The Last Superstition: The First Cause

Chapter 3: The First Cause

If you thought Feser’s “Unmoved mover” argument was just mental masturbation, the sort of sophistry that gives philosophy a bad reputation and evokes the image of a tweed-wearing ivory tower professor using five-dollar words to ask meaningless questions, then you can skip his First Cause section, because it’s more of the same.

He begins by asking,

In order for the universe to undergo change, it obviously must exist. In particular, it must persist in existence from moment to moment. So why does it do so? [p. 109]

In the previous section, we saw that Aquinas assumed, as so many did, that objects in motion stop of their own accord, and need something to keep them going; and that Newton showed that that’s not a general rule, it’s just the way things usually play out on Earth.

Feser’s question here seems to stem from the same source: that there has to be some sustaining force for the universe to not collapse on itself and disappear in an instant. It seems that “things are the way they were a moment ago” isn’t the sort of thing that needs an explanation. If the universe did disappear, that would be a big change, something that required an explanation.

But Feser prefers to go on for a few pages about essences and “creating cause[s]”. I’ll spare you. The main question is, if B caused A, and C caused B, what happens as you go up the chain of causes?

No, the only thing that could possibly stop the regress and explain the entire series would be a being who is, unlike the things that make up the universe, not a compound of essence and existence. That is to say, it would have to be a being whose essence just is existence; or, more precisely, a being to whom the essence/existence distinction doesn’t apply at all, who is pure existence, pure being, full stop: not a being, strictly speaking, but Being Itself. [p. 108]

I’m not sure why the above is a better ultimate explanation than “it’s just that way” (I mean better in the sense of helping us understand the world around us, not in the sense of being emotionally satisfying.)

You might wonder why, if the cause of the universe is, ultimately, existence, why we need a separate word, especially one with as much baggage as the word “God”. In the next paragraph, he tells us: the first cause is the prime mover, and “Hence, equally obviously, the First Cause is God. [p. 108]”

The Supreme Intelligence

True to form, Feser starts and ends this section with several pages of complaining about New Atheists and others. When he finally gets around to making his argument, he starts by raising the question of why the universe exhibits any regularities:

But there is no way to make sense of these regularities apart from the notion of final causation, of things being directed toward an end or goal. For it is not just the case that a struck match regularly generates fire, heat, and the like; it regularly generates fire and heat specifically, rather than ice, or the smell of lilacs, or the sound of a trumpet. It is not just the case that the moon regularly orbits the earth in a regular pattern; it orbits the earth specifically, rather than quickly swinging out to Mars and back now and again, or stopping dead for five minutes here and there, or dipping down toward the earth occasionally and then quickly popping back up. [p. 114]

This seems equivalent to asking, “why is it, in the general case, that things left to their own devices act in certain ways but not others?”

He continues:

And so on for all the innumerable regularities that fill the universe at any moment. In each case, the causes don’t simply happen to result in certain effects, but are evidently and inherently directed toward certain specific effects as toward a “goal.” [p. 115]

Note the teleology — or, if you will, the question-begging: things behave in a certain way, so that must be their end-aim, purpose, or “goal”. But you can’t have a purpose without someone deciding what the purpose is:

Yet it is impossible for anything to be directed toward an end unless that end exists in an intellect which directs the thing in question toward it. [p. 115]

I believe this is known as painting a target around the arrow: the moon orbits the earth, therefore its purpose is to orbit the earth. But since you can’t have a purpose without a mind, someone must have set it up that way.

Could such a Supreme Intelligence possibly be anything less than God? It could not. For whatever ultimately orders things to their ends must also be the ultimate cause of those things [p. 117]

By this logic, the architect who decided to assemble bricks into a house — that the house is the end goal and purpose of the bricks — is also the person who baked the bricks. It seems apparent that Feser is not interested in following evidence and logic wherever they lead, but rather in finding paths to his favorite conclusion. That is, apologetics.

Series: The Last Superstition

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11 Responses to The Last Superstition: The First Cause

  1. Steve Watson says:

    Latest assignment in one of my courses: 1) Reconstruct Aquinas’s First Cause Argument in formal logic. 2) Compose a counter-argument, specifying which premise you are attacking (I think I’ll go after the “infinite regress not allowed” premise).


  2. I’m certainly glad that more atheists are coming to have exposure to Aristotelian-Thomistic thought through Feser’s book The Last Superstition, but I don’t think your treatment is very fair, at all. What you’ve just insulted as “mental masturbation”, “sophistry”, and “meaningless question asking” is not just one contemporary philosopher named Ed Feser, but an entire system of philosophical thought which has its roots in some of the dominant, most significant and influential figures in Western thinking, including Aristotle and Aquinas. You may very much disagree with them, but I would at least advise trying to develop deeper understanding, appreciation, and fairer treatment before completely riding them off. Feser is just the tip of the ice berg in understanding Aristotelian-Thomism and other classical systems of thought. For more in depth explanations and defenses of these types of arguments (including Aquinas’s First Cause), I’ve written a lot about them, You can see here for an example:


    • arensb says:

      I don’t know if you’ve read any of the other posts in this series, but you might want to read some of the earlier ones if you haven’t already. I am trying to be fair to both Feser and his predecessors. I think he’s done a reasonably good job of explaining Aristotelianism-Thomism, and the reasons I reject it and describe it as I do has a lot more to do with the parts that I understand than the parts that I don’t.
      But yes, of course it’s possible, even likely, that there’s something I’m not understanding. Any idea what it might be? (And no, I’m not particularly interested in reading yet another version of Aquinas’s first cause argument; I’ve already pored over Feser’s version; that seems like it ought to be enough.)

      but an entire system of philosophical thought which has its roots in some of the dominant, most significant and influential figures in Western thinking

      You may want to take that up with Feser: Aristotle and Aquinas may be important figures in the history of western thought, but throughout this book, Feser never tires of reminding us that they are no longer considered dominant or significant by the majority of philosophers. You could say the same thing about Karl Marx: he was important in his time, but we’ve figured out where he went wrong, and we’ve moved past him.


