In response to I'm-Skeptical's blog post, I want to take a moment to apologize to both Hugo and im-skeptical in my discussions with them on cosmological arguments, and especially on the concept of essentially-ordered series. I see that my previous explanations of them could be capable of causing confusion. I also want to apologize for deleting all of Hugos comments a long time ago (although the primary reason for that was not anger so much as I just wanted the blog for notes and outlines and not any actual opinions; since rectified by keeping my outlines in my private Google drive instead). And I want to apologize for calling im-skeptical “stupid” and for psychologizing about him (“He just believes that because he’s...etc”). I would like to clear the air and complete this discussion to all of our satisfaction.
Essentially-Ordered Series Explained
First, I’ll start with an explanation of the difference between accidentally-ordered and essentially-ordered series. There is a lot of confusion layered on here even though the concepts are really quite simple. The analogies given to explain the difference are quite well-known. In an accidentally-ordered series, each element causes the next element in the chain, and the common analogy used is that of a man who has a son, who grows up, has his own son, and so on. Each man in the chain (along with a woman, obviously) is the cause of the next man in the chain. In an essentially-ordered series, by contrast, the effect is just being “passed along.” A common example is a hand moving a stick moving a rock. The stick isn’t doing the work of moving the rock; the hand is, and the stick is just passing the motion from the hand to the rock. The point being that in the first case, you cannot reason from the existence of a man to the existence of a first man: the chain of men may have been happening for eternity. But in the second case, you can reason from the motion of the rock to the existence of a hand because we know that the stick doesn’t have any power of motion on its own; if it’s to push something, like a stone, it must be because something is pushing it. One of the core points here is that in an essentially-ordered series, the middle element (or elements) are acting as sort of "instruments." They derive their power to cause a certain effect, and since that power is derivative, there must be something it derives from. The stick derives its power to push the stone from the hand. The power lines derive their power to light the lamp from the power plant. The gears derive their power to turn the clock hands from the mainspring.
But really, even this may be too complicated for what is really a simple concept. As Caleb Cohoe argues (1), the concept of an essentially-ordered series can be described like this:
“For any given effect, insofar as it is an effect, there must be a cause capable of producing it”
So really all we’re doing with essentially-ordered series is simply reasoning from an observed effect to an unseen but inferred cause. So for example we can observe the clock hands on Big Ben and infer that there must be a motor or some kind of power source inside the clock. Why? Because we know that clock hands cannot move themselves. We could take any other example of inferring a cause from an effect. The astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky, in 1933, observed the motions of galaxies in the Coma Cluster were moving too fast based on what could be seen and inferred that the presence of “dark matter.” His inference is similar to what we would make in the case of Big Ben and to the case in cosmological arguments. Finally, to take an analogy that was used by Scholastic thinkers, a stone being pushed (as opposed to rolling down a hill) is an observed effect, and from it we can infer that there must be something doing the pushing, because we know that stones cannot push themselves or otherwise have the power of locomotion.
Another way of understanding essentially-ordered series is that they are a version of the homunculus fallacy. This is the fallacy in using the explanandum (the thing demanding an explanation) as the explanation. The classic example of the homunculus fallacy involves explaining vision in humans as a result of a “little man” (i.e. a subsystem) inside our brains that looks at the image coming in through our eyes. The fallacy here is that we’ve explained vision by referencing something with vision, and so haven’t explained vision at all. We’ve used the explanandum (vision) as the explanation for vision, and so we are just going around in a circle. Now notice that it may actually be true that a “little man” or subsystem may be in our brains looking at a screen, but in that case we can lump it in with our primary vision and rather than explain this or that particular vision system we explain “things with vision” in general. Interestingly, Richard Dawkins makes use of this very principle in his objection to theism in his book The God Delusion. He responds to the argument for theism that the complexity of the universe demands a designer by arguing that the designer, in being capable of creating the complexity in the universe, would be even more complex than the universe itself and would require an even greater designer, and so on ad infinitum. Thus the complexity argument for theism is not a good argument since it just goes around in circles, explaining complexity with more complexity.
To see how the concept of essentially-ordered series are a flavor of the homunculus argument, let’s look at the original analogy of a hand pushing a stick pushing a stone. In reasoning from stone to hand, what we are doing is observing that the stone does not have its own power of locomotion and so we need to explain it. However, our explanation cannot be the explanandum. That is, we are trying to explain the movement of things that cannot move themselves. So we need to turn to something that is not a thing that cannot move itself. I.e., something that can move itself.
Now, hopefully this is a good description that will not cause too much confusion. Again, the core point of essentially-ordered series is simply that of an inferred cause from an observed effect. Anything else, such as whether such a series can be infinitely long, or whether such a series is simultaneous, is secondary and can be discarded without affecting the point.
Now let’s look at im-skeptical’s objections. First, he begins with a description of what he takes the two types of series to be, based on what he’s read me say about them. These will not be exact quotes but will be paraphrases, and I invite him to correct me if I got them wrong:
Essentially-ordered series are concurrent, and accidentally-ordered series are sequential
Admittedly, some explanations of it including my own can give this impression, but this isn’t quite right. Even if I’ve used the word “concurrent” before, I’ve seen how much confusion this can create and I’ve since discarded it. As you can see above, the key point really has nothing to do with how concurrent a cause and an effect are. The key point, to reiterate, is simply that in an essentially-ordered series a cause can be inferred from an observed effect.
Causes are a complex interacting web, and there is not any single “first” cause in an essentially-ordered series, but rather a multitude of causes
This is absolutely true, and Scholastic thinkers like Thomas Aquinas would not have disagreed with this. Nor is this built into the concept of an essentially ordered series. While we can infer a hand from observing a pushed stone, this is not to say that that is the end of our explanation nor that there isn’t some other explanation of the hand’s motion as well, and in fact there is: the hand pushed by muscles, the muscles triggered by motor neurons, and so forth. The point is simply that from a pushed stone we can infer at least something else in addition to the stone, whether that additional thing is simple, complex, or multiple.
