A Response to the Argument from Material Causality

Ex-apologist presents an interesting argument against a form of classical theism that includes a classical view of creation: classical theismcvc (click here to read the original article). The argument is based on what he calls the principle of material causality, or PMC, which features in the first premise of his argument. The second premise states an implication of classical theismcvc and shows that one cannot hold to the PMC and to classical theismcvc at the same time, i.e. the two are inconsistent. Since one has good reason to hold to the PMC, classical theismcvc must be abandoned, so the argument goes.   Ex-apologists formulates it this way:

1. All concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining cause have a material cause of their existence.
2. If classical theismcvc is true, then the universe is a concrete object that has an originating or sustaining cause without a material cause of its existence.
3. Therefore, classical theismcvc is false. [1]

The argument is essentially valid, so the question of soundness comes down to the truth of the premises. In this critique, I will explore the notion of the principle of material causality, PMC, and show why, with a more precise notion of PMC in place, the argument cannot be successful. But first we must understand what ex-apologist means by a few of his terms.

Classical Theism: “…the view that there is a personal god who is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.”

The Classical View of Creation: “the view that consists in the following three theses: (i) God is wholly distinct from the natural world; (ii) God is the originating or sustaining cause of the natural world; and (iii) God created the natural world ex nihilo.

Originating cause: “…an efficient cause of the temporal beginning of a thing’s existence…”

Sustaining cause: “…an efficient cause of a thing’s continued existence.”

Matter cause: “…the things or stuff from which another thing is made…” [Note: Ex-apologist’s (1), his PMC, is restricted to concrete objects that have either a sustaining or originating cause. So no question is begged against God, since God is typically held to be uncaused. Also, though it is not explicitly stated, I take creation ex nihilo to be defined as the causation of something without pre-existing matter]

My Response:

First, something more should be said about what “universe” means, so as to avoid equivocation. With contemporary talk of multiverses, the word “universe” has been relegated to mean this particular spatio-temporal expanse. There may be parent universes that have generated our own universe along with countless sister universes. Of course, classical theismcvc claims that God has created and sustains the whole natural world, which would include the multiverse and any other natural thing beyond or outside of that. So the argument should avoid talk of the universe and instead just speak of the “natural world” as that which includes the totality of nature, whatever that was, is, or may be.

Ex-apologist uses a disjunction to say that God is the originating OR sustaining cause of the natural world. Now, some theists might object and say that God is both the originating AND the sustaining cause of the natural world. However, I think he is quite right to insist upon the disjunction. The idea of a “first cause” is not necessarily the same as an “originating cause”, which implies that the effect has a temporal beginning or begins to exist. When, for instance, Aquinas calls God the “first cause,” he does not mean to imply that God preceded the existence of the universe in time. In fact, as an Aristotelian, he thought that the best science of his day indicated that the universe could very well be past eternal (see SCG II.33 and SCG II.38).  Instead of thinking that God is temporally first in efficient causal priority, Aquinas thought God, who transcends time altogether, had priority or primacy as a causal explanation of everything, i.e. there is nothing beyond or beside God in the causal series out of which the universe is created. This is not to say that God can use secondary causes, but they are not “beside” God in the sense that they are uncaused and per se necessary. God is pure actuality, and He explains the actuality of all other things. I suspect that this is why ex-apologist is making use of the disjunction “originating or sustaining cause.” For, the universe need not be finite in the past for classical theismcvc to be true, and historically speaking, many proponents of classical theismcvc explicitly embraced the possibility that the natural world or cosmos lacked an originating cause.

Let us consider the principle of material causation more closely and whether it is genuinely inconsistent with creation ex nihilo. Now, as I have said, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is the claim that God caused the natural world without using pre-existing matter. But this does not mean that the natural world lacks material causality at any moment when it exists. Suppose there were a possible world where God creates, ex nihilo, a singular bronze sphere. Would the principle of material causation hold for this sphere? Yes. The sphere is materially caused by the bronze from which it is composed. The Aristotelian would not say that the sphere lacks a material cause merely because it wasn’t created from pre-existing bronze, or pre-existing copper and tin. Rather, the Aristotelian would say that a material cause did not precede the effect in time. That is, God did not use bronze or the components of bronze that existed prior to His willing the brazen sphere’s existence. In fact, even if the sphere were eternal, we could say that God creates the brazen sphere from no pre-existing matter even though bronze is the matter that “sustains” the sphere in existence as a secondary cause. Thus the brazen sphere is created ex nihilo and has a material cause. Likewise, the natural world could have a material cause at any moment it exists while not coming to be from pre-existing matter.

