Making Sense of Things That Come to Be

I return now to my ongoing project of giving an apologia, or a reasoned defense of why I am Catholic and why I believe as I do, provoked, as I was, to provide one as by a certain religiously skeptical college student. This project I began in the post All Good and Deserving of All My Love. In the course of this exercise, I have come to see, that for me at least, religious belief is a matter of choosing among alternatives, different systems of thought and living which explain the world, give meaning to it and my place in it, and the purpose for living and acting in specific ways. I found that I agree with Walker Percy, that besides Catholicism, what else is there? Thus, the short answer for why I am Catholic (and why everyone else (all things being equal) should be, too) is that the Catholic faith is true and nothing ever seemed truer. If such an answer is unseemly in its directness (especially the claim about what others should do or believe), I could also say that I have found the Catholic faith to be true, or that the Catholic faith makes the most sense of the world, of myself and of my place within it among the alternatives I have considered. (I have thought long and hard on this and I am pretty sure these three manners of expression (x is true (and everyone should believe x); I find that x is true; and x make the most sense to me) are logically equivalent, but that the last two are more palatable to the epistemically sensitive.) But of course, the short answer leaves a lot out.

I tried to give some detailed account why Scientific Materialism is no alternative to Catholic faith, as Scientific Materialism must be false because it cannot explain any cognitively veridical process (or truth revealing argument) even and especially science, and worst of, even itself (if it were true (which it cannot be for this very reason)). It may perhaps have been unclear in that blog post that there is a clear distinction between science, on the one hand, which offers explanations of the natural world in terms of physical objects, their properties and the necessary laws that describe and predict such objects’ behavior; and Scientific Materialism, on the other, which claims that the explanations and objects employed by science are the only valid means of discovering truth, and that physical objects are the only things that exist. In one sense, science and Scientific Materialism may appear the same in that science focuses exclusively on physical explanations as a matter of methodology, and follows these physical explanations to their limit without invoking any non-physical or supernatural agency. But a good scientist will not pronounce on what is beyond the limit of his science, and thus not assert the non-existence of the non-physical, but merely limit himself to his area of the physical world. Scientific Materialism goes beyond mere methodology, and denies the reality of anything non-physical. At the end of the day, and what I hoped to convey, but may have not emphasized well enough, is that science, good; Scientific Materialism, bad.

Since Scientific Materialism is false (or seems false to me, or just doesn’t make sense to me) I did not view it as an alternative to Catholic faith. I did not undertake these arguments against Scientific Materialism explicitly in the course of my faith/intellectual history in leaving the study of engineering for the seminary and religious life, but I deepened my commitment to and understanding of the Catholic faith as I implicitly rejected a secular worldview that I knew was hollow in ways that I would later study and articulate in arguments outlined in that previous blog post.

I had intended, at this point in my apologia, to give a positive account of what cognition is, and what the Scientific Materialist account of cognitive process fails to account for. I have spent a lot of intellectual and academic effort on aspects of this positive account of cognition. And the truth of this account, and the implication that mind (and thereby the soul) operates with some independence from the body, is another part of why (I have continued to believe that) the Catholic faith is true. I am still at work on this positive account of cognition and the soul’s spiritual nature for this apologetic project, but am not ready to present it yet.

Aquinas counting out 5 ways

But in addition to that intellectual and academic effort, I have also been occupied filling out this web site, The Thomistic Philosophy Page, and of late, have been seeking to complete my analyses and explanation of the Five Ways of proving the existence of God of Saint Thomas Aquinas, as seen in recent blog posts here, and here. So while an understanding of the nature of cognition and the soul are part of why I have remained Catholic (and why I believe everyone should be or become Catholic), the fact that God exists, and can be known to exist through rational arguments (proofs in a loose sense), is also an important part of this story.

My very recent work on the Five Ways has been on the Third Way, which I think is one of the more compelling (along with the Fourth and Fifth), but I have gotten bogged down in the issue of Aquinas’s alleged commission of the Birthday fallacy. I am coming to find this particular issue is more of a textual one and a distraction from the central argument of the Third Way. I then tried to present for myself that central argument in graphical form, fittingly enough, as a decision tree testing the various alternatives that arise in considering why and how there are things which come to be.

This is what I consider to be a cogent and compelling argument for the existence of God distilled from Aquinas’s Third Way.

Argument from Contingency

1. Things come to be.

This is a matter of direct, though rational, observation. One can see things coming into being, either eggs from chickens, or any kind of offspring from parents, or rust from iron, and so on and so forth. Some things which did not exist begin to exist. These are contingent beings.

