Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From The Practice of Philosophy, Henry Holt and Company, 1930, 62-65.  Here is the text of the foot-note that spans the three cited pages.  It is appended to this passage, which appears on page 62: “Why, then, should we be necessarily debarred from knowledge of the first cause of the world?  The an-swer is, that the notion of ‘first cause’ is self-defeating, i.e., nonsensical.”  Thus the source of the title I have given this note.  It should be compared with James Sadowsky’s argument to the alleged ab-surdity of an actual infinite regress.  I hope one day soon to compare these two arguments with respect to their bearing on the classical cosmological argu-ment for the existence of God.

Anthony Flood

April 21, 2008


“First Cause”: A Nonsensical Notion

Susanne K. Langer


A more detailed analysis of the notion is necessarily involved, but instructive, wherefore I will attempt to state it here.

To say that any event—let us call it A—is the cause of another event, B, means that (1) A precedes B in point of time, and (2) if A had not occurred, then B would not have occurred either. Usually, though not necessarily, it connotes contigu-ity of the two events; but we shall pass over this feature as unessential and debatable.  Further, the causal relation is transitive—i.e. if A is the cause of B and B is the cause of an event C, then A is indirectly a cause of C.  It seems at first sight as though we should be able to count back from any event, n, to the cause of n and the cause of the cause of n—from B-the-cause-of-C to A-the-cause-of-B, till we come to some event which generated the whole series and is thus to be regarded as the first cause. (Note that the search for the first cause of the world entails the belief that there is only one such cause, so that, if there be more than one causal chain, then all causal chains meet in a common first term.)

But before we try to determine which event in such a series is the first, let us consider whether any sense at all can attach to the expression “first cause,” that is, whether we really can mean anything by that phrase, or not.

The causal series is a series of events ranged in the order of “before” and “after,” that is, in the same order as minutes, seconds, or any other units we assume in our usual conception of time.  (Neither the philosophical difficulties of space and time, nor their solution by Einstein, need disturb us in our traditional reckoning of time, in this connection.)  Events in this order, in fact, are correlated to temporal moments. The event, or condition prevailing at any moment, is the effect of the condition of some moment past. Note that the condition prevailing at a moment, A, may be just like that prevailing at a later moment, B; then B is what it is because this condition prevailed at the previous moment A, and there has been no change.  It is only on the assumption that such a causal relation is possible, that we can set up the scientist’s faith that every event has a cause.  A body once in motion remains in motion unless it is stopped; barring such stoppage, the cause of its motion at any moment of its course is its motion at a closely preceding moment.

Now, consider the “first cause”; this is an event, or condition (“conditions” are events of the continu-ous sort, where no change is taking place) which is not preceded by any other.  To say that some event, A, is the first, excludes the possibility that it was generated from a previous condition which in its turn “always was,” or was “eternal.”  An eternal condition is a series of events without change of character. The condition at any moment determines that of the later one, perhaps only as “unchanged.”  A “first event” is not preceded at all. There is no “moment before.”  It must correspond to the first moment of time.

But can there be a first moment of time?  Time is an infinite progression, or an infinite regression, according to the direction in which we choose to go from any moment.  If we would conceive of a limiting term in the regression, this would be at infinity; if the first moment, then, is that lower limit, its place in the series is at infinity.  But there is no such place as infinity, in any series ”infinity” is only a convenient name given to the “open” end of the series.  Given any event at the present moment, anyone of its causes is a definite number of steps away in the series.  There is no moment which has no predeces-sor, hence no actual event which can be correlated to such a moment.  The fact is that “before” and “after” are words which have meaning only within the time-system, so that to speak of what “came before” the time-series is nonsense.  Only things in time may have a beginning, because the word “beginning” presupposes the time-system.  To speak of the beginning of time is a vicious circle.  Likewise when we speak of a cause we are referring to some link in the causal chain; the chain of causes and effects is the world; to ask for the cause of the chain, or, the cause of the world, is analogous to asking for the beginning of time.  “Cause” has significance only in the world.  The “boundary of space” is another illustration of the same fallacy, because “boundary” has meaning only for things in space.

Langer main page