First cause argument and God


I have heard St. Thomas Aquinas’ argument for the existence of God known as the Prime Mover argument, basically asserting that God is the first cause that was itself not caused. I remember being in an apologetics group in college and this argument was brought up. One of the atheists who attended that group admitted the need for a first cause, but asked the question, why does the first cause have to be God? Is it really necessary that this first cause be a rational, intelligent thinking being that is all powerful and has a will and gives purpose to things?

My argument would be that in order for rational animals (like humans) to exist, things like intelligence, meaning and purpose would have to pre-exist the existence of those animals, and even the universe since this “rational-ness” exists within our material world; in other words, if it did not pre-exist then there would be no basis for rational, thinking humans to emerge from an unthinking, unfeeling material universe. But I know this argument is probably incomplete. I want to hear what you guys have to say, or what Aquinas said about the matter (unfortunately I do not currently have the time to pore over his massive Summae).

I suspect Thomas’ point that you are looking for is that you can’t have “more” in the effect than exists in the cause. That is an aspect of the sufficiency of explanation. An effect cannot be explained by a cause or causes unless the cause(s) sufficiently explain the effect.

The existence of a computer, for example, only makes sense if the components, software, OS, etc., are sufficiently explained by whatever brought the computer into existence. Absent the sufficiency of explanations, the need to give a plausible accounting for anything just falls apart.

  1. Maybe souls are eternal

  2. Maybe souls result when the proper parts are together, the sum being greater than the parts

  3. Maybe the forces of the universe could create souls ex niliho

The argument of the First Way is an argument for contingency UNLESS one accepts that time and less than spiritual things could NOT be eternal

Except that souls are active agents. When was the last time you witnessed the sum controlling the parts?

And, yes, I have read Douglas Hofstadter.

They could be passive until united to a body in time, and as Kant says maybe go dormant after death.

As I quoted on another thread a few weeks ago, Aquinas believed non-human life came out of “the elements”. Think of two chemicals that do nothing by themselves, but foam and fuzz when put together. Perhaps life is that like. Many people have faith in the brain.

I am a Catholic though and have faith in spiritual things. I can’t prove their is another life though. Aquinas talks a lot, but he has very few hard and fast demonstrations

You do not have time to " pour over the Summa " but you expect us to do the work for you and explain it in the limited number of bites available here? Doesn’t seem like a reasonable suggestion. I suggest you simply stick with what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, linked below. Both the Summa and the Catechism say you are wrong in your thinking.


If we’re talking the argument of the first cause, I think Bertrand Russel’s comments on it are important.

“If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.” The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination.”

I don’t think Russel is being charitable to the Christian in his argument, but I think he brings out an important part after the turtle anecdote. It’s easy to say that everything needs to have a cause. (And I know people want to exclude God from the everything out of the necessity) But it is not incoherent to say that if there need be something that’s uncaused, then that thing can be the world. To answer his last sentence with “well everything we see has a beginning” isn’t a very strong argument. Induction, and etc.

People who has had true religious experiences find those arguments just silly, although they on the other hand just have experience to share with the doubters.

People who have had a true religious experience, I would think, don’t need a proof of God. Theologically I guess the argument might seem silly. Philosophically they shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s a valid criticism against the idea of a first cause.

Once you start talking about the specific kinds of things that can be created by the first cause you’re more in the territory of the argument from design than the argument from first cause

But as for the first cause, you could argue that it’s unlikely to be a physical thing, because what could a physical thing do if neither the laws of physics nor time exist yet? The first cause has to be something that doesn’t need to have any “rules” in order to work.

The problem with Russell’s rebuttle is that he is arguing aginst a straw man. Aristotle and Aquinas, whom Russell was arguing against, never taught that everything had a cause. They argued only that due to the potency - act, hylomorphic structure of the material world, that material substances had to have a cause, and that this necessitated that the cause of their existnece required a cause which was utterly simple, uncaused, eternal, intelligent, all powerful, and, thus, not a part of the material universe.

On top of this there are huge problems with the materialist philosophy of nature, which make this solution most unlikely. To accept it, one has to explain how the material universe can give rise to immaterial realities such as the intellectual soul of man. And there is the problem of the sufficient reason for the existence of the universe. To say, as Russell would have said, that it is just a " bald fact " is intellectually unsatisfactory.


