Thursday, March 17, 2011

On an Infinite Regress of Causes

The general structure of cosmological arguments is well known: Starting from general features about the world (e.g., that there is movement), these arguments proceed by pointing out that these general features must have a cause, and this cause must have a cause, and since if there were no first cause there would not be any subsequent causes, there must indeed be a first cause.

Much has been written over the years about cosmological arguments, and there are, in truth, many different types of such arguments. One must distinguish in esse arguments (arguments in the order of ontological dependency) from in fieri arguments (arguments in the order of temporal becoming). One must distinguish arguments that proceed from the fact of contingency from arguments proceeding from movement or causality. One must distinguish arguments that use the principle of sufficient reason from arguments that do not make explicit use of this principle. To enter into any discussion of the diverse array of such arguments shall not be our concern here. What I want to deal with in this post is an interesting attack by James Sadowsky on the notion that there can be an infinite regress of causes ("Can there be an Endless Regress of Cause," International Philosophical Quarterly, 20-4, 1980).

Sadowky points out that 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." From this the argument proceeds easily: A (let us say there is motion in the world) exists and thus all of A's causes are not in need of a cause, that is, there is some cause that is itself not in need of a cause. [One thinks here perhaps of Schopenhauer's quote that the law of universal causation is like "a hired cab that one dismisses when one reaches one's destination."]

Critics of cosmological arguments oftentimes point to the obvious fact that in order for A to be, there must be some B which causes A, and in order for B to be there must be some C that causes B, and that this series can run back to infinity. Think for a moment about the infinite series of integers. For every integer I, there is some integer 'I - 1' such that I is generated from 'I - 1' by adding '1'. Any integer can be "caused" by taking the preceding integer and adding one. There is no problem with this series running back to infinity, of course. If it did not, we would have a pretty truncated mathematics.

But proponents of cosmological arguments often make claims about how an actual infinite is not possible - - after all, Aristotle said so - - and that the analogy between an infinite causal series in the world and the infinite series of integers is not great. For the infinite causal series, the operative principle specified previously holds, which does not in the generation of infinite mathematical series: 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.

Sadowsky asks us to compare the statement of the cosmological argument that no causation can take place because each act of causation requires a previous act of causation with the following: no permission can be asked for because each asking of permission requires a prior asking of permission. Consider this statement:

1) No one may do anything (including asking for permission) without asking for permission.

Is (1) true? It seems not, for how could it be that the condition for asking for permission is itself the asking of permission. It seems that permission asking in order to do every X cannot run back to infinity, because X includes the asking of permission. The activity of asking for permission cannot run back to infinity because there would be no first asking of permission and thus no subsequent series of permission asking.

Sadowsky asks us now to consider Ryle's demolition of the so-called "Intellectual Legend": Never do anything (including thinking) without first thinking about it. Consider then (2):

2) No one ought to anything (including thinking) without first thinking about it.

Is (2) true? It seems not, for how could it be that the condition for thinking is itself based upon thinking? It seems that an infinite series of intellectual reflection based upon intellectual reflection is impossible, for how can it be that one's reflection on something (call it X) must result from X?

Although Sadowsky does not explicitly say so, he supposes that (1) and (2) are unsatisfiable, that is, there cannot be a state of affairs of every act of intellectual thinking being dependent upon anterior acts of intellectual thinking. Why? Because if there is real contingency in intellectual thinking - - if it is possible to consider propositions either shrewdly (intellectually) or stupidly - - and the condition for considering propositions shrewdly (intellectually) is a prior condition of having considered propositions shrewdly (intellectually) and not stupidly, then in order for there to be subsequent acts of intellectual consideration there must have been a first act of intellectual consideration. In other words, there is no possible world in which there can be an infinite regress in the order of prior intellectual operations as a prerequisite of subsequent intellectual operations. There must be a first intellectual operation that grounds subsequent intellectual operations, or there would have been no subsequent intellectual operations. Similarly, there must be a first permission that grounds subsequent acts of granting permission. There can be no possible world in which one cannot do anything without first asking permission, if it is true that "doing anything" includes the seeking of permission.

In (2) it is impossible to break into a series of intellectual considerations without there being an intellectual consideration not grounded in anterior intellectual considerations. In (1) there cannot be a breaking into the series of permissions without there being a first permission granting that needs not anterior permission. We have here the claim that there must be intellectual consideration that is not the result of an intellectual consideration, and a permission seeking that is not the result of a permission seeking. Now the question is simply this: is an infinite regress in the order of causes analogous to these two cases? Is it true that (3) is unsatisfiable?

