There is a popular line of thought, which we may call the first cause argument, and which runs as follows: things must be caused, and their causes will be other things that must have causes, and so on; but this series cannot go back indefinitely; it must terminate in a first cause and this first cause will be God. This argument envisages a regress of causes in time, but says (as Leibnitz for one did not) that this regress must stop somewhere.
St Bonaventura would agree here, though St Thomas Aquinas (with Leibnitz), granting more to the Atheist, did not. As far as earlier and earlier causes are concerned, it leads back to a beginning.
Why? Because the succession of moments is additive, like the natural numbers, which all have a beginning in one.
In vain does one invoke the number line, because that is a piece of fiction - what is on that line is relations, either proportional or additive or subtractive - and not actually numbers as answering the "how many". Let us put it like this: before you can use any "how many more than" or "how many less than" something else, you need that something else and it needs to be a number, a "how many" as such. Or before you can use any "how much more than" or "how much less than", you need an "how much", as such. If it is not a number, it is not per se additive or subtractive, and thus not a good parallel for the succession of moments in time.
History leads back to a beginning. Change as such cannot be an eternal state. That much we allow the popular mind and the Eleatic school. But let us get on to St Thomas Aquinas. Let us ignore, for the moment the necessity for history to have a beginning. Let us assume we saw no problem with an eternity depicted as Ourobouros biting its own tail. Let us in other words for a moment ignore our sanity as common people. Then we still have, says Aquinas, five ways to fall back on. Now, Mackie is going to criticise the five ways here:
Of Aquinas's 'five ways', the first three are recognizably (sic!) variants of the cosmological proof, and all three involve some kind of terminated regress of causes. But all of them are quite different from our first cause argument...
That is from the "earliest cause" argument of St Bonaventura. St Thomas uses "first" as in "first cause" in another way.
The first way argues to a first mover, using the illustration of something's being moved by a stick only when the stick is moved by a hand; here the various movings are simultaneous, we do not have a regress of causes in time. Similarily the 'efficient causes' in the second way are contemporary agents. Both these arguments, as Kenny has shown ....
... Has he now? ("Kenny" is A. Kenny, who wrote The Five Ways, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1969.) ...
... depend too much on antiquated physical theory to be of much interest now.
Do they? Well, not if Mackie is consistent with what he says in p. 91:
In fact, Aquinas (both here and in the first way) has simply begged the question against an infinite regress in causes. But is this a sheer mistake or is there a coherent thought behind it? Some examples ... may suggest that there is:
Whereupon Mackie goes on to repeat the real point of first and second way without bothering as to whether it is antiquated physics or not:
If we were told that there was a watch without a mainspring, we would hardly be reassured by the further inforation that it had, however, an infinite train of gear-wheels. Nor would we expect a railway train consisting of an infinite number of carriages, the last (sic!) pulled along by the second last, the second last by the third last, and so on, to get along without an engine.
The exact point of first mover (last carriage is of course an oxymoron in an infinite or circular number of such ! - but we see what he means) - except that Aquinas' man moving object with stick through his hand or smith hammering metal through hammer held in hand is replaced by engine and mainspring.
This might indicate that materialistic atheism is not so opposed to the three first ways as they like to pretend, its ahderents, when referring summarily to "Kant has refuted that", or confusing them with the regress of earlier stages that needs a beginning. It is only more into seeing the first cause as impersonal rather than personal. This is confirmed by what he does about the second way:
Again, we see a chain consisting of a series of links, hanging from a hook; we should be surprised to learn that there was a similar but infinite chain, with no hook, but links supprted by links above them for ever.
Indeed, we would. And here even Aquinas, unless memory fails me, is not quite as personal in the description of first cause as he is in description of first mover. Or becomes again in description of wise ordainer of the universe.
There is here an implicit appeal to the following general principle: Where items are ordered by a relation of dependence, the regress must end somewhere: it cannot be infinite or circular.
I would say the appeal is very straightforward and explicit ... but if Mackie wants to be obtuse, I cannot stop him.
As our examples show, this principle is at least highly plausible; the problem will be to decide when we have such a relation of dependence.
A problem? Whenever something changes, the change depends on something. Whenever something stays the same in things that could just as well change, the staying the same depends on something.
Does this apply to will? That would be an argument for determinism, unless will could be in at least a sense a "first cause" even for man's will.
Whether a thing changes or stays the same it exists. If it exists necessarily, it is the first necessary existence. If it does not exist necessarily, it gets its existence from somewhere else. And even necessary existence can get its necessity to exist from somewhere else. There also there is no regress back to infinity.
Now, Mackie tries to answer this:
Why, for example, might there not be a permanent stock of matter whose essence did not involve existence but which did not derive its existence from anything else?
Well, the problem with that answer is that modern materialism actually does identify matter as the primum ens per se necessarium. If there were such a stock of matter neither creatable (since not deriving its existence from anywhere else) nor destructible (since not reducible to anything else), it would thereby fulfill the condition of having existence as part of its essence. And it would therein contrast with configurations of matter that do not have the own existence as part of their essence but only as a result of the particular arrangement of matter.
One clarification, re p. 92:
Though we understand that where something has a temporally antecendent cause, it depends somehow on it, it does not follow that everything (other than God) needs something else to depend on in this way.
Rather: if it does not need it, thereby it qualifies as God in the kind of preciseness or approximation we are dealing with in the five ways. Anything which would not need something to depend on, would qualify as God. It is not as much in Q 2 A 3 as after it that St Thomas excludes from this "x" the solutions involving the manyfold, the composite and so on and so forth.
The modern atheism is very much the three first ways identified with an impersonal first mover, impersonal first cause of permanence also, impersonal first being, by itself necessary.
It does not quite dispense with the fourth and fifth way either. It does not - on the philosophical level we are dealing with here now, never mind they are better in practise, often enough - admit there is a real gradation of better and less good, of nobler and less noble, and therefore no noblest and best. Mind which would on ordinary views seem the best is according to it only an epiphenomenon.
Neither does it admit order depends on someone ordering the universe with wisdom, rather it says the universe arranged itself in the only possible lasting way - and that life arranged itself in many ways that simply failed before the life forms that right now are succeeding. The first part of that statement is either "steady state universe" or "big bang univere" and in either case (therein contrasting with part of the first way, the one that deals with the sun moving "as observed") non-geocentric universe. The second part of that statement is evolutionism.
Which is why, when dealing with modern atheism, it is not enough just to repeat the five ways, but one should also insist on:
- - mind as a primary, since impossible as a side-effect of mindless things;
- - geocentrism as closer to observation and making sense, at least if mind is accepted as a primary;
- - dito for special creation, for non-evolutionary origin of the species we observe or at least the main ones;
- - finally that the five ways were not meant to prove the universe is created at already that stage, Aquinas put them in Q 2 A 3 and it is only in something like Q 45 that we come to Creation, as the only possible emanation of being from the first cause, into non-divine (non-first-cause-like) entities, and there he has used part of it to establish that God is spirit and that the Three Persons of the Christian revelation are not absurd or impossible.
Part of the proof for God being a Spirit is God's simplicity, non-compositeness. Part of the proof for that is again God's upholding the rotation of the whole universe around earth as one unified movement, at least as I recall the parallel text of Contra Gentes. Which is probably exactly where Pope Urban VIII foresaw atheist consequences of allowing heliocentrism. His insistence on the sun moving as observed.
Bpi, Georges Pompidou
St Francis of Sales