No, ”Russel’s [sic] comments" on the first cause argument are not “important,” unless by “important” you mean promulgating an absurd interpretation of what the argument actually says, your rendering of which shows you haven’t actually engaged with any of the classic versions of the argument that have been endorsed by serious thinkers through the ages.

Edward Feser’s repeated treatments of this folly sum up beautifully why a great deal of modern “thought” on the subject is so hare-brained.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Warburton performs the usual ritual of criticizing the stupid “Everything has a cause etc.” version of the First Cause argument – a “version” which, of course, no one has ever actually defended. (Or, for you pedants out there, in case your Pastor Bob once taught it to you at Sunday school: a “version” which none of the many well-known philosophers who have endorsed the First Cause argument has ever actually defended.) That much would, perhaps, not be particularly noteworthy. This preposterous straw man litters both introductory philosophy textbooks and “New Atheist” pamphlets like the droppings stray neighborhood cats keep leaving on my lawn; and I have already declaimed upon the contemptible dishonesty of its use by pop atheists – and, most disgracefully, by many professional philosophers too – ad nauseam (e.g. here and here).

But Warburton ups the ante. Our man is not satisfied to leave his readers with the false impression that some actual theistic philosopher has ever argued “Everything has a cause; so the universe has an uncaused cause, namely God.” After all, a charitable reader might naturally, and quite rightly, think to respond: “Surely none of the defenders of this argument really said ‘everything’ – that would just be too obviously self-contradictory!” No, as if to forestall such a retort, Warburton assures us that “The First Cause Argument states that absolutely everything has been caused by something else prior to it,” that “The First Cause Argument begins with the assumption that every single thing was caused by something else,” and that the argument crucially assumes “that there can be no uncaused cause” (emphasis mine). Naturally, Warburton has no trouble “showing” that the defender of the First Cause Argument contradicts himself when he goes on to assert that God is an uncaused cause.

Strangely, Warburton provides no citations for this argument. Or not so strangely, since, as I have said, no defender of the First Cause argument has ever actually given it – not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne, and not anyone else, as far as I know. Somehow, though, attacking this ridiculous caricature was judged by Warburton to be a more useful way of introducing his readers to the First Cause argument than presenting the actual views of any the great thinkers who’ve defended it. Wonder why.


Do yourself a favour and read the blog posts on the subject by Feser (link above) or, better still, read Aquinas on the matter. You will notice quite quickly that Russell’s representation is more of a misrepresentation than an actual engagement with the argument.

The above is directly responded to by Feser, here:

And by DavidM in the combox of that blogpost.

@Jason: Agreed, Russell does not offer a straw man (that I can see).

I think we can expand Russell’s argument as follows:

“If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.”
(Ec > Gc)

Then implied:
Therefore ~Ec
Therefore Su (some thing(s) can be uncaused)

“If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.”
(Su > (Gu v Wu)) & (Gu > Wu)

And it’s that last bit that it seems Russell and Parsons have failed to actually think about. **Certainly it seems rather absurd to just assume that if God can be uncaused, then the world can be uncaused, but that assumption seems to be the whole substance of their argument.
…and their final conclusion is:
~(Su > Gu)
~(Ex(Ux) > nec.)

Called “the worst objection ever” to theism…

Mm. Haven’t had this much hostility in awhile. I guess let me start by saying that I’m not trying to object to theism. I’m floating a problem raised by a very important philosopher. If anything, I’d love to see the arguments for God STRENGTHENED. I’ve been looking for a long time for one that I can accept. Proofs for God is what got me interested in philosophy in the first place. I’ve never once on the CA Forums tried to persuade anyone against God, or that their conception of God is wrong or unfounded. I would never try to make that argument to anyone. But what I will do is say when I see problems with an argument that’s put forward.

So I wandered around on Feser’s blog (plenty of bile there too, I swear, I didn’t mean to touch a nerve) and I think the best quote I found to show why everyone has an objection to Russell’s passage is this: “For none of them maintain in the first place that absolutely everything has a cause; what they say instead is that the actualization of a potential requires a cause, or that what comes into existence requires a cause, or that contingent things require a cause, or the like. Nor do they fail to offer principled reasons for saying that God does not require a cause even though other things do. For they say, for example, that the reason other things require a cause is that they have potentials that need actualization, whereas God, being pure actuality, has no potentials that could be actualized

I put the last part in bold because I want to address that first. I purposely cut out the part from Russell where he talks about asking ‘who made God?’ because I wanted to try and avoid calling that into question. Russell’s objection presupposes that SOMETHING can be eternal and uncreated (“There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all”) so what I take from him is not that God NEEDS to have a cause if everything has a cause. I take from him that if something needs to be uncaused, why not the world?

