What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Straw men and terracotta armies

Every academic philosopher solemnly teaches his students never to commit the straw man fallacy. And yet relentlessly committing it oneself anyway is almost a grand tradition within certain precincts of our discipline. As readers of The Last Superstition are aware, most of what the average contemporary secular philosopher thinks he “knows” about the traditional arguments of natural theology and natural law theory is nothing but a hodgepodge of ludicrous caricatures, and the standard “objections” to these arguments, widely considered fatal, in fact have no force whatsoever. If such philosophers’ continued employment depended on demonstrating some rudimentary knowledge of (for example) the actual views of Thomas Aquinas, many of them would be selling pencils.

Consider this breathtaking example from an introductory book on philosophy:

The most important version of the first cause argument comes to us from Thomas Aquinas (1225-74).

The argument runs like this: everything that happens has a cause, and that cause itself has a cause, and that cause too has a cause, and so on and so on, back into the past, in a series that must either be finite or infinite. Now if the series is finite is [sic] must have had a starting point, which we may call the first cause. This first cause is God.

What if the series is infinite? Aquinas after some consideration eventually rejects the possibility that the world is infinitely old and had no beginning in time. Certainly the idea of time stretching backwards into the past forever is one which the human mind finds hard to grasp… Still we might note here that Aristotle found no difficulty in [this] idea. He held that the world has existed forever. Aristotle’s opinion, if correct, invalidates the first cause argument.

[From Jenny Teichman and Katherine C. Evans, Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide, Second edition (Blackwell, 1995), p. 22.]

Now, I don’t need to tell you what’s wrong with this, right?

Maybe I do. Teichman and Evans are not liars, after all; they just don’t know any better. And if this is true of two professional philosophers, it’s bound to be true of many non-experts. Explaining everything that is wrong with this travesty of Aquinas would take several pages, and since you can find those pages in The Last Superstition, I direct the interested reader there. But very briefly: Aquinas nowhere in his case for God’s existence argues that the world had a beginning in time; indeed, he rather famously argues that it cannot be proved that it had such a beginning. Nor was he unfamiliar with Aristotle’s views on this subject, given that Aquinas was – again, rather famously – probably the greatest Aristotelian after Aristotle himself, and the author of many lengthy commentaries on The Philosopher’s works. What Aquinas seeks to show in all of his arguments for God’s existence is not the existence of a first cause who operated at some point in the distant past to get the world going, but rather one who is operating here and now, and at any moment at which the universe exists at all, to keep the world going. And part of his point is that the existence of such a God is something that can be proved even if the universe has always existed. (He did not actually believe it has always existed, mind you; he just didn’t get into the issue for the purposes of arguing for God’s existence.)

I don’t mean to pick on Teichman and Evans. Indeed, I have profited from some of Teichman’s work, and I enjoyed her occasional contributions to The New Criterion back when she was writing for them several years ago. But this is not a mere slip of the pen. This is a basic failure to make sure one knows what one is talking about before writing on something of major importance. The reason Teichman and Evans could get away with it is that so many other philosophers get away with it routinely, and no one calls them on it. (Here’s a set of errors, by the way – far more egregious and undeniable than any error allegedly made in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization – that Blackwell not only didn’t threaten to pulp the book over, but even left in the second edition!)

There are surely hundreds or even thousands of philosophers who think Aquinas is guilty of various fallacies because they simply don’t understand what his arguments are really about. And there are surely many more thousands of non-philosophers – including the students of the ignorant philosophers in question, and the readers of their works – who think the same thing. Widespread errors of this sort are an enormous part of the reason atheism has the respectability it has come to have. As I argue in TLS – indeed, as I claim to demonstrate there – atheism could not possibly have this status if most people who have an opinion on the traditional theistic arguments really knew what they were talking about. To be sure, there would still in that case be atheists (though far fewer of them); but they would know that the arguments on the other side are, at the very least, very challenging indeed.

The straw man argument is quite powerful, then – not logically, of course, but rhetorically. Indeed, it is especially powerful in the hands of philosophers, for unwary readers will naturally assume that a philosopher will be careful to have avoided fallacies, and will understand the philosophical ideas he is criticizing. Still, the traditional straw man has its limits. For there’s always the chance that someone will call attention to the real man. In the case of Aquinas, this has, thankfully, started to happen. Given the increase of interest in medieval philosophy over the last few decades, some awareness of what Aquinas really meant is starting, very slowly, to creep into the work of at least philosophers of religion who write on his arguments for God’s existence. It may take another decade or two, but we will hopefully get to the point where a passage like the one from Teichman and Evans wouldn’t pass the laugh test of any academic philosophy editor or referee anywhere, any more than would (say) a reference to Quine as a Thomist or to Nozick as a Marxist. And maybe a decade or two beyond that, the news will finally reach ignorant non-philosopher hacks like Richard Dawkins.

