Problems in Contingency I: Serial Contingency and Polytheism


The argument for God as the first cause of serial contingency is an argument for polytheism. However, the argument fails because God cannot confer on even one creature the divine power of creation, let alone on many and that by serial transmission. Yet, he would be able to do so, if God were the first cause of a causal series of beings.

Polytheism: The First Cause in a Progressive Line as God

It is popular to propose that the linear regression of serial causality must terminate in a first cause in line, which is then identified as God. However, the very concept of a cause is that it is the sufficient explanation of an effect. Therefore, each cause in a series is sufficient in itself to explain its effect. If it did not, it would not be a cause and there would be no series of causes.

If there is a series of causes, then any cause in the series must be adequate to serve as the first cause in the line of the subsequent causes and effects, when the series is viewed as a progression rather than a regression. If we propose that the very first cause of a progressive linear series is God, the one, whose effect is existence, then all causes in the series are Gods. Voila, polytheism. Conversely, if we view a series as regressive and name the first cause in line “God”, rather than raising the series to the level of God, we lower God to the level of causality of the series, the result of which is pantheism.

Our Mode of Knowledge and the Nature of Material Things

The apparent linearity of causality is not a characteristic of causality in itself. Rather such apparent linearity is characteristic of existing material things and of our human mode of knowledge, which is predominately reasoning. It is because human intellectual knowledge is extrinsically dependent upon our material senses that our thought process is reasoning. Just as we can perceive only one composite of sensation at any moment to the exclusion of all others, so too our rational thoughts are successively exclusive one after exclusive other. In contrast, if our mode of knowledge were predominantly intuitive, we would apprehend truth as integral, as a whole, rather than in the piecemeal, linear mode of reason.

Indeed, human knowledge is intuitive at the level of apprehending the natures of things. This is apparent in the knowledge of the nature of a living entity, such as a horse. I intuitively know the nature of a horse, but I cannot communicate it to anyone else because human intellectual communication depends upon reasoned knowledge, which we are inclined to call information. This is evident in that I can communicate a list of the properties of a horse to another person through the verbalization of thoughts, whereas I cannot communicate the nature of a horse to anyone. The nature of a horse does not consist in the sum of its properties. Intellectual apprehension of the nature of a horse is intuitive and is achieved by an individual through sense contact with a horse.

Acknowledging that human perception is serial, Melanie Juneau of Catholic Stand recently highlighted the contrast between reality and the limited mode of human knowledge of it: “Eternity is Not Linear: From our point of view …” Accordingly, He who is eternal cannot be the first in the line of a series of agents. Causal linearity is characteristic of change in the mutable existent, thereby causal linearity presupposes not only existence but mutability.

The Coming into Existence Via Substantial Change is Not Creation

Material things, which are the immediate object of human knowledge, are mutable at the level of their substance and at the level of their properties. We witness change at the level of substance as well as at the level of property.

In substantial change, one substance ceases to exist and another substance comes into existence. This is change. It is not the annihilation of one substance and the creation of another, because matter persists in existence throughout the change. Although not creation, substantial change does demonstrate that existence is not of the nature of any material being.

In a change in property, a substance, an entity, persists throughout the change of its property.

Analogies of Artifactual Series to Natural Series

Although analogies involving human artifacts are sometimes cited as an aid to understanding the argument for God as the first cause of a series, no one cites God as the first cause of an artifactual series. A typical example of this analogy presents the rolling stock of a railroad train as a series of contingent causes of motion, necessitating a self-moving locomotive as the first cause of the series. In contrast to such artifactual series, the best natural series which might be cited for God as actual first cause is that of biological reproduction at the plant or animal level because that involves substances coming into existence.

 The Best Example of Serial Substantial Change Resulting in Existence

In sexual reproduction, a new individual of the species comes into existence through the power of a male and a female in their formation of pollen and ovule, in the case of the higher plants, and of sperm and egg, in the case of animals. The parents can truly be said to be the cause of the existence of their offspring. Further, this is serial causal generation. However, God is not the first cause in a series of efficient causes of biological entities.

Biological generation is a substantial change which is fully and sufficiently explained at the level of existence of biological entities. In this substantial change, the substances of pollen and ovule, or sperm and egg, produced by the parents, cease to exist and a new individual of the species comes into existence. This is change because what persists is matter, evident in the persistence of forms below that of substance. This is cause and effect because the nature of the new individual, the effect, is fully explained by its precedent causes. It is serial causality. However, the first cause in the series is not God. If there can be said to be a first cause in a series of biological parentage, it could only be a first set of parents of the species in question.

An Interim Conclusion Based on Substantial Change

The interim conclusion of this essay is that God is not the first cause of any series of causes of the existence of material things. What we experience at the material level of coming into and going out of existence is not creation and annihilation, but substantial change as elucidated by Aristotle based on the principle of the conservation of matter.

Within the span of human existence, matter is neither created nor destroyed. However, the substantial forms of matter, which forms give specific identity to each material entity, do change. The change is such that the form(s) coming into existence is fully explained by the form(s) ceasing to exist. This is fully suited to human knowledge, that by knowing what is, we can know what can come into being by substantial change. Similarly, by knowing the form of what is, we can know what was.

God is not the first cause of any series, because series are material and each cause in the series, no matter what number we might assign to it, must be material or it wouldn’t be a serial cause.

In a follow-up essay, I will discuss whether the contingency argument for the existence of God necessarily involves a series of causes.

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