2. Whatever comes to be has a cause distinct from itself.

This also is a matter of direct, rational observation, and is known as “the principle of causality” (or in a more general form as “the principle of sufficient reason”). There is no know case, nor indeed is it possible, that a new thing comes to be except from some cause that already exists. We generalize this principle from our observation of the processes of substantial changes ubiquitous in nature, so it is empirical in the broad sense, and not a mere stipulation. (This, of course, has been doubted, most famously by David Hume (and more recently JL Mackie (as applying only to an ultimate cause of the universe), but such skepticism if applies consistently makes science impossible, and the everyday life (especially of the skeptic) completely incoherent. Such irrational skepticism need not be any serious threat to the line of reasoning being developed here.)

3. Whatever comes to be is temporally finite (has a beginning); what does not come to be is atemporal and eternal.

This is just a definition, and an implication, of what it means for a thing to come to be. A thing comes to be within time, or the temporal succession of causes. If something is real and exists, but did not come to be, by that very fact it would not be temporal, but rather, eternal. NB, an atemporal, eternal being, if it were causally related to temporal ones, would be equally related to them for all of their time, since the atemporal one has no moments, before or after others, whereby it can be related to temporal beings at one time or another.

4. The universe is the collection of all the things that come to be.

This is another definition; it just stipulates that what we mean by ‘universe’ is comprised of only temporally finite things that come to be. The temporal limitation is only for each thing that comes to be, not necessarily for the collection as a whole, though it may be temporally limited, too. Any atemporal, eternal being would, by definition, be excluded from the universe, so understood.

5. What is the cause for all the things that come to be (the universe)?

Science begins and proceeds on the basis of the insights contained premises in 1 and 2. It is a natural, though not strictly a scientific question, to apply these insights to the universe of things that come to be. This is a philosophical question (to which almost all people turn their attention at some point).

NB, that although this is not a scientific question, it might be occasioned by science. A scientist can be perfectly competent and complete in her investigation of nature and things that come to be (under some scientific perspective) as a scientist and not ask this question. She would go beyond her ken, however, if she either affirmed or denied there were a cause, or even an answer to this question. She may be correct in her affirmation or denial, but not in her capacity as a scientist. This is a philosophical question for which guidance should be sought in those trained in the discipline (despite the wild variation in such training). This present exercise is intended to offer just such guidance.

There are two exhaustive options for answering this question.

       5a. The universe came to be.

Observations confirming the postulate of the Big Bang thereby confirm this postulate.

              5a.1. Therefore, the universe is temporally finite. (3, 5a)

              5a.2. Therefore, the cause of a temporally finite universe
                            does not come to be; if it did, it would be temporal
                            and so part of the universe. (2, 4, 5a.1)

Something must have caused the Big Bang, and it must stand outside of the universe and time. This option is just considering the situation wherein the collection of all things that come to be begins to be. If there were a prior physical, temporally transient state “before” the Big Bang, from which it came, it would either itself be temporally limited or not. If the former (for which there is much evidence against according to Big Bang cosmology), it would fall under 5a, and the true beginning of things that come to be would be pushed back farther in the temporal succession of the universe. The causal initiator of the succession, if there was one, would still stand outside of the succession. If the latter, it would fall under 5b, below.

        5b. Everything that comes to be has a cause within
              the universe, but the universe does not come to
              be; it is temporally infinite (has no beginning).

Penrose’s idea of a conformal cyclic cosmology

This is another postulate, a possible alternative to a temporally finite universe (which the evidence seems to confirm began in the Big Bang). Aristotle thought that the universe was not temporally finite, but that things have been coming to be forever. There are many cyclical, or steady-state, or otherwise creative theories for a universe that does not come to be. On all of these theories, each thing within the universe that comes to be has a cause, and so satisfies premise 2, but the universe as a whole does not need to satisfy the premise (since it does not come to be).

 NB, observation counts against this possibility, as mounting observations are confirming the truth of the Big Bang theory.

6. Therefore, some thing (the universe or an extrinsic cause) exists that does not come to be. Its being is atemporal and eternal. It is necessary.

This is a conclusion from 3 and either 5a.2 or 5b. Whether the universe was caused to begin to be (in the Big Bang or some prior event), or whether the universe has always existed, either way, there must be something that does not come to be. There must be something that is atemporal in itself and eternal, and so necessary. At this point, the argument is not claiming to have proved a necessary being apart but causative of the universe. It may be the case that the universe is the ultimate necessary being that sustains, and so causes, the coming to be of everything within it.