Even more powerful than this sort of straw man, however, is the sort that is not directed at any specific real man at all – a kind of free floating caricature of no one in particular, which can be associated or disassociated from particular targets as the rhetorical need of the moment calls for. Take what everyone “knows” to be the “basic” Cosmological Argument for God’s existence: Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause, namely God. This argument is notoriously bad: If everything has a cause, then what caused God? And if God needn’t have had a cause, why must the universe have one? Etc. The thing is, not one of the best-known defenders of the Cosmological Argument in the history of philosophy ever gave this stupid argument. 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, for that matter, not anyone else either, as far as I know. And yet it is constantly presented, not only by popular writers but also by professional philosophers, as if it were “the” “basic” version of the cosmological argument, and as if every other version were essentially just a variation on it.

Don’t believe me? Of course you do. Anyone who has ever taken a PHIL 101 course has heard this argument triumphantly refuted and quickly brushed aside so that the instructor could move on to the “philosophically serious” stuff.

In case there are any doubters, though, let’s look at a few examples. Here’s one from a New Atheist doorstop-sized pamphlet:

The Cosmological Argument… in its simplest form states that since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause – namely God… [But then] what caused God? The reply that God is self-caused (somehow) then raises the rebuttal: If something can be self-caused, why can’t the universe as a whole be the thing that is self-caused?

[From Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006), p. 242.]

“Well, come on,” you’re thinking, “that’s cheating. It’s Dennett! What did you expect, intellectual honesty and competence vis-à-vis religion?”

OK, then, here’s another one, from an introductory text on the philosophy of religion, no less:

The basic cosmological argument

1. Anything that exists has a cause of its existence.
2. Nothing can be the cause of its own existence.
3. The universe exists.

Therefore: The universe has a cause of its existence which lies outside the universe.

[From Robin Le Poidevin, Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Routledge, 1996), p. 4]

Curious title, that. Imagine a book called Arguing for Conservatism: An Introduction to Political Philosophy. Think Routledge would publish it? Me neither.

But precisely for that reason, some might think that this example too is unrepresentative. The guy’s writing a book to promote atheism, after all, even if (unlike Dennett) he actually knows something about philosophy of religion. So here’s one further example, from a book on logic, a subject one would think is as objective and free of partisanship as is humanly possible:

It’s a natural assumption that nothing happens without an explanation: people don’t get ill for no reason; cars don’t break down without a fault. Everything, then, has a cause. But what could the cause of everything be? Obviously, it can’t be anything physical, like a person; or even something like the Big Bang of cosmology. Such things must themselves have causes. So it must be something metaphysical. God is the obvious candidate.

This is one version of an argument for the existence of God, often called the Cosmological Argument.

[From Graham Priest, Logic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2000), at pp. 21-2.]

Examples could easily be multiplied. A cursory inspection of the bookshelves here in my study turns up Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, and Simon Blackburn’s Think as further examples of books earnestly presenting the “Everything has a cause” argument as if it were something that actual philosophical advocates of the Cosmological Argument have historically defended.

(Blackburn, incidentally, has made the attacking of straw men something of a second career. In a review of a book of essays by Elizabeth Anscombe some years back, he peddled some stale caricatures of natural law theory. In his book on Plato’s Republic, he throws in several gratuitous, and indeed bizarre, references to neo-conservatives as disciples of Thrasymachus and advocates of cynical “realpolitik” – perhaps less a straw man than an outright smear, since the usual caricature of neo-conservatives paints them as naïve Wilsonian democratic idealists. Anyway, if Blackburn is looking for some imperative to use as a title for a sequel to Think, he might consider something like Repeat Clichés Fashionable Among Liberal Academics.)

The obvious “So what caused God, then?” rejoinder is usually made next (as in Dennett), though sometimes some other obvious objection is raised. For example, Martin asks “How do we know the first cause is God?” Slightly more creatively, Priest suggests that the argument commits a quantifier shift fallacy. (Even if everything does have a cause it does not follow that there is something that is the cause of everything.)

