associated with timelessness? Up has down, timeless has…what? Describing what is isn’t isn’t describing what it is. I am not a cheetah, nor do I photosynthesize. That’s all you need to know about me. So what about untime? What, actually, is it and how can something cause something else “in” untime?

    The Kalam itself doesn’t make the argument that there can’t be infinite past causes itself, really. I mean, it kind of does, but you need a bit extra to make it seem reasonable. Like Craig’s bad usage of the Hilbert Hotel Paradox and the rejection of “actual infinities” based on arguments from incredulity. More to the point, do you treat past events as objects which exist or not? I think that question, largely unanswered (or lacking an answer, which it does) undermines all of it. If past events are not actually existing things but now, in the “present” no longer exist–well, then, you can have as many as you want. As far as I remember, Craig is a kind of presentist so I don’t know how he escapes the implications of past events not actually existing now.

    “And if it must exist in that case, it must exist in this one.”


    I mean, these arguments use hypothetical “other worlds” or “other universes” to make points about this one and I NEVER find these convincing since these “other worlds” can be whatever you want them to be.

    But, um…efficient causes are causes with agency, so they big bang can’t be an efficient cause. Which is why I ask why the universe needs an efficient cause, which is pretty much taken-for-granted assumption in this argument.

    1. “efficient causes are causes with agency, so they big bang can’t be an efficient cause”

      Fair enough, I suppose, but as you say, why should we assume the universe needs an efficient cause?

  2. I think one of the biggest, most ironic problems with the Argument from Efficient Causality is the fact that it completely ignores its own implications for Material Causality. It is ironic because, as strongly as theists (especially of the Abrahamic faiths) argue that the universe must have had an Efficient Cause, they also often argue that the universe did NOT have a Material Cause (the doctrine of “creatio ex nihilo”).

    All of the arguments such theists makes for the necessity of an Efficient Cause apply equally to a Material Cause. Therefore, it would follow that if they are correct about the one, they must be incorrect about the other.

    One of the best explorations of this idea that I’ve seen comes from Theoretical Bullshit’s channel on YouTube:

    1. Thanks for that video! I enjoy Theoretical Bullshit’s work (he’s one of the only people with just him talking whose videos I will watch) but had not seen that one before.

      I also had not thought of that objection, so thanks for bringing it up!

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