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St. Thomas Aquinas and uncaused first causes

  1. Oct 7, 2006 #1
    St. Thomas Aquinas and "uncaused first causes"

    My primitive understanding is that St. Thomas Aquinas, in discussing from a philosophical perspective the way things have come to be as they are, raised the necessity of there being an "uncaused first cause" at the beginning of any chain of cause and effect, no matter how long. He was offering a justification for his belief in God.

    I came across this philosophical argument in a recent article by Burton Richter on modern theoretical physics, at http://www.physicstoday.org/vol-59/iss-10/p8.html.

    I know little about "uncaused first causes", but I hope that the knowledgeable folk in this forum will be able to amplify and correct my perceptions, which are as follows:

    In the nineteenth century Philip Gosse proposed, in his book Omphalos, that the Earth had been created (perhaps in 4004 B.C. as bishop Ussher calculated) complete with all signs of an earlier existence, such as fossils. It could thus have sprung into existence --- as it were fully equipped to evolve and function as we have subsequently discovered it does.

    There is of course no real reason to fix such a creation at 4004 B.C. One might argue that it happened only five minutes, or a microsecond ago. We can't tell. This makes such "Omphalos Cosmology" look ridiculous in the eyes of folk who have a scientific perspective, like me.

    But when you boil it down, modern ideas about the "beginning" are similar, even when they are cast in the mould of our very persuasive Big Bang consensus. Here the long and complex causal chain of evolution starts with a statement something like: "In the beginning there was an inflaton field". Again, the stage is set by unknown means, mysteriously equipped for evolution to produce our present situation.

    The fact that we now understand (even if imperfectly) how both the universe we live in and ourselves subsequently evolved doesn't vitiate St. Thomas's arguments. I find it disturbing that modern cosmology is at heart only a souped-up version of "Omphalos Cosmology".

    A way out could be to realise that St. Thomas was no topologist. He was intimidated by the idea of an infinite regressing chain of cause and effect. But maybe the chain is a web, and the web is multiply connected and has no ends. What do the philosophy folk think?
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2006
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  3. Oct 8, 2006 #2


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    Hi oldman. The reference you provided is interesting, thanks for that. It really doesn't get into "uncaused first causes" very well though. I'm trying to understand the thrust of your thread, perhaps you could be more specific when you say, ".. the chain is a web, and the web is multiply connected and has no ends. " Along with your observation that time could have begun "only five minutes, or a microsecond ago. We can't tell," one could take that in a number of ways. For example, that it is improper to say the past is 'real' any more than it is to say the future is 'real'. Or perhaps that this universe has been here all along (the past and future are real) but something like string theory is correct and there are multiple dimensions. Could you be more explicit?

    A naturalist would only contend that the world is real and not governed by anything supernatural. We might add to that the reductionist concept of cause and effect which may or may not be a concept supported by nature. In fact, it is highly debatable. The concept that there is a beginning to the dimension we know as time is also highly contentious. So to add the concept there is an "uncaused beginning" is to combine two highly debatable concepts together.

    I'd agree that something like a "web" which is "multiply connected and has no ends" is a more realistic approach, and something that is certainly discussed in science. String theorists have suggested colliding branes for example, which would seem to be a theory about a multiply connected web with no ends. Other theories have also been proposed, and some have been ruled out. From what I understand about the philosophy of science though, I don't think there is any support for uncaused first causes. In fact, it seems to me most would accept some kind of web as you put it, the details of which we are unfortunately very far from understanding.
  4. Oct 9, 2006 #3
    That's true. It just provided a passing remark which led me to think that philosophers might have useful things to say about such matters. Thanks for your reply, which confirms this thought.

    I was trying to say that the argument of St. Thomas Aquinas, namely that any chain of cause and effect must start with an "uncaused cause", is somewhat simplistic, and that modern cosmology, like the suggestions of Philip Gosse, has a timeline whose beginning is quite arbitrary, whether it starts in 4004 B.C. or 13.7 billion years ago.

    Of course I don't know how to remove this this unsatisfactory arbitrariness -- but I think it ought to be recognised. My suggestion that cause-and-effect resembles a web, possibly with a multiply connected topology, more than a linear chain was pure speculation. I'm encouraged by your saying that this could be a "more realistic approach". But as you say, "we are unfortunately very far from understanding" such matters.

    I agree. I'm glad to know that there is a category of people who are "naturalists" and guess that I must be one.

    I'm relieved to hear about this lack of support. I'm afraid that I belong also to the category of folk who think that string theory is the purest baloney!
  5. Oct 9, 2006 #4
    Thanks very much for so clearly setting out the philosophical and historical development of ideas about such concepts for me.

    Yes, the concept of "uncaused cause" or, as you say "unmoved mover" was working its mischief with me. It seems to me that modern cosmology, in its attempts to understand "the beginning" (if there was one), still has this albatross around its neck. I was speculating that if cause and effect were like a web instead of a chain, one might not have to worry at all about the concept of unmoved mover.
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