Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Warburton on the First Cause argument

Bored while proctoring an exam today, I browsed through the desk drawer for something to read and found, among the other detritus of semesters past, a photocopy of the “God” chapter from Nigel Warburton’s Philosophy: The Basics, which some other professor had apparently once used for an Intro course. So I took a look. Several violent expletives later, the students had to ask me to quiet down so they could get back to distinguishing proximate genus from specific difference.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Warburton performs the usual ritual of criticizing the stupid “Everything has a cause etc.” version of the First Cause argument – a “version” which, of course, no one has ever actually defended. (Or, for you pedants out there, in case your Pastor Bob once taught it to you at Sunday school: a “version” which none of the many well-known philosophers who have endorsed the First Cause argument has ever actually defended.) That much would, perhaps, not be particularly noteworthy. This preposterous straw man litters both introductory philosophy textbooks and “New Atheist” pamphlets like the droppings stray neighborhood cats keep leaving on my lawn; and I have already declaimed upon the contemptible dishonesty of its use by pop atheists – and, most disgracefully, by many professional philosophers too – ad nauseam (e.g. here and here).

But Warburton ups the ante. Our man is not satisfied to leave his readers with the false impression that some actual theistic philosopher has ever argued “Everything has a cause; so the universe has an uncaused cause, namely God.” After all, a charitable reader might naturally, and quite rightly, think to respond: “Surely none of the defenders of this argument really said ‘everything’ – that would just be too obviously self-contradictory!” No, as if to forestall such a retort, Warburton assures us that “The First Cause Argument states that absolutely everything has been caused by something else prior to it,” that “The First Cause Argument begins with the assumption that every single thing was caused by something else,” and that the argument crucially assumes “that there can be no uncaused cause” (emphasis mine). Naturally, Warburton has no trouble “showing” that the defender of the First Cause Argument contradicts himself when he goes on to assert that God is an uncaused cause.

Strangely, Warburton provides no citations for this argument. Or not so strangely, since, as I have said, no defender of the First Cause argument has ever actually given it – 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 not anyone else, as far as I know. Somehow, though, attacking this ridiculous caricature was judged by Warburton to be a more useful way of introducing his readers to the First Cause argument than presenting the actual views of any the great thinkers who’ve defended it. Wonder why.

Naturally too, Warburton also peddles the other standard myths about the First Cause argument. We are, for example, told matter-of-factly that “the argument presents no evidence whatsoever for a God who is either all-knowing or all-good.” Readers of The Last Superstition or Aquinas – or, more to the point, of the hundreds of pages written by the authors just mentioned arguing precisely for these and others among the divine attributes – know that this is what the kids today like to call “a blatant falsehood.” But again, this is something I’ve gone on about at length elsewhere (such as in the posts linked to above).

We are also told that what the argument seeks to rule out is “a never-ending series going back in time” – God as the knocker-down of the first domino, and all that. Never mind that most philosophers who have defended the argument – Aristotle, Aquinas, and Leibniz, to take perhaps the most significant figures – explicitly reject the strategy of arguing for a temporal first cause. And while there are other philosophers who have argued for a first cause of the beginning to the universe (most recently, William Lane Craig) Warburton entirely ignores their actual arguments as well.

So, what does Warburton’s discussion provide the beginning reader who is interested in learning about “the basics” (Warburton’s subtitle) of what philosophical theists have said about the First Cause argument? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever.

It will not do to suggest in his defense that Warburton only intended to show what was wrong with some crude arguments sometimes given by non-philosophers. For the title of his book is Philosophy: The Basics – not Crude Arguments Given By Non-Philosophers: The Basics.

Furthermore, when discussing some of the other traditional theistic arguments – the ontological argument and the design argument, for example – Warburton does attribute them to actual philosophers (Anselm and Descartes in the first case, Paley in the second). To be sure, his discussion is superficial here as well, but at least he is in these cases oversimplifying the actual arguments of these thinkers. By contrast, the purported “First Cause Argument” he criticizes bears no resemblance to anything a philosophical defender of the First Cause argument has actually said. That Warburton himself realizes this is evidenced by the fact that in this particular case, he does not even attempt to attribute the argument he is attacking to any actual philosopher.

So, why do a disgraceful number of professional philosophers – Warburton is hardly alone here – even bother with it? This too is a question I address in the first of the two posts linked to above. And it is hard to believe that the answer has anything to do with promoting a better public understanding of philosophy.

20 comments:

Jack said...

reminds me of a line from "Evita" to paraphrase "warburtons a fool breaking every Taboo, installing dawkins philosophy HQ"- I'm not sure which is more embarrising, the fact that professional philosophers don't even understand a relitively simple argument or that I'm a closet Loyd Webbber fan :)

Maolsheachlann said...

