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From International Philosophical Quarterly, XX, 4, 1980, as reprinted in Philosophy of Religion, Brian Davies, ed. Oxford University Press, 2000, 239-41.  Compare this with Susanne K. Langer's, “‘First Cause’: A Nonsensical Notion,” elsewhere on this site.


Can There Be an Endless Regress of Causes?
James A. Sadowsky, S.J.


The operative principle in the Cosmological Argument is that if each cause of A were itself in need of a cause, then no cause of A could exist and hence A itself could not exist.  Since A does exist and does need a cause, it follows that not all of A’s causes are in need of a cause.  In other words the need for causes must come to an end: there must be or have been a cause that was not itself in need of a cause.

Kai Neilsen and a number of other philosophers such as Paul Edwards and Ronald Hepburn reject this argument.  They see no reason why an endless series of caused causes could not do the same job that is done by a series ending with an uncaused cause.  But let us hear Neilsen himself:

Why could there not be an infinite series of caused causes?  An infinite series is not a long or even a very, very long finite series.  The person arguing for an infinite series is not arguing for something that came from nothing, nor need he be denying that every event has a cause.  He is asserting that we need not assume that there is a first cause that started everything.  Only if the series were finite would it be impossible for there to be something if there were no first cause or uncaused cause.  But if the series were literally infinite, there would be no need for there to be a first cause to get the causal order started, for there would always be a causal order since an infinite series can have no first member . . . 1

The contention seems to be that if each member is supported by another member, the series will somehow be able to exist on its own.  And of course it would have to stand on its own because its very endlessness precludes the intervention of an outside cause.

But it is just as difficult for any supporting member to exist as the member it supports.  This brings back the question of how any member can do any causing unless it first exists.  B cannot cause A until B exists.  C cannot cause B until C exists, and C cannot cause until D bring it into existence.  What is true of D is equally true of E and F, without end.  Since each condition for the existence of A requires the fulfillment of a prior condition, it follows that none of them can ever be fulfilled. In each case what is offered as part of the solution turns out instead to be part of the problem.

How can Nielsen account for the independence of the series?  Since it is a closed system, the independence can come only from the members of the series.  By supposition, however, each member is wholly lacking in independence.  While in some cases collections have properties that its members, taken individually, do not have, the fact remains that they must be derived from their members.  Each member must have something of its own that it can contribute.  But in the case we are considering no member has anything of its own:  whatever it has is received from another.

No such problem arises in the case of a series whose first member is an uncaused cause.  Although all the other members are totally dependent, the series as a whole derives its independence from that one independent being.  In the same way we can say that the Universe (in the sense of “all that there is”) is independent because one of the beings that make it up (God) is independenteven though all the other things totally depend on him.2

If we reject the principle of the Cosmological Argument, we have to agree that nothing (including causes) can exist without a cause.  But if that makes sense, is not the following equally intelligible: “No one may do anything (including asking for permission) without asking for permission.”  Clearly there is no way in which this precept can be observed because there is no legitimate way of asking for permission.  The problem in both cases is that no condition can ever be met without the fulfillment of a preceding condition.  No permission may be asked for because each asking for permission requires a prior asking for permission.  Likewise, no causation can take place because each act of causation requires a prior act of causation.

Gilbert Ryle uses the same tactic to demolish what he calls The Intellectualist Legend.  Roughly, the principle that he is attacking amounts to saying: “Never do anything (including thinking) without first thinking about it.”  Of this he says:

The crucial objection to the intellectualist legend is this.  The consideration of propositions is itself an operation the execution of which can be more or less intelligent, less or more stupid.  But if, for any operation to be intelligently executed, a prior theoretical operation had first to be performed and performed intelligently, it would be a logical impossibility for anyone to break into the circle.


To put it quite generally, the absurd assumption made by the intellectualist legend is this, that a performance of any sort inherits all its title to intelligence from some anterior internal operation of planning what to do . . . By the original argument, therefore, our intellectual planning must inherit its title to shrewdness from yet another interior process of planning to plan, and this process in its turn cold be either silly or shrewd.  The regress is infinite, and this reduces to absurdity the theory that for an operation to be intelligent it must be steered by prior intellectual operation.  What distinguished sensible from silly operations is not their parentage but their procedure. . . .3

Ryle’s point is that if there is to be intellectual planning at all, there must have been at least one act that was not intellectually planned. If all intelligent action required to be intelligently planned, there could be no intelligent action: not everything can be intelligent because something else was intelligent.  Does not the same logic force us to say that not everything exists because something else exists? Must we not say that something exists in and of itself?

It seems to be that Nielsen has, perhaps without knowing it, advanced an argument which, if sound, would license any infinite regress.  Why not accept the intellectualist legend, for example?  All we have to do is postulate an infinity of acts of planning.  Pointing out that a theory involves an infinite regress has always been an important weapon in the philosophical armory.  The loss of this weapon to the rest of philosophy is too high a price to pay for the rejection of the Cosmological Argument.4

1 Kai Nielsen, Reason and Practice (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 171.  Cf. Edwards: “The Cosmological Argument” in Critiques of God, edit. Paul Angeles (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1976), pp. 4450 and Ronald Hepburn in “Cosmological Argument,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan Company, 1967).

2 It is in this sense that I can agree with Hepburn when he says: “John Laird’s suspicion seems justifiedthat while the world is indeed the theatre of causes and effects, we are not entitled to claim that it itself is an effect of some supercause.”  Hepburn, Christianity and Paradox (London:  Watts, 1958), p. 169.

3 Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1949), pp. 302.

4 The infinite regress argument will not, however, work for Humean causes.  For Hume to say that every event is caused by another event is to say little more than that every even is preceded by another event.  This statement does not involve an infinite regress because being preceded by an event is not a necessary condition for being an event.  The second ring of the doorbell could just as well have been the first. Humean causes are not necessary conditions and consequently he is not saying that every thing needs a cause.  Since he denies that there are any caused beings in our sense of “cause” he is perhaps unwittingly conceding that there is at least one uncaused being (in our sense).  This parallels his attempt to get rid of substances by putting qualities in their place, but all he succeeds in doing is transforming the qualities into so many substances.  Similarly here he gets rid of effects (in our sense), leaving only uncaused beings.

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