7. Does this necessary being have a cause?

This, again, is a philosophical, not a scientific question, and it applies the insight of premise 2, though in an analogous way, for while premise 2 supposes there must be a cause for things that come to be, here, we wonder whether things which do not come to be must have a cause, and what sort of cause might apply to things which are atemporal and eternal. The exhaustive options are:

       7a. A necessary being is necessary of itself (uncaused).

This is a postulate. It considers the possibility that the necessary being which always exists (whether universe or its cause) must exist, of itself and uncaused. That is, it is postulated as an option that the necessary being cannot not exist, its existence being necessary in and of itself, not merely that it timelessly and eternally exists. For, as the other option considers, a being that is necessary in the sense of not coming to be, need not be such that it has to exist. But at this point in the argument, it is only a postulate that there is a self-necessary being.

       7b. A necessary being has its necessity caused.

This is the other, alternate postulate. The necessary being which always exists (whether the universe or its cause) might have a cause for its eternal, atemporal being. How can something which always exists have a cause? This can be hard to understand. Even though a being that is necessary in the sense of not coming to be, but being atemporal and eternal, still might not have been. Even though from the perspective of the universe (either being the universe itself or the external cause of it), the necessary being has always existed, if it is not necessary of itself, it might not have existed. There could be nothing, after all. If it does exist (and this was established in 6), it is still legitimate to ask if it has a cause for its always atemporally and eternally being. It is, as it were, a contingent fact that a being that does not come to be nevertheless always is, and to this fact it is legitimate to apply a generalized principle of causality or the principle of sufficient reason. If a necessary being exists (by not coming to be), though it still might not have (since, ex hypothesi, it is not self-necessary), its necessary and eternal existence would still require an explanation, a cause for why it does, in fact, exist.

              7b.1. A caused necessary being must be caused
                            atemporally, simultaneously.

This is a rational (though not strictly empirical) observation or insight into what the cause of a necessary, eternal and atemporal being would have to be in order to cause such an effect. It can cause an eternal effect by sustaining its being. As a house is sustained by the being of the bricks which make it up, and the bricks by silicon and carbon etc., the sustaining cause is simultaneous with its effect, though obviously there is a causal priority to what sustains over what is sustained, as the silicon, carbon, etc. are prior to the bricks, which in turn are prior to the house.

              7b.2. A series of atemporal, simultaneous causes
                            cannot be infinite.

A series of turning cogs cannot be infinite and with out a first cause of the turning.

This is an empirical observation. Though we do not observe with the senses necessary, eternal and atemporal causes sustaining effects that are likewise necessary beings, we do observe sustaining causes of motions, as when a stone is pushed by a stick and the stick by a hand. Or, other, perhaps clearer, examples, as when the last in a series of cogs is turned due to the turning of a prior cog, which is, in turn, turned by the cog prior to that, and so on. Or, a last train car is pulled by the one prior, and that one is pulled by the one prior to that, and so on.

What we observe in these simultaneous series of caused causes is that the series cannot be infinite. There just would be no series of causation without a first initiating cause of the whole causality that is being simultaneously transferred down to the last effect. On rational reflection, it is just obvious that there cannot be an infinite number of intermediary sticks pushing the last stone without a first moving hand causing the whole line of sticks to move, and thereby push the stone. Likewise, there just cannot be an infinite series of turned cogs turning subsequent cogs without a first moving, driving cog, which is the source of the turning motion that is being transferred all along the series. And, similarly, there cannot be an infinitely long train with no engine, or other source for the motion being transferred. We recognize the similarity to these familiar cases in the series under consideration: the series sustaining in being of atemporal, eternal, necessary beings is similarly simultaneous, and the caused effects of prior necessary beings are themselves causes of subsequent necessary beings. This causal series of necessary beings is relevantly similar to the familiar sustaining causal chains, and thus we can know and conclude that neither can the series of caused necessary beings be infinite.

8. Therefore, there is some self-necessary cause of all things that come to be.

This conclusion results from the insight that since the causal series of caused necessary beings cannot be infinite, such as series could only be sustained by a necessary being outside of it, i.e., by something that is self-necessary. We conclude, therefore, that option 7b requires 7a. Whether there is a series of sustaining necessary causes, or only one, there has to be just one self-necessary being that is causally first to the universe and the things that come to be. We have not said anything about the nature of what this real, existing self-necessary being is. It is thus appropriate to ask:

What is the self-necessary cause? The exhaustive options are two: the universe or something apart from it.

9. The universe is self-necessary.

If this were true, there are only two ways to relate it with the universe as we experience it:

       9a. Either, no ‘things’ come to be. All is made out of
              the universe and exists secondarily.

