Jacques Maritain Center : Natural Theology / by Bernard Boedder, S.J.

SECTION 3. -- Difficulties of Spencer and Mill against the proof of a First Cause.

111. (1) Mr. Herbert Spencer{10} grants that regarding the origin of the Universe three verbally intelligible propositions may be made: the atheistic, the pantheistic, and the theistic, but he maintains that further consideration shows them all three to be inconceivable. The atheist postulates a self-existing actual universe, the pantheist a self-existing potential universe, the theist a self-existing Creator of the universe; consequently all the three theories rest upon the assumption of self-existence. Self-existence, however, is inconceivable, and accordingly none of the three theories can be admitted as a conceivable explanation of the world's origin.

To prove that self-existence is inconceivable, be argues thus:{11} "It is clear that by self-existence we especially mean, an existence independent of any other -- not produced by any other; the assertion of self-existence is simply an indirect denial of Creation. In thus excluding the idea of any antecedent cause we necessarily exclude the idea of a beginning -- to admit that there was a time when the existence had not commenced, is to admit that its existence was determined by something, or was caused: which is a contradiction. Self-existence, therefore, necessarily means existence without a beginning; and to form a conception of self-existence is to form a conception of existence without a beginning. Now by no mental effort can we do this. To conceive existence through infinite past time, implies the conception of infinite past time, which is an impossibility."

Answer. It is at least consoling to have in this passage a recognition of the old truth that the human mind is forced to admit something selfexisting. Mr. Spencer also in another passage says:{12} "We cannot think at all about the impressions which the external world produces on us without thinking of them as caused; and we cannot carry out an inquiry concerning their causation without inevitably committing ourselves to the hypothesis of a First Cause." In these words he himself gives us a clue wherewith to extricate ourselves from the labyrinth of his arguments about self-existence. He confesses in this latter passage that we cannot do without self-existence; and in the very passage which we have quoted above, and in which he has declared self-existence to be impossible, he has given a tolerably clear explanation of self-existence; how then can he uphold his assertion that self-existence is inconceivable? We cannot explain anything without really conceiving it, unless indeed we try to explain what involves an intrinsic contradiction. Can any intrinsic contradiction be suspected in the notions from which we form the concept of self-existence? Far from giving any reason for such a suspicion, Mr. Spencer adduces the strongest motives possible for not entertaining it. He states that the human mind cannot explain the most obvious daily experiences without falling back upon a First Cause. This granted, we must either admit the existence of a First Cause, or assert that our minds have an essential tendency to obtrude upon us a notion that is wholly visionary.

Mr. Spencer's inability to take in the idea of self-existence seems to arise from the views which he holds -- erroneous views, we should call them -- on the human intellect, and on time, and also from his failing to make any distinction between comprehending a thing thoroughly and conceiving it at all. Were the acts of the human understanding the effects of organic impressions, and were all thinking consequently reduced to the association of pictures in the imagination, the concept of self-existence in that case would be, as Mr. Spencer says, "literally unthinkable," as would also be all other universal and immaterial concepts. We have argued already for the existence of such concepts in expounding the argument of the First Cause.{13}

Mr. Spencer says that the idea of self-existence involves the concept of infinite time. But why? The concept formed by men of a Being uncaused and wholly independent is in reality a concept of self-existence. This concept does not explicitly express the infinite duration of that Being, and is so far forth inadequate; it is not a comprehensive concept; God alone comprehends His self-existence and infinite duration. This duration is, however, not infinite time, as Mr. Spencer thinks it should be. In God there is no kind of succession; and where there is no succession, there is no time.

Moreover, actually infinite time is self-contradictory; there can be finite actual time, and indefinite possible time, but not actually infinite time. God's duration is eternity, the unchangeable continuance of His self-existing Essence without possible beginning or end. Being eternal in Himself, He is the source of all existences capable of change, and consequently the real ultimate foundation of all possible time, which He comprehends by knowing fully His own eternity. We can have a true concept of indefinite possible time, but not an adequate concept. We conceive indefinite possible time, past or future, when we conceive the possibility of an indefinitely long series of successive changes before or after the present moment.

