Monday, January 24, 2011

Russell's Objection to the First-cause Argument

In Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian, he offers a brief quip in his dismissal of the cosmological argument for the existence of God. He notes that he had thought of the argument at the age of eighteen when reading John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, where he read: "My father taught me that the question, 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question 'Who made God?'"

Russell attempts to show the apparent fallacy of the argument from First Cause, which, he says, is this: "It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God." Russell's reasoning concerning the fallacious essence of this argument stands like an impenetrable wall, facing its opposition with a daunting, yet delicious smile: "You can't get past me." Who made God? Indeed.

It is a question that assumes the line of reasoning from Russell's set-up for us: if this is all the argument is, then of course it is fallacious. It simply begs the question, Who made God? On the one hand, Russell is correct; this argument is not all that powerful. However, one might argue that an infinite regress is impossible, and therefore there must be some "uncaused Cause that causes all causes." Why is an infinite regress impossible? Well, if the chain of events keeps going backwards and backwards and backwards forever, then it seems that this would make the beginning of time impossible. Since time exists, there must have been a beginning somewhere. But, as Russell says, "The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have. " Further, he notes "There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all." So, perhaps Russell would admit that time is merely a human invention, and not a metaphysical reality. But is that even possible?

Russell wasn't around long enough to see the latest developments in science, however. The Big Bang hypothesis began its developments in the early 1920's (and maybe the decade prior), but did not come full steam until later in the 20th century. Why I Am Not a Christian was delivered as a lecture in 1927. Today, Big Bang cosmology is used by philosophers and scientists to affirm that there indeed is a creator, the most popular of whom today is William Lane Craig.

But is the First Cause Argument a good argument? Well, the answer to that question depends upon which way the argument is formulated. Craig's argument will assert that "Whatever begins to exist has a cause." That's a world of difference compared to Russell's critique of "everything...has a cause." Since God, by definition (as theists claim) does not have a cause, God does not fit categorically within the first premise of Craig's argument.

In either case, it seems that both forms of the argument assume what Russell notes: "that the Catholic Church has laid it down as a dogma that the existence of God can be proved by the unaided reason." The idea of unaided reason, however, seems objectionable. Why? It is objectionable because one has to assume in the validity, power and authority of reason in order to make use of it. In other words, we may ask: "Why should we use our reason?" The answer is obvious: because is it right to do so. But this is a moral claim. It is an ethical ought to say that we should use our reason because it is right (and good!) to do so. In addition to making a moral claim, the other assumption in the First Cause Argument is the purity of the reason used by humans. Hence, it assumes certain things about us humans: that our use of reason is without flaw, as if reason itself were some abstract principle that we humans can tap into, or have as an inherent quality. So now we have assumed

1) a moral injunction to use reason
2) that our use of reason is pure

and we may have assumed that
3) it is an inherent quality in all humans

or, that
4) it is a "source" of which we can tap into.

But Russell notes well: "The "unaided reason" of the Catholic Church is used to affirm with dogmatism, the existence of God." But the questions remain as to the ethical ought behind the use of reason, and of its origin, and use, to boot. And, we must know the nature of this reason: how do we know if we are using it properly, and why should we trust it? If we say "because it works," then we are only resorting to pragmatism, which is basically the idea that "if it works, it's good" and "the ends justify the means." But that doesn't really prove anything.

It seems that Russell has a good point. The Argument for First Cause is weak. Russell opines that the reason for its weakness is that it cannot answer the question, "Who made God?" But there are other reasons for holding the First Cause Argument askance: It assumes too much. The Reformers (Luther, Calvin), in contrast to the Catholic Church, taught that believing in God is a comprehensive whole based upon faith, reason, revelation and the Spirit. Calvin taught that we know God as we know ourselves. For Calvin, it's a two-way street, as opposed to the "unaided reason" one-way street of the Catholic Church. Christians believe in a God who did create the world, yes. But, the Reformers taught the noetic effects of sin. That is to say, because people are sinners, even their reason is tainted with sin. This is expressed in the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, that the whole person is stained with the sin of Adam, and that nothing in the human being in left unstained from sin--even her reason. That is not to say that humans are not able to achieve incredible leaps in the natural sciences. Not at all. According to Calvin, it is to say that humans, because they are sinful, cannot reason their way to God through reason alone (Luther is known famously for demanding that reason is a "whore". Hey--he was just affirming the superiority of Scripture). Reformed theology teaches that even our reason must be redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hence, we need faith, revelation and the Holy Spirit in the application of the redemption in Jesus Christ in our use of reason to affirm the existence of God.

Now of course, Russell would object to the circular nature of this aforementioned argumentation. But, Calvin may ask Russell a question: in our use of reason, do you assume its validity? Why, and on what grounds?

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