You can't win, can we?. I read the reviews of "The Last Superstition" on Amazon.com, and one lady (who was very articulate and informed, to give her her due) ridiculed you for mentioning the various books that DO try to extrapolate an omnipotent, all-good etc. God from an uncaused causer. She said something like: "It's the most hilarious fundie argument I've ever read. Feser assures us that he has several books on Thomistic metaphysics that are hundreds of pages long, even telling us the exact amount of pages. If you don't believe me, look at page such-and-such." Nice.

Anonymous said...

What exam were you proctoring?

Edward Feser said...

Critical thinking. And no, I didn't really utter any expletives!

Ilíon said...

As I sometimes say, "Philosophy is too important to be left to the philosophers" ... Should I ament that? "Philosophy is far too important to be left to mere philosophers"

Anonymous said...

Proximate cause in Critical Thinking? Wow my education pales in comparison.

Phritz said...
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Anonymous said...

Just look at the above comment. Wow.

As an agnostic with increasingly theistic sympathies, I'm beginning to wonder if any of these atheistic "critical thinkers" has ever actually thought critically about anything in their lives.

Hey Phritz, buddy, if you're a serious atheist with serious convictions, then leaving ass-ignorant comments like that on a philosopher's blog actually HURTS your cause. And the fact that a good 90% of the dissenting comments here are of this very sort is troubling indeed.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Phritz, your abbreviation DONR should be DCNR. It's "Dialogue's CONCERNING Natural Religion" not "Dialogues ON Natural Religion." Sheesh.

Phritz said...
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Eric said...

I see Perezoso/J is now commenting as 'Phritz'.

Phritz said...
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Edward Feser said...

Yup, Perezoso, J, 8, Phritz, whatever he's calling himself today -- a troll by any other name would stink as foully.

Phritz said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
J-EDGAR FEISER said...
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Ilíon said...

It rarely occurs to me to question whether a new "free-thinker" I encounter is actually simply a new sock-puppet ... but yes, this 'Phritz' fellow does bear a stricking resemblance to 'Perezoso/J.'

01010010 said...
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BenYachov said...

There are serious, sane, & thoughtful Atheists out there.

But the so called "New Atheists"(i.e. fanboyz of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Myers, Stenger & Dennett)aren't any of them. They are in fact unthinking reactionary fundamentalists without god-belief.

Most of them are teenagers & kids who have just turned 20 who believe the mere act of rejecting gods = instantaneous rationality.

They also believe (thanks too the clowns I've mentioned above) that religion deserves no respect thus you have to act like a Jerk toward religious people as some kind of statement of social rebellion.

Reason & logic are learned skills you don't get them automatically by rejecting gods. Bonhoeffer spoke of "Cheap Grace"(grace without discipleship) I propose we use the term "Cheap Rationality" to describe the phenomena of New Atheists equating denial of gods with instantaneous rationality.

Those are my thoughts on this matter.

Eric said...

Ben, I agree! I've long thought that the New Atheism is more about self-esteem than it is about the arguments themselves (which may explain why the New Atheists and their 'fans' know so little about the arguments). After all, if 90% of the people alive today are theists, and if theism is irrational, then you can easily define yourself into the top 10% with respect to rationality and intelligence -- at least as far as the 'Big Questions' are concerned -- by declaring yourself an atheist! (Just look at all the youtube videos made by people who obviously lack any philosophical education 'refuting' the arguments of William Lane Craig, when in reality none of these people would get past two exchanges with Craig before he reduced them to babbling.)

The New Atheists of course deny this, and will sometimes mutter a few things about intelligent theists, but their real opinions become glaringly obvious when you engage them in conversation for more than a few minutes. You begin to hear about how there is absolutely no evidence for god's existence (really? no evidence?), how all the arguments for god's existence are so patently fallacious that even a high school freshman could demolish them (never mind the fact that they never seem to get the arguments right in the first place), and how religious belief is 'a crutch' for mentally weak people (one wonders at what evidence the paragons of reason could adduce to justify this conclusion). Then, if you try to counter any of this with serious philosophical objections, they accuse you of obscurantism, of committing 'the Courtier's Reply' (which none of them seem to understand, as Brandon at Siris has demonstrated), and/or of preferring philosophy to science (false dichotomy, anyone?)! It's all very frustrating.

Anonymous said...

The first cause has to be existence itself. We know existence existed before time and space. Existence must have always existed otherwise it could never have existed.

In Biblical times and in the biblical lands people thought the world was flat. They obviously had little knowledge of astronomy and physics. Yet the authors of the Bible have God introducing himself to Moses as existence! The I Am. The One who Is. Neither Moses or the writers of the Bible could have understood that statement. It only makes sense that it was written because it was true.

Existence always was. Existence is the first cause of every effect. Nothing can exist but by existence. The Bible says God always was-that he is the reason for all that exists-nothing can exist but through him. He is the first cause because he is existence!