There is no such thing as concurrent causation; in examples of essentially-ordered series, such as a power plant powering a lamp, if the power plant disappeared the lamp would stay lit for a time
This is also absolutely true, and it is unfortunate that I’ve given the impression that the entire series must be simultaneous. As Edward Feser illustrates2, consider the hand pushing a stick through a time portal (as seen in science fiction) and out the other side of the portal 10,000 years in the future, where the stick pushes a rock. In this case there is a time lag of 10,000 years between the motion of the hand and the pushing of the stone. Nonetheless, the motion of the stone still points to the existence of a cause capable of producing it, since, again, we know that stones cannot push themselves. Even if an effect lingers for a time after its cause has disappeared, we can still infer the cause from the effect. Would we, for example, be justified in rejecting the hypothesis of a burglar from the observance of a broken window and a missing TV set just because the burglar is long gone? Clearly not. We observed an effect, and even if the cause is no longer around we can still infer that it exists or once existed.
Essentially-ordered series have been disproved by modern science
If you’ve been paying attention, there isn’t anything in modern science that has refuted these concepts of inferring a cause from an effect, or that explanations cannot be circular.
Quantum events are uncaused and spontaneous
This objection illustrates a more fundamental point about two views of causation. A modern popular view of causation is Humean: a cause is an event, and an effect is an event that follows the cause. In contrast, the Aristotelian view of causation is that causes are things, not events, and that causes are simultaneous with their effects. Let’s look at an example. A cue ball striking a billiard ball causing it to move quickly away. On the Humean view, this consists of two events: the event of the cue ball striking the billiard, and the event of the billiard ball moving away from the cue ball. On the Aristotelian view this situation consists of the cue ball striking the billiard ball and the billiard ball being struck by the cue ball. The cause is the cue ball pushing into the billiard and the effect is the billiard being pushed by the cue. The cause and effect are simultaneous on this view, and instead of two events are rather two distinct descriptions of a single event. On the Aristotelian view, it wouldn’t make sense for the cause to be prior to, and therefore separate from, the effect, as a cause is only a cause insofar as it is having some effect. If it isn’t having an effect, then it just isn’t a cause by definition.
Now, in the case of beta decay, on the Humean view we may very well say that there is no cause because there is no preceding event. However, on the Aristotelian view, there is a cause: a preceding object. Namely, the nucleus of the atom that has an unequal number of protons and neutrons. It is the cause of the decay. If there were no unequal number of protons and neutrons, there would be no decay.
Note that modern science has not refuted Aristotelian causation in favor of Humean; it simply isn't asking questions like that. The atom decays and science explains it. Is this a case of being caused by an unequal nucleus, or an example of something uncaused because it has no prior event? We step beyond science and into more abstract and general reasoning to explore this issue. In fact, there has been somewhat of a move away from Humean causation and back to Aristotelian views, and from people fully versed in modern science and (to sweeten the well) atheists, such as Stephen Mumford in his book Getting Causes from Powers.
Hugo’s main objection not already covered by im-skeptical above is this:
The existence of everything can be traced to the stars, and ultimately the universe itself, and we can’t really know anything about the cause of the universe’s existence or even if it needs oneNow, there are a few things to address here, so it will take some teasing apart.
First, to properly understand the argument for an unmoved mover, we need to stick with the terminology introduced by them. The argument is that all potencies being actualized must ultimately trace to something that is already actual, without any potencies. This again is due to the fact that explanations cannot be circular. So to take Hugo’s objection, that everything can be traced to stars, the universe, etc, we need to first translate it to the language of act and potency. The question central to the unmoved mover argument is this: what is most fundamental? Something that is in act, or something that is in potency? Something in act is just something that is actual, or real/existent. Something that is in potency is something that is potentially existent, but not. So the question Hugo should be asking is not "whether everything can be traced to stars, the universe" but rather "can actualized potencies be traced to something in act, or something in potency?" The answer I'll leave aside for now, as it's not relevant to my point, which is only this: by tracing the existence of earth to stars, and stars to the universe, and universe perhaps to a quantum event, one isn't engaging with the unmoved mover argument as written. All these things need to be translated into either act or potency (or act and potency), if one wishes to engage with them.
In other words, let's take the concept from above, that explanations cannot be circular. The explanation for "actualized potencies" can only be something that is not that. In other words, it can only be something that is not an actualized potency, or in other words something that is already actual.
Another problem with Hugo's objection is that Aquinas is in no way arguing for the cause of the universe. He is simply arguing that any given actualized potency must be traced to something that is already actual. Not that the universe as a whole needs a cause. You can pick any actualized potency you like to follow along with Aquinas. I often take the example of a tree growing. It's a potency actualized by the Sun, oxygen, rain water, and so on. But each of these things are also actualized potencies. For example, the Sun's power to generate light and heat is a potency actualized by gravity pulling the Sun in on itself. But gravity is also an actualized potency: mass causes gravity. And mass is actualized by the Higgs particle. Like the homunculus fallacy, in order to explain actualized potencies we need to appeal to something that is not an actualized potency, not in the past (or not only in the past), but now, in the present, at the fundamental aspect of reality.
Hopefully, this fully apologizes to Hugo and im-skeptical, answers what an essentially ordered series is, and successfully answers both their objections.
1. Cohoe, Caleb, There Must Be First: Why Thomas Aquinas Rejects Infinite, Essentially Ordered, Causal Series (British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 2013)