So what is going on here? How can some object be created ex nihilo and have a material cause? We need to make a parallel distinction to the one we find in efficient causality between originating and sustaining such that there can be an originating material cause for a thing and a sustaining material cause. We can define an originating material cause as the pre-existing matter out of which a concrete object begins to exist (e.g. the unformed bronze, or copper and tin). We can define a sustaining material cause as the matter that composes concrete object at all times that the concrete object continues to exist (e.g. the bronze currently in the sphere while it is existing). As the sphere and the bronze from which it is composed simultaneously exist as an effect of God’s will, the brazen sphere exists ex nihilo, from no pre-existing matter. Now, one might object by saying that this is not “creation” since creation must involve motion or change out of which something comes to be. This would be contrary, however, to what Aquinas argues in, for instance, the Summa Contra Gentiles II.17 where he specifically denies that creation involves motion or change.  For Aquinas, genuine creation is not merely changing one thing into another, but the very actualization of substance itself.  Creation is just what one calls the relationship between the first cause, God, and his effects, i.e. the creation of non-divine substance. Anything actualized by God, i.e. the being of pure actuality, is a created thing. So, for Aquinas, creation ex nihilo merely follows from the notion that God is the uncaused cause of all other things. It should also be noted that matter, the underlying stuff, is always a composite of act and potency. Consequently, on the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical view, there simply cannot be uncaused or uncreated matter that co-exists with God from which other things are made. For such matter would have to receive its actuality from another, and so it must have a caused if it exists—a cause that will somehow trace back to the Being of Pure Actuality. Admittedly this is the Aristotelian-Thomistic notion of matter, and perhaps ex-apologist would like to distance himself from such an understanding of matter towards a more modern notion of matter as pure extended stuff. Perhaps pure extension can exist uncaused along with God. It is less clear whether standard particle theory, which seems to comport better with hylomorphism than early modern notions of matter, can be uncaused or self-actualizing. Either way, I think more needs to be said about what matter actually is.

Now consider ex-apologist’s argument and the disjunctions involved therein. Those disjunctions will prove important to this discussion. We may grant that a concrete object that has an originating OR sustaining [efficient] cause has a material cause, but for ex-apologist’s argument to work, there must always be an originating material cause. Otherwise, one might escape his argument through the following formulation, PCM’:

(4) All concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause have an originating or sustaining material cause of their existence.

This reformulation will not force the falsity of classical theismcvc because it need not be the case that the universe has an originating material case. So:

(5) If classical theismcvc is true, then the natural world is a concrete object that has an originating or sustaining efficient cause and not an originating material cause of its existence.

(6) Therefore, if classical theismcvc is true, the natural world has a sustaining material cause of its existence.

Many classical theists will want to reject the notion that all of creation is material, but the thesis isn’t explicitly contrary to classical theismcvc, as ex-apologist defines it. So, the conclusion is consistent with classical theismcvc. To avoid this escape, ex-apologist will have to say that all concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause, must have an originating material cause of their existence. This means that he must have an even stronger PMC’’ which states:

(7) All concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause have an originating material cause of their existence.

From this, he can argue:

(8) If classical theismcvc is true, then the natural world is a concrete object that has an originating or sustaining efficient cause and not an originating material cause of its existence.

(9) Therefore, classical theismcvc is false.

Now PMC’’, as found in (7), seems a bit odd in that it maintains the disjunction with respect to efficient causality as though something could have an originating material cause (be composed from pre-existing unformed matter) simply because it has a sustaining efficient cause. Return to our possible world of the brazen sphere for a moment. Suppose God, or some other efficient cause, sustained the matter in the appropriate configuration for all eternity. Such a sphere would have a sustaining efficient cause but no originating material out of which the composite concrete object comes to be. This scenario has, at least, prima facie plausibility. So I see no good reason to suppose that a sufficient condition of having originating matter is for a concrete object to have a sustaining efficient cause. If something is eternal and sustained in existence (i.e. it has a sustaining efficient cause and no originating efficient cause), there is no good reason to think it came to be from pre-existing matter, and there is good reason to think that it would be incoherent to suppose it could have an originating material cause. Given that, (7) appears to be a false principle, and we should clarify our principle of material causality once again to PMC’’’:

10) All concrete objects that have an originating efficient cause have an originating material cause of their existence.

From here, one could argue:

11) If classical theismcvc is true, then the natural world is a concrete object that has an originating efficient cause and not an originating material cause of its existence.

(12) Therefore, classical theismcvc is false.

The problem, of course, is that (11) is too strong. Classical theism does not depend upon there being an originating efficient cause of the universe, just that there must be a first cause in order of explanation that could be either originating or sustaining. The universe need not have a temporal beginning at all. So it seems to me that ex-apologist needs argue, independently of whatever classical theismcvc may imply about the natural world, to say that it indeed has originating causes:

(13) All concrete objects that have an originating efficient cause have an originating material cause of their existence.

(14) The natural world has an originating efficient cause.