This is the part that Feser says the First Cause Arguments ACTUALLY says. (As well as what I was trying to get at in the first place. I should have been more clear) There needs to be an argument why the world (the universe) can’t satisfy those criteria - for instance, why the world can’t be necessary.

Or, from Peter Kreeft: “Why must there be a first cause? Because if there isn’t, then the whole universe is unexplained, and we have violated our Principle of Sufficient Reason for everything. If there is no first cause, each particular thing in the universe is explained in the short run, or proximately, by some other thing, but nothing is explained in the long run, or ultimately, and the universe as a whole is not explained. Everyone and everything says in turn, “Don’t look to me for the final explanation. I’m just an instrument. Something else caused me.” If that’s all there is, then we have an endless passing of the buck. God is the one who says, “The buck stops here.””

But then why can’t Russell respond with “The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination.” Why CAN’T the universe explain itself? Why can’t the buck stop with the universe? The answer I can give is “because of science”, but, when we’re talking about a subject like this I think that is an unsatisfying answer. We can also talk about act and potentiality, or form and matter but I think Aristotle’s ontology has its own questions to deal with.

I’ll close this post by saying that these problems can definitely be answered. Plenty of clever philosophers have said they address these worries. And clearly, for a lot of people, they do address these worries. I’ll say, for my own experience, the answers I’ve found aren’t very satisfying - they rely on ontologies that I find unnecessary. (I’ve read and wrote on Aristotle more than any other philosopher - I’m not expert but I think I have a firm grasp of the basics) But if they work for you, I say go for it. There’s no need to be rude about it.

Well, no. There needs to be an argument for why the universe could plausibly be considered to be necessary. Aquinas and Aristotle give compelling reasons (though not well-understood) for why God is necessary, but just to ask “Why, then can’t the world be necessary?” is not an argument (which was DavidM’s combox point.)

The question, “If God is necessary, then why couldn’t the world be?” amounts to: “If human beings can think, then why can’t plants or rocks?” It completely leaves untouched the issue of what might logically be required for anything to think or be necessary in the first place. Why, then, aren’t unicorns, teapots in space or flying spaghetti monsters necessary? If anyone seriously proposes that they could be, that would be an indicator that imagination rather than rigorous logic forms the basis of their metaphysical world view. (Hume’s problem.)

Rudeness and bile, may, like Russell’s teapot, be easy to imagine, but their actual existence is another story. You may not appreciate what is being said or how, but those are quite different matters from the substance. You may find Feser’s (and my) direct approach offensive and off-putting, but that does not entail the points are not true.

We live in a culture where all kinds of poisonous ideas are packaged in fragrant, sweet or appealing wrappings. Doesn’t make them less toxic. In fact, it is a good intellectual exercise to get beyond the, otherwise, crusty outer linings to the kernel within. It challenges superficiality and “judging by mere appearances.” That is, if you have the self-discipline and stamina for such things. Personally, I find Feser refreshing.

Surely, you aren’t advocating dismissing ideas merely because those proposing them happen to be offensive to your sensitivities or exhibit a crusty exterior, are you? That would be superficial, no?

This is on the belief that the world could not be eternal. Most of these guys on here don’t believe that.

Linus, my earlier post on this thread gives reasons why there would be the human psyche or soul in the universe even if there were no God

No need to be rude. I was posting here to generate discussion and to listen to people who are more knowledgeable about the topic than I am. What part of my way of thinking is wrong according to the Summa and the Catechism, and why?

But the point that Thomas makes is that all things we know require a cause, so there must be something (or someone) outside of the natural world that is cause itself and is the first cause that began all things.

Don’t you think you are being over sensitive? You admitted you just couldn’t be bothered about spending time on the Summa. And my response remains the same, the answers are in the Summa. If that is too difficult, then just accept the teaching of the Catechism about God, faith, and morality. In the end that is what we have to do any way. But if you have a particular problem with Aquinas’a arguments, fire away. What is it you don’t understand?

Linus2nd. .

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