One option for the universe, composed only of things which come to be, to be self-necessary and not able not to be is for these ‘things’ to not really come to be at all, but to ‘exist’ in a secondary sense, as the arrangement, or higher-level state of whatever the universe is or is made out of in its most basic and causally primary and sustaining sense. In this option, the chicken, the iron, the rust, you and I and everything under the sun, etc. would not come to be at all in a self-necessary universe, because all of these ‘things’ just ‘are’ (in the secondary sense of being ‘made out of’ or an arrangement of)) what make up the universe, which, ex hypothesi, cannot not be. If chickens or people appear to come to be, they are mere appearances; the reality is that the self-necessary universe is just rearranging itself. Our observation 1 (Things come to be) falsifies this option, as does our own experience of ourselves as ontically independent things (with a unity and integrity of our own (not a collection or amalgam)). Not to mention the serious problem that result in supposing that everything that happens in the world is the necessary result of physical objects obeying necessary physical laws (such as rendering all reasoning otiose and ineffectual).

       9b. Or, the collection of things that come to be
              (universe) is more necessary than its components.

This second option accepts the full ontological reality of things that come to be, but asserts that somehow the collection of all such things cannot not be, that it exists necessarily of itself. It is falsified by a first principle of reason, not unlike the principle that no part is greater than the whole of which it is a part. That is, it is just absurd to suppose that a collection of things has some qualitative attribute, in this case uncaused necessity, that all of its constituent members lack. No more could the collection of temporally limited and causally dependent beings be, of itself, eternal and uncaused than could a wall built of red bricks be blue. Quantitative attributes, of course, do accrue so that the quantity of a collection is equal to the sum of the quantities of its part; a wall composed of one foot, one pound bricks will not be one foot long or weigh one pound, but its length is the sum of the length of the bricks in each row and its weight the sum of the weight of all the brick (plus the mortar, rebar, etc.). While the duration of the universe would coincide with the sum of the duration of the things that come to be (accounting for overlap), the eternality of the temporal succession cannot be of itself, without a cause, since none of its constituent things has temporal duration apart from being caused.

10. Or, the self-necessary being is separate from the universe, atemporal (eternal) and cause of everything in the universe.

Since no version of option 9 is true, the other alternative, 10, must be true. That is, since the supposition of an eternal, self-necessary physical universe does not accord with other well-known facts about this universe and the things that come to be which make it up, that supposition must be false. This leaves the conclusion that there must be a self-necessary being, something that cannot not be, that is separate from the universe, but is the ultimate cause of everything within it.

This is what theists mean by God.

This further conclusion, or implication, is not strictly a necessary result from the premises of the argument, but a matter of seeing that the First Self-Necessary Cause of the universe fits the description of essential attributes of God, and can be identified as the object of a theist’s religious faith. Of course, “First Self-Necessary Cause of the universe” is not everything that a theist means by God. But if one knows, as one should by accepting this argument’s premises and understanding their logical implications, that such a First Cause exists and is real, one can make a small leap that this is what religious theists believe God to be, and believe in.

NB, the simplest explanation for things that come to be is that the first, atemporal, eternal, self-necessary cause is the immediate cause of the Big Bang, though there could be a finite series of atemporal, simultaneous causes of the immediate last cause of the Big Bang, and that this finite series is initiated and sustained by the First Self-Necessary Cause. That is, the simplest explanation for the Big Bang (for which there is a lot of compelling scientific evidence) is that God caused this temporal succession to begin (and He has sustained, and now continues to sustain, the continued existence of the universe (and everything that comes to be within it)).

Answer to the objection: What Caused God?

That God can be known to exist (and some limited amount of what his nature is) by means of rational argument is another part of the reason I remained Catholic (as everyone should, or should come to be). It took me a long time to consider this a compelling argument, certainly more than one read-through, and of course, it was supplemented by other study. I enjoy this kind of stuff, which is why I got degrees in philosophy, but I do think other people should find it, and other similar arguments, compelling.

Last updated 5/25/2022

Published by Joe Magee

I earned my PhD in 1999 and published my dissertation in 2003. I invented the Variably Expanding Chain Transmission (VECTr) which was patented in 2019 (US 10,167,055).

4 thoughts on “Making Sense of Things That Come to Be

  1. “Scientific Materialism is no alternative to Catholic faith, as Scientific Materialism must be false…a lot of intellectual and academic effort”… scientific materialism is not false but reality of this world as also true and reality of this world and life is false faith; true faith…


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