TMA | KCA 06 | What Even Are “Causes” | Part 3

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 a challenge to the first premise of the KCA. Which is the claim that we don’t or can’t know what a cause is. Our rebuttal to this claim is simply that we do know what causes are and that any knowledge that we have or accrue which explains an event or contingent thing will fall under Aristotle’s four causal categories.


Formal Cause, Material Cause, Efficient Cause and Final Cause.


We are explaining that any additional knowledge accrued regarding causes is not evidence that we didn’t previously know what a/the cause was for any event or contingent thing. Additional knowledge merely enhances the knowledge that we already had(1). Last time we talked about what Formal and Material Causes were. This time we’ll take a look at what an Efficient Cause is.


As previously stated, an Efficient Cause is, “that by means of which an effect takes place”. Or, “that which brings something into being”. It’s whatever actualizes a potential and thereby brings something into being.


Going back to our birdhouse example from Part 1. In that situation the Efficient Cause of the birdhouse is me. I am the Efficient Cause. However, remember that we could, perhaps, think that my hands are a more precise explanation. Not to mention the saw or the hammer.


Let’s first talk about my hands. Our hands are part of a whole. Though they might subsist on their own for a time after being severed from the body (as is evident from the fact that they can sometimes be reattached), they are nevertheless only parts of a substance (the human being as a whole). So, it makes no sense to attribute causation to merely my hands, separate from “Simon”. To say that I used my hands to fashion the birdhouse as opposed to, say, my feet, merely enhances the knowledge we already had about the Efficient Cause for the birdhouse. Namely, that “Simon fashioned the birdhouse with his hands”. This is an enhancement of what we previously knew. Which was, “Simon fashioned the birdhouse”.


What about the tools? Certainly it’s true that a saw and a hammer can, and do, subsist on their own, separate from my body. So, they must be a separate and independent cause, right? Not in this case. Now, there’s no problem with there being multiple separate and independent Efficient Causes in relation to something. Like in manufacturing, which is often a combination of workers and machinery. But, as I have been saying, mentioning the workers and machinery only go to enhance our knowledge of the Efficient Cause(s) for a particular vehicle, phone, or whatever else.


However, with my tools, much of their causal powers are limited to their being used. I used the tools to cut the boards and nail them together. In this way we, again, have merely added to the knowledge we already had. Instead of just knowing, “Simon fashioned a birdhouse”, we now know “Simon fashioned a birdhouse using a saw and hammer”.


Behold, here's what we've learned about the Efficient Cause(s) of the birdhouse:


1. Simon.

2. Simon, with his hands.

3. Simon, with his hands, using a saw and hammer.


See the progression of enhancements to our knowledge?


And, I know. I know this is all trivially simple, but there’s a reason for why I’m explaining this. You see, some people will read those explanations of the Efficient Cause of the birdhouse’s beginning-to-be and mistakenly take those events, themselves, to have causal powers. That those events are caused by the events that preceded them.


And that’s the danger.


Once someone starts thinking that way, it actually becomes difficult to show how the event of “Simon nailing a piece of wood” is causally connected with the following event, “a birdhouse has begun-to-be”. After all, the event, “Simon nailing a piece of wood”, could just as easily be followed by the event, “a chessboard has begun-to-be”. Or followed by the event, “Simon had lunch”. Or the event, “Simon’s wife opened the front door”. How are these events causally connected? How do we know which events cause other events?


This problem is dissolved once you understand that, ultimately, it is things that are causes, not events. To be more precise, the immediate Efficient Cause of an effect, and the thing most directly responsible for it, is simultaneous with the effect, not temporally prior to it. So, it just causes confusion to say that a prior event caused the current event. Therefore, when investigating causes, we ought to be looking for a thing, not an event.


Events are descriptions of situations containing at least one cause and effect(2).

Effects are explained by causes.

Things are causes.


In the end, we know what was the Efficient Cause of the birdhouse. And that cause was me. And everything else associated with me causing the birdhouse is an enhancement to that knowledge. It’s additional knowledge. And that’s how we know what Efficient Causes are.


So, what do you think? Do you think Efficient Causes can’t be known? If not, then why not? What do you think about events and how they relate to causes and effects? Don’t be afraid to leave a comment because we would love to hear your thoughts.

 

NOTES:

  1. When I talk about “additional knowledge” I’m talking about knowledge that adds to what was previously known. For example, if you had thought that Isaac Newton was the person who penned the Declaration of Independence and then found out that it was actually Thomas Jefferson, you didn’t obtain “additional knowledge”. That’s because knowledge is when you have a justified, true belief. Therefore, you didn’t previously have “knowledge”. You just had a false belief. To learn that Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence instead of Isaac Newton is to obtain “new knowledge”.

  2. William Lane Craig seems to have a different definition for “event” than I’m giving here. He seems to endorse the position that “an event is just the coming to be of some thing or things”. In Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview (Pg. 178), Craig and Moreland say that an event is, “the coming, continued possession or going of a property by a substance at or through a time”. Personally, I think that we ought to say that “events” are merely descriptive of situations that contain at least one cause and effect. I think this for the reasons I provided above.


SOURCES:

  • 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. 64, 66). St Augustine’s Press.

  • Feser, Edward. Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Beginner's Guides) (pp. 25, 158). Oneworld Publications. Kindle Edition.

  • Fodor, James. Unreasonable Faith: How William Lane Craig Overstates the Case for Christianity (Pg. 139). Hypatia Press. Kindle Edition. Fodor is quoting from: Craig, William Lane. Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s relationship To Time (Pg. 156). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2001.

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