Now some of these writers go on to acknowledge that there are other and more sophisticated forms of the argument. In fact, Le Poidevin even admits that “no-one has defended a cosmological argument of precisely this form” (!) So why bother with it?

Well, here’s one possibility: Because, though shooting this fish in its barrel accomplishes exactly zip logically speaking, rhetorically the atheist’s battle against the Cosmological Argument is half-won by the time the unwary reader moves on to the next chapter. By effectively insinuating that the argument’s defenders must surely be a pretty stupid or at least intellectually dishonest bunch, anything you represent them as saying afterward, no matter how intrinsically interesting or philosophically powerful, is bound to seem anticlimactic, a desperate attempt at patching the gigantic holes in a pathetically weak case. Dennett, admitting that there are more sophisticated versions of the argument, suggests that only those with a taste for “ingenious nitpicking about the meaning of ‘cause’” and “the niceties of scholastic logic” would find them of any interest. Why waste time addressing them, then? And so he doesn’t. What the greatest defenders of the Cosmological Argument have actually said doesn’t matter. Poking holes in an argument that “no-one has defended” is enough to refute them.

As I have said, this is more effective than the usual “straw man” argument precisely because there is no “real man” being criticized. It isn’t strictly a distortion of anything any specific philosopher has actually defended. If you say “Hey, Aquinas [or Aristotle, Leibniz, or Maimonides, or whomever] never said anything like that!” the atheist can always reply “I never said he did – no straw man fallacy here! I’m just talking about, you know, the Cosmological Argument in general.” And yet somehow, the mud still sticks to Aquinas, Leibniz, Maimonides, and Co. anyway. It’s as if, in place of a single straw man, the atheist has constructed an entire field filled with straw men, in one fell swoop. Or, to shift analogies, instead of attacking the formidable Cosmological Argument army made up of the philosophical giants listed above, the atheist has decided to take on instead a clay or terracotta army of the sort the first Chinese emperor had buried with him. His “victory” is hollow, but since most readers wouldn’t know the real army from the clay one, it seems very real indeed.

If you’re a secularist reader having trouble working up much outrage over this, consider the following analogy. Suppose some conservative suggested in a book called Arguing for Chastity: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Sex that the following is “the basic argument” for the moral legitimacy of homosexual acts:

1. All sexual activity is good.
2. Homosexual acts are a kind of sexual activity.
3. So homosexual acts are good.

Suppose he then went on to point out that this is a terrible argument, that it would justify rape, adultery, child molestation, etc. And suppose further that he also acknowledged that “no-one has defended an argument of precisely this form” but claimed that it was somehow nevertheless a good starting point from which to assess the morality of homosexual acts, giving the impression that everything else actual liberals have ever said about the subject was essentially a desperate attempt to patch up this feeble argument.

I submit that any defender of liberal views about sex would consider this an outrage. And rightly so. But the way a great many philosophers present arguments like the Cosmological Argument is not one whit less outrageous.

And yet generations of philosophers have been formed in their thinking about religion by works taking this sort of dishonest (or at least woefully uninformed) rhetorical approach, not only where the Cosmological Argument is concerned (this is just one example) but also where other arguments for religion are concerned, and where arguments for traditional views about sex are concerned too, for that matter. The result is that lots of people who think they more or less know what the basic arguments are vis-à-vis these subjects know nothing of the kind. And as one of their number likes to say, the less they know, the less they know it.

Comments (24)

I tend to think strawmen are so prevalent because it is nearly impossible to simply refute many, if not most, of the canonized thinkers. Critique, yes, point out their limitations, yes, but refute? It doesn't happen. Even Kant didn't actually refute anyone. Neither did Hegel. Heck, even Nietzsche wouldn't have claimed to have refuted any of the serious Christian thinkers.

But hey, we've all got to kill the previous guy to make room for our own thoughts. Hence, strawmen presentations of thoughts (like your cosmological argument) or of thinkers (Derrida is a nihilist, doncha know)

Terrific post!

Good post, Ed.

A couple of things: first, I think you could easily write an enjoyable series of posts pointing out straw men (or non-men) arguments in texts that are ostensibly introductions to philosophy. In my experience with ones that aren't anthologies, but are simply authors' presentations in simpler, easier-to-grasp words, there are lots of really bad arguments. Though, honestly, maybe it's always just been presentations of the cosmological argument.