112. (2) Mill, in his Essays on Religion,{14} objects against the Argument of a First Cause thus: "The Argument for a First Cause admits of being, and is presented as a conclusion from the whole of human experience. Everything that we know (it is argued) had a cause, and owed its existence to that cause. How then can it be but that the world, which is but a name for the aggregate of all that we know, has a cause to which it is indebted for its existence?

"The fact of experience, however, when correctly expressed, turns out to be, not that everything which we know derives its existence from a cause, but only every event or change. . . . That which in an object begins to exist is that in it which belongs to the changeable element in nature; the outward form and the properties depending on mechanical or chemical combinations of its component parts. There is in every object another and a permanent element, viz., the specific elementary substance or substances of which it consists and their inherent properties. These are not known to us as beginning to exist: within the range of human knowledge they had no beginning, and consequently no cause; though they themselves are causes or con-causes of everything that takes place. Experience therefore affords no evidences, not even analogies to justify our extending to the apparently immutable a generalization grounded only on our observation of the changeable."

Answer. The proof which Mill here puts before his readers as the common proof for a First Cause, is certainly not the proof given either by us or by St. Thomas, or any Catholic author of weight and reputation.

The observations which Mill makes on the proof, as he has stated it, deserve attention. It is true that by mere reasoning from the facts of experience we cannot convince ourselves that the elements of matter are created out of nothing. But we arrive at that conviction, if we begin with facts of experience, and from them reason out the conclusion, admitted even by Mr. Spencer, that there must be a First Cause of changes, and thence inquire into the nature of this First Cause and its relation to the elements of matter. Such was our mode of reasoning in chapters ii. sect. 2, iii., and iv.

113. (3) Mill brings a second objection against the necessity of searching for a First Cause. He says:{15} "It is thus a necessary part of the fact of causation within the sphere of our experience, that the causes as well as the effects had a beginning in time and were themselves caused. It would seem, therefore, that our experience, instead of furnishing an argument for a First Cause, is repugnant to it; and that the very essence of causation as it exists within the limits of our knowledge, is incompatible with a First Cause."

Answer. Mill in this passage fails to see a distinction between the circumstances of causation to which our experience witnesses and its essence. The natural causes of which we have experience have each its own cause; but the dependence of each cause upon another preceding it is neither of the essence of causation nor a necessary adjunct of it. The essence, of causation consists in the fact that one being is in some way the reason why something else exists.

Whether the cause which acts is itself caused has nothing to do with the essence of causation; it is a circumstance accompanying the causation of the beings that come under our experience. But from this it does not follow that every cause must be caused. On the contrary, it can be shown that this hypothesis is against evident first principles.{16}

114. (4) Mill objects to the argument by which from the existence of the human mind we prove the existence of a self-existing intelligent Being. He says{17} "We are then entitled to ask, Where is the proof that nothing can have caused a mind except another mind? From what, except from experience, can we know what can produce what -- what causes are adequate to what effects? That nothing can consciously produce mind but mind is self-evident, being involved in the meaning of the words; but that there cannot be unconscious production must not be assumed, for it is the very point to be proved. Apart from experience, and arguing on what is called reason, that is, on supposed self-evidence, the notion seems to be that no causes can give rise to products of a more precious or elevated kind than themselves. But this is at variance with the known analogies of nature. How vastly nobler and more precious, for instance, are the higher animals and vegetables than the soil and manure out of which and by the properties of which they are raised up! The tendency of all recent speculation is towards the opinion that the development of inferior orders of existence into superior, the substitution of greater elaboration and higher organization for lower, is the general rule of nature. Whether it is so or not, there are at least in nature a multitude of facts bearing that character, and this is sufficient for the argument."