3) For each and every cause, there must be a cause of that cause.

Is the denial of (3) somehow contraditory? Is it contradictory to have an uncaused causer? Or, put differently, if there must be an an unpermitted permitter, and a nonintellectualized, intellectualizer, why not an uncaused causer? Why should causality be regarded differently?

It seems that the answer to this might lie in the different contexts in which intellectual considerations, permission seeking, and causing inhabit. It strikes me that intellectual considerations and permission-seekings are teleological activities. Take, for instance, the notion of an infinite series of purposes. It seems like an infinite order in the series of final causes is indeed unthinkable. If everything that occurs, occurs for the sake of something else, is it not true that there must be finally something for which all things occur. (Heidegger traces this back to Dasein, of course.) No infinite regress in the order of teleological "reasons for" is possible, for it seems, that in order for there to be subsequent "reasons for" there must be a first "that upon which all reasons are ultimately reasons for."

Most of the time, however, we regard the order of causes as a nonteleological context: A causes B which causes C, etc. In a universe without meaning or purpose, why would an infinite series of causes not be allowed? Of course, there is not a first cause on the basis of which subsequent causes are! That is the point of thinking about an order of causes purely extensionally. There is nothing unsatisfiable about (3), though there might be about (3') below:

3') For each and every reason, there must be a reason for that reason.

I think many people would dispute (3') being satisfiable on the basis of there being finally a 'brute reason or purpose' on the basis of which other reasons find their positions. (Heidegger would agree here.) We often trace human reasoning back to a human telos generally. Why did Bob do x? He had such and such reasons for doing x. But why did he have these reasons? Because he ultimately desired that some y come about, and he reasoned in ways that would eventuate in y. But why did he desire that some y come about? Reasons must stop somewhere, and one might just say that his desire for y just is. Is it reasonable? Perhaps, but it is not reasonable based upon other reasons. It is an unreasoned reason.

Sadowsky has forced us to see more clearly into what we often mean by an infinite regress in the order of causes. We mean something that is quite without meaning. It seems in an unthinking universe without value and purpose there could be an infinite series of causes. Whether a thing is or is not is not the same kind of question as whether a proposition is reasonable or not. While the second concerns a teleological context where an infinite regress is impossible, this is not so of the first. Or at least that is what one might reasonably say.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tremendum et Fascinans

Joel 2:1-18 speaks of the "Day of the Lord." This day is "a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come." The people are waiting for the Day of the Lord perhaps as children wait for Christmas. But this is folly, for this Day will be nothing like they expect.

In the heyday of dialectical theology 90 years ago or so, theologians emphasized the totaliter aliter, of the divine, the "wholly otherness" of God. The times were indeed ripe to talk of God as that nullity which effectively judges being. They proclaimed that one cannot find God by finding Him somewhere in the field of being, no matter the lofty region He might inhabit. If God really is infinitely qualitatively different from His creation, then this difference cannot merely be some adjustment of form or quality within a common potentiality spreading from the heavens to earth. No! Divine being must be totaliter aliter than the potentiality that lies within being itself. In other words, God is wholly other than what the philosophers once called "prime matter." To speak of uncreated divine being and created being under the general category of "being" is deeply problematic, for how could God be the Krisis of the world if he retains a place within it?

No matter how we might try to think the being of divine being, it is a different type of thing we think than the being of created being. God is so radically different from created being that we use the word 'being' a bit improperly to describe Him. God and the universe form ontological antipodes: God is what the universe is not, and the universe is what God is not. This ontological gap between the creator and creature is a necessary condition for the grace-full contingency of creation itself. If the created order where merely an adjustment on the uncreated order, then the gap between the divine and not-divine narrows to the point that what God is, is no longer what the universe is not. On this view Emerson would be right in saying, "Draw, if thou canst, the mystic line, Severing rightly his from thine, Which is human, which divine." On this view, God's otherness is lost and God becomes less than God.

Why does God become less than God when God's otherness is lost? How can the asymmetrical relation of 'being other than' somehow make God other than God is? If God has a determinate being, and x regards God as other and y does not, is God more God for x than x? This is but another way of asking the realist question of God: Is God externally or internally related to His creation?