That said, I know of one person, at least, who has advanced the "basic" cosmological argument: me, when I was fifteen or so. The criticisms of it didn't occur to me, I think because I wanted the conclusion (which I for some reason thought was "therefore, God (of traditional theism) exists") to be true. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if the unsophisticated religious believer found such an argument compelling. Still, my one anecdote is not a scientific survey.

Nevertheless, because, at least, of my own experience, I don't attribute any malice to the mischaracterizers of the cosmological argument. I think, instead, that what is going on is that they are so skeptical of theism that they don't even know that arguments for theism get any better than that; no red flags are raised in their thinking that, basically, this is the best that theism has to offer, which is why religious believers have moved to faith rather than reason to justify belief in their views. (For these philosophers, the existence of people like van Inwagen, Plantinga, Kripke, and van Fraassen is entirely perplexing, leading to such curiosities as Georges Rey's article on meta-atheism--see http://philosophytalk.typepad.com/blog/files/MetaAtheism.pdf--according to which theism is so ridiculous that, in fact, not even Plantinga, Kripke, et al., believe it!)

Since these philosophers populate the ranks of philosophy professors--indeed, I bet most philosophy professors think like this--their students are educated to be similarly skeptical of theism. When they go on to be professors, they convey the same dismissiveness as their professors. This leads, I think, to the attitude that we don't really need to have good arguments for atheism, materialism, or against agent-causation and natural law theory. We just know these things to be true (or false, as the case may be), properly basically. It is almost impossible to imagine that reality could be any different. Theism, dualism--at least of the substance variety--agent-causal libertarianism, and, to a lesser extent, natural law theory (which is to be distinguished from virtue ethics), the pro-life position, and social conservatism are positions that are unimaginably true. I know this to be true, at least of some atheist philosophers. For example, one of my friends has only a J.D. and a bachelor's in engineering, and is only twenty-eight, and knows all about how smart van Inwagen and Plantinga are, but is fully convinced that he could easily crush them, or any theistic philosophers, in a debate about the rationality of theism. Another of my friends told me he thinks that theists are so epistemically irresponsible that they shouldn't be allowed to teach philosophy (when I informed him that Kripke was a theist, he at first didn't believe me. When I assured him it was true, he thought for a moment and concluded, "wow, maybe Kripke isn't as a good a philosopher as I thought").

I could go on, but I've already spent too long on this subject, and it's depressing me.

Great post, Dr. Feser!

What I find most troubling is the intentional deception you mention. It represents obvious intellectual laziness. It irks me something fierce when people offer silly rebuttals to caricatures of serious arguments and then poisons the well for further discussion by acting as if anyone who actually held that view, or any semblance of that view, must be a dottering idiot. I mostly see it with people appealing to the emotional problem and philosophical problem of evil. They act as if Christian philosophers have never heard of these arguments and have not spent thousands of years addressing them in countless of volumes available to anyone who takes more than a few minutes to look for them.

Great post, again.

Again, what reason is there to think that the deception is intentional? I think these people honestly don't think anything better can be said than what they say. The only place where deception might arise is the fact that they don't even bother to cite anyone who holds the view they critique.


If they intentionally do not take the time to make certain that they are correct in their representation of an opposing view and then claim to have summarily defeated that view even as they acknowledge the view they "defeat" is not held by anyone in particular they are intentionally deceiving. They are intentionally deceiving their audience in assuring that audience that no reasonable form of this argument exists when they must know that they have not taken the necessary effort to establish such a thing. They are deceiving their audience when they tell them that other forms of the argument do not add anything substantive to the discussion when they minimally know that they can make no such claim because they do not actually know the other forms of argument.

If they do those things they are intentionally deceiving even though their motivation for not investigating more thoroughly is pure intellectual laziness.

Bobcat - your link, above, got messed up. So I'll give it a try:


Gotta love that opening:

"I'm not a professional philosopher of religion and have no special knowledge of theology. However, I regularly teach an introductory course..."

...and, with that, we're off!

Who was that soap actor who made a commercial for some medical product or other beginning with the words: "I'm not a doctor. But I play one on TV..."?

Prof. Feser: Just finished the first chapter of The Last Superstition.

So far: wonderfully clear, frequently funny, and, as you argue, the polemical tone is entirely justified (under the circumstances).

But that book-jacket! It fairly shouts: "prepare to be bored!"

My suggestion for the cover of the paper-back edition:

Raphael's "St Michael & the Satan."

