Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Law of Cause and Effect a Tenet of Aristotelian Faith

I went to a religious college for my undergraduate degree. I remember a professor in the Philosophy department answering a question from a student in class, "What in philosophy gives you the most qualms as a man of faith?"

The professor, without hesitation, said, "Immanuel Kant." It would be many years before I would really understand this answer and be in a position to offer the professor a prescription for his troubled mind (though surely he has passed by now, God rest his soul).

His problem with Kant had to do with the latter's view on miracles. Basically, Kant believed that there is no such thing.

Wrote Kant: "If one asks: What is to be understood by the word miracle? it may be explained . . . by saying that they are events in the world the operating laws of whose causes are, and must remain, absolutely unknown to us." (Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, Harper Torchbooks, p. 81, cite courtesy of Maverick Philosopher)

In other words, when you see something that appears miraculous, it's only nature functioning according to laws we don't yet understand.

But this view of Kant's is a natural progression from the law of causality (cause and effect), first stated with clarity within Kant's philosophical lineage by our arch nemesis Aristotle. (See The Philosophy of Success elsewhere on this blog). It's Aristotle with whom the professor should have picked his bone, not Kant. Kant's too far gone. He's too far down the line.

The problem with that tack would have been that the good professor had already bought into Aristotelianism so heavily that he couldn't give it up at that late date. So instead he continued to throw good money after bad, as the saying goes.

This discrepancy led to internal conflict for this deeply pious man. But religious academics are deathly afraid of giving up Aristotelianism. Perhaps they're afraid it will turn them into "holy rollers," modern-day mystics, and they're probably right.

No religious institution should allow Aristotelians to teach in their Philosophy departments. It doesn't make sense. The problem is, their administrations are also infested with Aristotelians, most of whom have no idea that's what they are and don't understand the difference anyway.

It's interesting to note that the Buddha completely bought into the law of cause and effect, and for this reason in part, Buddhist teaching at it's inception was atheistic in nature.

The only religious philosopher of note to have really understood the causality problem, it seems, came for the world of Islam. His name was al-Ghazali and he lived around the turn of the first millenium in what is today Iran. In his book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers,al-Ghazali's attacks on his fellow Muslim clerics who bought into Aristotelianism and the law of causality were scathing.

In common parlance, his answer to the law of causality is called "Occasionalism," and it was stated thusly:

"Take for instance any two things, such as . . . burning and contact with fire . . . or any other set of events observed to be connected together in Medicine, or Astronomy, or Arts, or Crafts. They are connected as the result of the Decree of God (holy be His name), which preceded their existence. If one follows the other, it is because He has created them in that fashion, not because the connection in itself is necessary and indissoluble."

Al-Ghazali's most famous illustration involves the burning of cotton. He writes:

"We admit the possibility of a contact between the two [cotton and fire] which will not result in burning, as also we admit the possibility of the transformation of cotton into ashes without coming into contact with fire. And they [clerics who follow Aristotle] reject this possibility.

Then al-Ghazali provides a succinct restatement of the law of cause and effect:

"[T]he opponent may claim that fire alone is the agent of burning, and that being an agent by nature (not by choice), it cannot refrain from doing what is in its nature to do--after it comes into contact with a subject which is receptive to it."

The response of Occasionalism:

"This is what we deny. We say that it is God who . . . is the agent of the creation of blackness in cotton; of the disintegration of its parts, and of their transformation into a smouldering heap of ashes."

Al-Ghazali's position renders the desired outcome for the person of faith:

We agree that fire is so created that when it finds two pieces of cotton which are similar, it will burn both of them, as it cannot discriminate between two similar things. At the same time, however, we can believe [in miracles]."

Aristotelians laugh and laugh at this construction, but it's completely reasonable. This is the philosophy the person of faith must espouse to maintain a belief in a supernatural God.

And quite frankly, the Aristotelian law of causality is untenable for one important reason: the idea of a first cause--the uncaused cause, as Aristotle called it--is utterly without logic, and therefore is extra or super-natural.

For this reason, Aristotle simply (and fatuously) assumed an eternal universe. The universe has simply always been, he said. Nothing caused it.

But if they didn't know then, we know now that the entire universe is simply energy. The planets, rocks, people, plants, water, fire, cotton, cells, molecules, atoms--all simply energy. It's all just heat--the breath of God, so to speak--and lots of it.

Nothingness was set on fire at a certain point and some day it will all burn out. Every atom will someday degenerate into cold nothingness.

What set all this in motion? The law of causality has no answer. Fortunately, occasionalism does.

That's what I would tell my venerable philosophy professor if he were still around to hear it. I'm betting he's still out there somewhere, and if he is he already has his answer.

You might also like: Dennis Miller and the God Question

Your comments are welcome.

Photo of Rembrandt's "Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer" courtesy of ibiblio.org.


  1. 16 Feb 2010 - I sent the following email to Maverick Philosopher (http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/):
    Are you familiar with the writings of the muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali and his idea now called "Occasionalism"? It seems to me that the person of faith must give up his/her faith in cause and effect for the supernatural to make sense, and Al-Ghazali seems to be the only person to have ever understood this.

  2. 17 Feb 2010 - Maverick Philosopher's Response:
    Am I familiar with occasionalism? Indeed I am and have given it quite a bit of thought. I advocate a contemporary version of occasionalism in "Concurrentism or Occasionalism? American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, vol. LXX, no. 3, Summer 1996, pp 339-359. This post will give the reader some idea of what occasionalism is.

    Does the believer have to give up his faith in cause and effect for the supernatural to make sense? No, at the very most he would have to abandon certain views of causation. That there is causation in the natural world is undeniable, a 'Moorean fact,' a datum. Anyone who denies this is a lunatic who belongs in the same 'bin' with eliminativists in the philosophy of mind. For if one were to deny causation, then one would in effect be denying that there is any difference between causal and noncausal event sequences. But surely there is such a difference as all will admit including al-Ghazali and Malebranche. I flip a switch (e1) and the light goes on (e2). At the same time the phone rings (e3). E1-e2 is a causal event sequence. E1-e3 is not. Philosophers are not in the business of denying such data as these. Philosophical questions first arise when we ask what it is for one event to cause another. That there is causation is a pre-philosophical datum. What causes what is a question for experience and science. What causation is is a philosophical question.

    Some theories of causation are inconsistent with theism, but not all are. For example, if it is maintained that all causation is event-causation and that there cannot be be agent-causation, then classical theism is ruled out. And I should also point out that one can be a theist without holding an occasionalist theory of causation. For example, once could be a concurrentist. But this is not the place to go into these details.

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