What is necessary is to distinguish God-in-Himself, versus God-in-regard-to us. While divine being has the contour it has apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, what human beings regard to be God is deeply dependent upon how God is for them. While God is God apart from whether or not God appears distant or close to x, x will regard something as God only if God is not wholly proximate to x. What I am saying is very simple: For something to be regarded as God by person p, there must be an experience of extraordinary distance for p in the presence of this putative divinity. God cannot be God for p if p does not fear God as that before which p feels puny, is overwhelmed, and experiences shudder. For p - - and I would generalize to great numbers of people - - that which is not experienced as distant cannot ultimately be God.

The paradox of the Christian proclamation is that the Distant One, however, loves us. The experience of the divine has the character both of divine distance and proximity. While that which is not distant cannot be God, that which is not close cannot save us. The tremendum which is necessary for p to regard something as God is at the same time the fascinans by and through which humans are drawn to God. Our experience under the condition of existence is not a healthy one. What is needed is salvation from that which is not ultimately us. Just as creation is the free act of a being ontologically discontinuous from the divine itself, so is redemption a free action of a being ontologically discontinuous from human existence as such. While a God that is not distant cannot be God, so too a God that is too distant cannot save. The necessary condition for x to regard g as God is that g is distant from x; the necessary condition for x to be saved by g is that g is close to x. For human being, God purchases salvation generally by sacrificing divinity; he purchases his divinity by sacrificing His soteriological intimacy. This is the way of nondialectical assertions within the field of being.

The dialectical theologians were fond at pronouncing paradoxical phrases. None perhaps is more paradoxical than these we must make: Only the Distant One is ultimately Close to us. Only the One whose impassibility precludes the sentiment of love can ever really love us.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Theological Realism and Christology

One of our assumptions at the Institute of Lutheran Theology is theological realism, the notion that God exists and has a definite contour apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language. While this would not be a surprising claim for most believers throughout Christian history, it is somewhat of a bold claim today, 230 years after the publication of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. For most of the nineteenth century, attempts were made to talk intelligibly about God while at the same time not affirming that God is a metaphysical substance capable of sustaining causal relations with His universe. This penchant survives and is deeply presupposed in much Protestant theology, especially of the Lutheran persuasion.

Yesterday as I preached on 2 Peter 1:16-21, it struck me that no matter how robust the claim of theological realism is, the claim of Christological realism is be even more bold. Imagine claiming that Christology is objective, that it is an evidence-transcending propositional truth about the universe that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. Imagine making such a powerful claim that the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ is factual, that is, that Christ's suffering, death and resurrection exist apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language! It seems to me, on reading these passages from Peter, that the claim of factuality is emphasized precisely over and against claims that the proclamation of Christ is mythological, that the proclamation somehow is a response to our inchoate religious yearnings.

It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I think Heideggerian thoughts much of the time. I have always been deeply convinced of the rectitude of Heidegger's analysis of human existence and authenticity in the face of the phenomenon of death. For much of my adult days I have assumed with Heidegger that death is basically a phenomenological reality, that only in life is there death, because there can be no death for death - - as Epicurus famously taught.

But while Heidegger's phenomenological analysis is deeply persuasive and penetrating on this point, because it is phenomenological it cannot deal with the relationship between the phenomenological and that which grounds the phenomenological. The reason is easy to see: To reflect and articulate the relationship between the phenomenological and the non-phenomenological is no longer to describe the phenomenological, but to conceive why the phenomenological has the contour it has.

Yet while moving beyond a phenomenological analysis may not a phenomenological analysis make, clearly it is not unreasonable to ask what grounds the phenomenology of death. One does not have to think very profoundly to answer that question: The phenomenology of death is grounded in the factuality of death. We live with one foot in nonbeing because we shall someday fully be nonbeing. A reasonable person not unduly timid about ontology would certainly assert such a thing. (Maybe phenomenological ontology is finally an ontology of the timid . . . )

When reading 2 Peter 1:16-21, it seems clear that the last testament of the writer to the truth of Christ is a testament of the factuality of Christ, that is, the writer wants us to know that the proclamation that liberates us in the face of death is itself grounded in the reality of the one that liberates us from death. Just as death is not a linguistic event but a fact as well as our phenomenon of it, to too is liberation from death not merely a linguistic event, but a fact as well as our phenomenon of it. In other words, just as my death exists apart from my awareness, perception, conception and language, so too does my liberation from death exist apart from those things as well.

Why is theological realism important? Because Christian theological realism just is Christological realism. But why is Christological realism important? Because as the writer of 2 Peter declares, "We do not follow cleverly devised myths when we made know to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty" (16).