Jay Watts wrote: "If they intentionally do not take the time to make certain that they are correct in their representation of an opposing view and then claim to have summarily defeated that view even as they acknowledge the view they 'defeat' is not held by anyone in particular they are intentionally deceiving. They are intentionally deceiving their audience in assuring that audience that no reasonable form of this argument exists when they must know that they have not taken the necessary effort to establish such a thing. They are deceiving their audience when they tell them that other forms of the argument do not add anything substantive to the discussion when they minimally know that they can make no such claim because they do not actually know the other forms of argument."

Well, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of incompatibilists and dualists felt the same way about compatiblists and materialists. Take a dualist view. A dualist could say: "it's inconceivable that a mental state could just be a brain state. Every materialist view holds something like this view. Therefore, I can assume, for any materialist view x, that it is false. I don't really need to look in any more detail, because I've known a fair number of materialists, and at no point do they bring up a new kind of consideration that responds to me."

I imagine the atheist thinks the same thing about the theist. They don't feel like they need to investigate the theistic arguments, because if there were any good ones, they would have heard of them by now, for the same reason that really good philosophical arguments are generally disseminated.

Take the cosmological argument. An atheist who is skeptical of the cosmological argument is going to think the rabbit being pulled out of the hat is either a particular causal or explanatory principle (like the Principle of Sufficient Reason, or like a number of the principles Feser presents in TLS) or some supporting principle (like, there can be no actual infinites). That's where the magic happens, and that's when the atheist gets off the boat. Of course, I buy some version of the PSR, so I don't get off the boat, but I have no idea how to convince my atheist colleagues that the PSR should get a hearing.

"for the same reason that" should read "because".

If they intentionally do not take the time to make certain that they are correct in their representation of an opposing view and then claim to have summarily defeated that view even as they acknowledge the view they "defeat" is not held by anyone in particular they are intentionally deceiving.

Jay, I agree completely. There is a kind of abuse of free speech when they engage in what appears to be carefully reasoned professional philosophy from a qualified expert, but in reality is a disguised form of saying "well EVERYONE knows that 'they' say X proves God exists." As soon as you hear a premise that starts "everyone knows" and uses an unidentified "they" you know that what follows is malarkey. Now, I do that kind of thing in informal speech all the time. But I am not a professional philosopher, and I am not doing a formal lecture or book when I say such things.

Similarly, it is another abuse to start an argument on a difficult or intractable philosophical problem with first-year students, and then use methods, techniques, and tools that they have no understanding of and thus have no ability to see the natural limits of those methods. It is impossible for such an approach to lead the student to true understanding, even if the conclusion the professor wants to prove were actually valid, because he abuses their capacity and their trust in him in using methods beyond their reach. It would be like giving a 44 ounce bat to a 5-year old and pitching fastball to him to "prove" that hitting a home run is impossible.

Hi Bobcat,

I don't doubt that lots of non-philosophers have given the argument. The point is that, since no actual philosopher has ever given it, it is inappropriate (to put it mildly) to present it as if it were the "basic" or "standard" version of a long-standing argument in the history of philosophy.

Re: the question of bad faith, I allowed that there are some people who do this sort of thing who are just ignorant. But that can't be the whole story. It is just part of good philosophical method to look for the strongest versions of arguments one disagrees with, to make sure one is interpreting opponents correctly, etc., and too many people who write on this subject obviously have no interest in doing their due diligence. That doesn't mean that they're all consciously thinking "I know that no one's ever given this argument, but hah! I'm going to pretend otherwise." Here as elsewhere, intellectual dishonesty is usually more subtle than that.

In my own case, having long been an atheist, my conversion resulted precisely from going back and looking at the arguments again so that I could help students (and myself) to see why anyone ever took them seriously. And after a while it slowly started to dawn on me that I had totally misunderstood them, and that most of my peers also totally misunderstood them. I'm not saying that everyone who does what I did will end up with my current views, but it is possible for a hostile person who is fair-minded to go beyond just parroting the usual cliches.

Rey's article is absolutely horrible. I may blog about it.

Glad you're enjoying the book so far, Steve. Re: the cover design, well, at least you were nicer than my brother-in-law (who's a graphic designer...!)

I'll keep Raphael in mind.


What's odd about your book, Ed, is that your publisher has done other books with some pretty interesting covers! I wonder how they decide how to jacket what?

What happened, Rob, is that since almost all the books by either the New Atheists or their critics seem to have "words only" covers, the publisher decided to stick to that motif.

I see. Well, that makes a certain amount of sense then.

