TMA | KCA 04 | What Even Are “Causes” | Part 1

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Welcome to Tuesday Morning Apologetics (TMA). Let’s talk about the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA):


1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.


We are continuing our look at the first premise of the KCA. Last week we defended the premise against the Humean challenge that the first premise is unjustified because we can conceive of an object beginning-to-be without a cause. This week we’re going to look at challenges against our ability to even know what a “cause” is.


Some could say, and I’ve heard it said, “The whole concept of a ‘cause’, however useful for ordinary purposes, becomes incoherent if you push it far enough.” And that:

“Our naive notions of causation are not helpful.”

After all, let’s say, completely randomly, that I’m building a birdhouse. Now, it might be pretty clear to some that I’m the cause of that birdhouse’s beginning-to-be. But, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that my right hand is the cause since it held the saw and the hammer. Although, my left hand steadied the board. So, my left hand is a cause as well. But the nails hold everything in place, therefore, the nails must be a cause for the birdhouse’s existence. Then again, if it wasn’t for my wife’s fondness for birds I wouldn’t be building the birdhouse at all. But isn’t my daughter a cause as well? After all, had she broken her leg this morning I would’ve been at the hospital instead of building a birdhouse.

The challenger could go on to say that, regarding our universe, we’re talking about an unimaginably huge number of subatomic particles that have been enmeshed in a vast web of mutual interactions (partly lawful and partly random) over unfathomable extents of space and time. Nothing that ever happens can be assigned a unique "cause." However much we may like to assign causes in daily life, every such assignment is at best an approximation, a simplification, an abstraction. Reality is much more complicated. We are lucky when our approximations are close enough to be useful.

And with that, you should be able to see at least three things:

First, this is how one can challenge our ability to know what a cause is.

Second, challenges like this one are why some people hate philosophy.

Third, you might also see why some people think that causation can get pretty tricky.


However, most of the confusion tends to be due to foundational assumptions that make simple events appear more complicated than they are.

What is a “cause”?

Some define a cause as, “a statement of initial conditions sufficient to explain an effect”. On the worldview presented above, we could never exhaustively know what the “initial conditions” were that produced the effect (1) nor when those “initial conditions” became “sufficient” to explain the effect. Therefore, we could never really say that we know the cause of anything.


However, and this is so trivially simple that it shouldn’t need to be said, we don’t need to know the placement and states of all particles and energy in the universe in order to ascertain the cause of an effect(2). This notion is especially absurd if the effect in question is all of physical reality.

Classically, causality has been understood to fall under four categories:

Efficient Cause - that by means of which an effect takes place.

Material Cause - the matter or “stuff” of which something is made.

Formal Cause - the essence or “whatness” of a thing. (3)

Final Cause - that for the sake of which an effect or change is produced.


The four causes (4) are completely general (applying throughout our physical world) and are metaphysical (5). We’ll be taking a closer look at these causes and how they relate to our birdhouse example next Tuesday Morning.


I hope that this introduction to this new challenge against the first premise is interesting to you. What do you think? Do you think we can come to accurately explain an effect? Or do you think that we must have more/all knowledge in order to really say that we know? Stay tuned for next week’s Tuesday Morning Apologetics as we attempt to remove this challenge against the KCA and continue our defense of the first premise.

 

NOTES:

  1. In this case, the effect is the 'birdhouse’s beginning-to-be'.

  2. If this were true then we could just kiss science goodbye.

  3. Like the “humanness” of Smith, for example.

  4. The four causes were first introduced by Aristotle.

  5. The four causes are applicable beyond our physical world. Even material cause in some cases.

SOURCES:

  • Benn S.I. and Peters R.S.. Human Action And The Limitations Of Causal Explanation.

  • Moreland, J.P. and Craig W.L.. Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview (2nd Ed) (Pg. 200). IVP Academic.

  • Feser, Edward. The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (Pg. 63). St Augustine’s Press.

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