      • Responding to specific things within the post: 1) The issue of Newtonian motion. It’s been quite a while since I’ve read the Last Superstition, but I’m pretty sure I remember Feser addressing this issue in there. For fuller, more in depth treatment, you might see some of his academic papers, including “Motion in Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein” or “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways,” or this blog post by Eve Keneinan:
        2) The essence/existence distinction is the reason why Feser, following Aquinas, states that the universe needs a sustaining cause to stay in existence from moment to moment. I go into that in my own post linked above. This is a better explanation than “it’s just that way” because, for one, that’s not an explanation at all, and two, given the framework, for it to “just be that way” would be metaphysically impossible.
        3) Why do we need a separate baggage word such as “God” if the sustaining cause is just existence? Well, we don’t NEED the extra word at all. It’s just that when we work out what qualities the sustaining cause has, they are the same qualities as what classical theists have traditionally attributed to God. You could call it anything you like, as long as you know what it is you’re actually referring to.
        4) I don’t see why his description of teleology is question begging. But regardless, for fuller treatment of teleology, see, for example, his book Scholastic Metaphysics, or David Oderberg’s book Real Essentialism.
        5) I’m not quite sure what your last point about the bricks was.

        As for the significance of Aristotle/Aquinas, they’re system of thought has certainly gone out of favor, but they are still highly revered (at least Aristotle) for being founders/highly important builders of western understanding. Scientists may not give any heed to Aristotle’s actual writings, but without Aristotle there would be no modern science; he practically invented it.


      • arensb says:

        I’m pretty sure I remember Feser addressing this issue in there.

        If you find a page number, let me know.

        For fuller, more in depth treatment, you might see some of his academic papers

        Thanks, but I’ll pass. I realize you’ll probably think me closed-minded, but I’ve been down the “here, read this post, and this paper, and these other papers, and this book, and this library” rabbit trail, and it doesn’t lead anywhere.
        The fact that Feser spends page after page after page in The Last Superstition in gratuitous insults and polemics tells me that, in his opinion, he was able to present an adequate treatment of his important points in 300 pages, and still have space left over. So until I’m given reason to believe otherwise, I’ll assume that he made a decent case. If a summary of the top ten best arguments for Aristotelianism is unconvincing, then I see no reason to think that arguments 11 through 30, which didn’t make the top ten, will be any better
        If you disagree, then I’ll ask you not to simply assert that there are good answers out there, as you do, but to give me some reason to believe that that assertion is true. You can summarize the good answers, or at least give some evidence that there are good answers to be had.

        It’s just that when we work out what qualities the sustaining cause has, they are the same qualities as what classical theists have traditionally attributed to God.

        Yeah, that’s what Feser claims, but his arguments are bullshit.

        5) I’m not quite sure what your last point about the bricks was.

        Feser’s making a leap of logic, saying that God decided the ultimate purpose of the universe, and thus must have caused each individual component of the universe. This is a non sequitur (though it also looks a bit like a fallacy of division), like saying that an architect who decided that the ultimate purpose of a given pile of bricks should be to constitute a house, is also the person who created the bricks.


    • Steve Watson says:

      I’m an atheist who is now taking a BA in philosophy, with an interest in history of ideas, and I spent a bunch of the summer reading Aristotle, and would like to get better acquainted with the Scholastics. Which hardly makes me an expert, but I try very hard to be a sympathetic reader who tries to understand these guys in their own terms. So yes, I am very much aware how much the Western tradition owes to them. But I still get to think they are *wrong* on major points, and now considered irrelevant for good and sufficient reason (for example: form and accident just aren’t useful ways of thinking about physics).


      • arensb says:

        Yes: while reading Feser’s explanations of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, etc., I kept being reminded that these people lived at a time when a lot of what we now consider elementary background knowledge simply wasn’t available. Concepts like inertia and information, in particular, hadn’t been developed yet, or certainly not to the extent that they are today.
        Thus, for instance, it’s natural for someone like Aristotle to look around and wonder why living people and animals don’t just rot and decay the way dead animals do; he didn’t know anything about all the work bodies do to prevent being scavenged by microbes. But we have microscopes now; we understand inertia well enough to send probes to other planets (and dwarf planets). If Aristotle’s or Aquinas’s philosophy isn’t compatible with what we now know about physics, it needs to be fixed or discarded.


      • Of course you get to think they’re wrong on major points, that wasn’t my insistence at all. A good many Christian and atheist thinkers a like reject his ideas. My point was that, in disagreeing with him, one should at least treat his ideas fairly, accurately, and respectfully. I also don’t agree that an idea that is wrong is therefore “irrelevant for good and sufficient reason”. And I would add that if conceptions such as form aren’t useful ways of thinking about physics, that’s only because physics ruled it out from the start, and so much the worse for physics. But that’s a whole other issue.


      • arensb says:

        if conceptions such as form aren’t useful ways of thinking about physics, that’s only because physics ruled it out from the start, and so much the worse for physics

        If you engage with a physicist and explain to them why Forms are useful in understanding the world, will you please leave a comment here with a link? That sounds like a debate I’d like to read.


  3. Michael says:

    What’s interesting to me is people cite the regularity of the universe as pointing toward God’s existence, yet also interruptions to that (miracles) in other cases. As a Catholic, Feser must believe in miracles, so this becomes contradictory.


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