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
James A. Sadowsky,
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.
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:
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 . . .
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
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.
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 independent—even
though all the other things totally depend on him.2
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:
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.
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
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,
It is in this sense that I can agree with Hepburn when he says: “John
Laird’s suspicion seems justified—that
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
Hepburn, Christianity and Paradox (London:
Watts, 1958), p. 169.
Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (New York: Barnes & Noble,
1949), pp. 302.
The infinite regress argument will not, however, work for Humean
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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