The biggest problem an introductory philosophy classes can commit is not using the original texts, but introductory texts composed by other authors. Fortunately, almost every philosophy class I took eschewed this approach (some even forbade the use of supplementary texts, and these were the most profitable classes), but I am aware of some classes at my university that, for some strange reason, have decided that the best way to get to know Aristotle is through reading somebody else's thoughts about him. I can understand using additional texts (carefully, as most are misleading) in order to help one understand the primary material, but really that is what teaching is for.

Yeah, the only one of the "four horsemen's" books that didn't come with a "words only" jacket was Dennett's - which featured a picture that was only very slightly less boring than the average type-face.

But I think we can do better than that. I'm now working on a you-tube commercial for Prof. Feser's book - music by Benjamin Britten, art by Hieronymus Bosch & Raphael.

Don't worry, Dr. Ed - It's gonna be great!


Great post. I just ordered your book (from the library :). I used to listen to a lot of atheist audio in my mp3 player in an attempt to find intellectual stimulation--Point of Inquiry, Atheist Experience, Free Thought Radio. Recently, though, I gave it up because their infallible inability to get theistic arguments correctly turned from mere frustration into crushing boredom. They are so self-congratulatory in their intellectual superiority while they TOTALLY misunderstand that which they deride as beneath them. After countless hours of this, I just couldn't go on. I don't know how atheists live and breath in such an environment. As a former atheist, I also purchased the God Delusion, hoping for some semblance of intellectual stimulation. This uneducated union laborer was shocked at how a man of Dawkins reputation and learning can fill a book with fatuous rants and call it argument. He appears to be pathologically incapable of properly characterizing the opposing view. My 12 y/o daughter could out philosophize Dawkins. "If one gives answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame." -Proverbs 18:13

Ed, am I interpreting you in the main post correctly? When you say, "What Aquinas seeks to show in all of his arguments for God’s existence is not the existence of a first cause who operated at some point in the distant past to get the world going, but rather one who is operating here and now, and at any moment at which the universe exists at all, to keep the world going," I interpret that to mean that you are construing Thomas's argument(s) in a way that makes them pretty radically different from a present version of the cosmological argument (e.g., Craig's), which do, AFAIK, look at a chain going backwards _through time_ that must have had a beginning. But you are saying instead that Aquinas wasn't talking about a chain in time _at all_ and is arguing rather and only for a sustaining First Cause in the present?

What do you think of Craig's cosmological argument?

Hi Lydia, yes, Aquinas is not (for the purposes of the First and Second Ways, anyway) at all interested in a chain extending backward in time. He would reject Craig-style arguments, because he thinks it cannot be demonstrated philosophically that the world had a beginning. That's something I think he was probably wrong about, though, and I tend to like Craig's argument, though I think it is less fundamental than the sort Aquinas (and others) defend.

Thanks, that's clarifying. I'm _no Aquinas scholar_. Here is the text of Aquinas's "short version" of the Second Way. It just seems like with all the talk in it about efficient causes and priority and intermediate efficient causes, "going on to infinity," and so forth, it certainly _sounds_ like a chain backwards in time. Is the only argument for rejecting this interpretation the argument of consistency from what Aquinas says elsewhere about a philosophical arg. for the world's having a beginning in time?

In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false.

From an Aristotelian point of view, the causes most relevant to explaining what is happening here and now are simultaneous with their effects. E.g. the cause of the pot's taking on a certain curved shape here and now is the curved shape of the potter's hand here and now. This generates a regress of causes ordered per se (as opposed to a series of causes ordered per accidens, which paradigmatically extends backward in time) and it is this per se series (and not a per accidens series) which necessarily requires a first member. Hence the "interpretation" of the first cause argument in question simply follows from the Aristotelian-Scholastic analysis of causation. It is also evident from the fact that Aquinas explicitly rules out the possibility of demonstrating that the universe had a beginning in time -- he thinks that is knowable only via revelation. (This is not at all a controversial "interpretation" among Aquinas scholars, BTW -- hence my scare quotes around "interpretation"! The alternative, temporal series "reading" is very common, but it is just, uncontroversially among Aquinas scholars, a misreading.)

Thanks, Ed, that's really interesting, and of course I hadn't known that about Aquinas scholarship. I can see (I think) how an efficient cause can be simultaneous with its effect, though of course many efficient causes do come temporally prior to their effects, and indeed many of the most interesting efficient causes (to me, anyway).

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.