(15) If classical theismcvc is true, then the natural world does not have an originating material cause of its existence.

(16) Therefore, classical theismcvc is false.

Now what could be said of this argument? One might object to (13). Ex-apologist anticipates a rejection of his PMC via quantum mechanics or libertarian free will. I am not certain that his discussion is successful with respect to libertarian freewill, since he suggests that since an agent’s free will is caused by energy from outside of the natural causal order, freely willed choice is not genuinely caused ex nihilo. According to ex-apologist, the story would be that energy from outside the natural causal order was part of the causal explanation of the will, and so the choice would not be genuinely ex nihilo. It’s not clear to me that such an event would not be ex nihilo because of some supernatural energy.  I am not sure what this energy would be, but it is not clear that it is equivalent to or convertible with matter in any sense of the term, or that a free will choice is somehow composed from this pre-existing supernatural energy.  And it seems to me that if this point is pushed too hard, determinism threatens.  For if this supernatural energy is the something like the “pre-existing matter” out of which an agent’s choices emerges, then even if our choices are inexplicable within the natural causal order (since it is not closed), it may be explicable and determined within the supernatural causal order and determined there within.  The libertarian must maintain that alternative choice is possible, and so whatever this supernatural energy is, it cannot be determining things in the way pre-existing matter/energy determines things within the natural causal order.  So it is a disanalogous energy.

I would think that a more straightforward defeater for (13) would be the creation of immaterial souls or intellects. There are plausible arguments for the immateriality of the soul or part of the soul, and those arguments would have to be addressed by ex-apologist if his argument is to have any merit. My personal favorite is James Ross’s argument for the immateriality of thought (which I have blogged about here), though there are many other such arguments. Ross says that physical and material process are indeterminate, and so do not perfectly align with truth-preserving determinate processes such as we find in the intellect’s formal and deductive rational processes. He concludes that these intellectual processes cannot be material processes. If so, these processes are concrete and also have originating efficient causes in the agent. Insofar as they are immaterial, they lack a material cause in their origination, and they are not sustained by matter. Rather, hylomorphicists, like me, argue that the originating causes are formal and efficient rather than material.

With respect to (14), ex-apologist will have to sustain an enormous burden of proof. For this is not merely the claim that the universe began to exist at some finite point in the past, but that the whole of nature, itself, is a concrete object that began to exist at some point, and so came from pre-existing matter. What’s more, if the totality of nature was composed from pre-existing matter, then that matter would have to be, by definition, beyond that which is within the scope of the natural world, and so would be supernatural. This is, of course, problematic for any sensible definition of “natural” since matter has always been taken to be a prime example of that which is natural. Of course we need to pin down what “natural” and “material” mean to consider whether it is even coherent to talk about supernatural matter. Moreover, natural material things would have to be ultimately composed out of whatever this supernatural matter is. And since other things begin to exist out of this matter, all concreta that begins to exist would have to be ultimately composed out of this supernatural stuff. Also, there would have to be a supernatural efficient cause of the universe, to maintain this argument—some sort of demiurge. This is a very untoward consequence of attempting to sustain (13) and (14), as it would be a defeater for naturalism as much as it would be a defeater for classical theismcvc. In other words, in using  (13)-(15) to defeat classical theismcvc, one is, in effect, arguing in favor of the sort of cosmogony one finds in Plato’s Timaeus. I doubt that ex-apologist wants to defend the notion that there is a demiurge who fashions the natural world out of supernatural matter.

Summary: many classical theists would reject (13) on the grounds that the soul or part of the soul begins to exist, but lacks a material cause. Those arguments should not be ignored. Furthermore, classical theismcvc is neutral with respect to (14), so it is a premise that ex-apologist would need to justify independently. The ultimate problem is that (13) and (14), taken together, would undercut naturalism as much as classical theismcvc and lead to the absurd conclusion that the natural world is made out of some spooky supernatural “stuff”. I doubt any naturalist would want to defend (14) on its own merits, and it would be unfair to saddle the classical theist with defending (14), though there are some theists who seem keen on the idea of a finite past (I’m looking at you, Dr. Craig). It is for these reasons that I do not think a successful argument against classical theism from material causality can be had.

Ultimately the PMC is not incompatible with creation ex nihilo. At best, creation ex nihilo is incompatible with the notion that all concreta which has an originating efficient cause has an originating material cause, but only if it is assumed that the natural world has an originating efficient cause. Does the natural world have an originating cause? I’m not sure we can know. If it does have one, I am not sure that it is so much better to posit that it came to be from a demiurge and supernatural matter than from God ex nihilo.

[1] All quotes taken from Ex-apologist (2014, December, 04) “Theism and Material Causality”. Retrieved from http://exapologist.blogspot.com.es/2014/12/theism-and-material-causality.html

Posted on December 10, 2014, in Atheistic Arguments and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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