Answer. This objection of Mill rests evidently on two suppositions: 1. Only from experience can we know what sort of causes we must assume in order to explain given effects. 2. Experience bears positive evidence that effects are sometimes more perfect than their causes.

To the first of these suppositions we must reply by distinguishing between the determination of the sort or quality of cause required to produce the effect under consideration, and the identification, from among the number of those possessing the required qualities, of the particular individual, by which the effect has in fact been produced. The latter point can, as a rule, only be determined by experience; but the former can be determined by inference from the nature of the effect, and, in fact, can be determined in no other way. It is only in virtue of a previous inference which gathers from the nature of the effect wrought the necessary qualities and conditions of the agent which produced it, that experience is enabled to detect the actual agent out of the number of others which may happen to fall under observation. Moreover, if study of the effect leads to the conclusion that the adequate cause is one which from the nature of its essential attributes must be the only one of its kind in existence, in that case no further recourse to experience is necessary, and we are entitled at once, on the sole basis of the inference, to identify the actual individual agent.

To the second of Mr. Mill's fallacious suppositions we must give an answer on similar lines. Experience may seem to a superficial observer to bear positive evidence, that effects are sometimes more perfect than their causes: as, for instance, that a mature tree with its foliage and fruit is more perfect than the seed whence it sprang. Nevertheless, more solid investigation is aware that it must be guided to its results not by bare observation, but by observation based on the principles of reason. The principle of causality demands that the cause shall always precontain what it communicates to the effect. The seed, so far forth as it is less perfect than the tree that grows out of it, must be the partial not the total cause of the tree, and accordingly observation proceeds to discern what are the other contributing factors out of whose union and co-operation the total cause is composed. In the seed itself is a latent virtue which only reveals itself by a gradual process. In order to the evolution of this latent power, nutritive elements must be supplied in due time and manner from without. When all these contributory agents are considered, we discover that the principle of causality has in no sense been violated. Each contributor precontains what it communicates, in equal or higher measure than its correlative portion of the effect; and the assemblage of them all precontains adequately the entirety of the effect.

Thus our reasoning to the existence of God is quite justified. Throughout we keep in view the principle of causality, and find it leads us safely to the conclusion drawn. Applying it to the assemblage of visible things which surround us and are stamped with the characteristics of effects, we conclude that there must be a self-existing Being which is their Cause. This determines the kind of cause postulated. Further study of the idea of self-existence shows that there can only be one self-existent Being; and we are thus, without recourse to experience, enabled to identify our First Cause. The next stage has led us to discern the necessity of creation; since, on any other hypothesis, we should be having two first causes. And lastly, we were able to argue from the nature of the human mind on the one hand, and analysis of the notion of infinite being on the other, to the conclusion that the human soul must have been created by a free act of divine volition.

115. (5) Mill objects further:{18} "If mind, as mind, presents intuitive evidence of having been created, the creative mind must do the same; and we are no nearer to the First Cause than before."

Answer. It is not mind as mind, but the human mind as human mind, that presents evidence of having been created. This human mind manifests itself to us as contingent and finite. From the conclusion, then, that the human mind must have been created, it in no way follows that the creative mind similarly owes its origin to creation. On the contrary, the irrationality of seeking an explanation of the existence of created things in a processus ad infinitum, showing that there must be a First Cause, shows likewise that the First Cause could not have been created, but must be self-existent.

{10} First Principles, pp. 30-35.

{11} First Principles, p. 31.

{12} Ibid. p. 37.

{13} See also the articles, "An Examination of Mr. Herbert Spencer's Psychology" by Professor Mivart, Dublin Review, October 1874 till January 1880.

{14} Pp. 142, 143.

{15} Essays on Religion, p. 144.

{16} Cf. Argument of First Cause, c. ii. Sect. 2.

{17} Essays on Religion, p. 152.

{18} Essays on Religion, p. 153.

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