Warburton on the First Cause argument

Bored while proctoring an exam today, I browsed through the desk drawer for something to read and found, among the other detritus of semesters past, a photocopy of the “God” chapter from Nigel Warburton’s Philosophy: The Basics, which some other professor had apparently once used for an Intro course. So I took a look. Several violent expletives later, the students had to ask me to quiet down so they could get back to distinguishing proximate genus from specific difference.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Warburton performs the usual ritual of criticizing the stupid “Everything has a cause etc.” version of the First Cause argument – a “version” which, of course, no one has ever actually defended. (Or, for you pedants out there, in case your Pastor Bob once taught it to you at Sunday school: a “version” which none of the many well-known philosophers who have endorsed the First Cause argument has ever actually defended.) That much would, perhaps, not be particularly noteworthy. This preposterous straw man litters both introductory philosophy textbooks and “New Atheist” pamphlets like the droppings stray neighborhood cats keep leaving on my lawn; and I have already declaimed upon the contemptible dishonesty of its use by pop atheists – and, most disgracefully, by many professional philosophers too – ad nauseam (e.g. here and here).

But Warburton ups the ante. Our man is not satisfied to leave his readers with the false impression that some actual theistic philosopher has ever argued “Everything has a cause; so the universe has an uncaused cause, namely God.” After all, a charitable reader might naturally, and quite rightly, think to respond: “Surely none of the defenders of this argument really said ‘everything’ – that would just be too obviously self-contradictory!” No, as if to forestall such a retort, Warburton assures us that “The First Cause Argument states that absolutely everything has been caused by something else prior to it,” that “The First Cause Argument begins with the assumption that every single thing was caused by something else,” and that the argument crucially assumes “that there can be no uncaused cause” (emphasis mine). Naturally, Warburton has no trouble “showing” that the defender of the First Cause Argument contradicts himself when he goes on to assert that God is an uncaused cause.

Strangely, Warburton provides no citations for this argument. Or not so strangely, since, as I have said, no defender of the First Cause argument has ever actually given it – not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne, and not anyone else, as far as I know. Somehow, though, attacking this ridiculous caricature was judged by Warburton to be a more useful way of introducing his readers to the First Cause argument than presenting the actual views of any the great thinkers who’ve defended it. Wonder why.

Naturally too, Warburton also peddles the other standard myths about the First Cause argument. We are, for example, told matter-of-factly that “the argument presents no evidence whatsoever for a God who is either all-knowing or all-good.” Readers of The Last Superstition or Aquinas – or, more to the point, of the hundreds of pages written by the authors just mentioned arguing precisely for these and others among the divine attributes – know that this is what the kids today like to call “a blatant falsehood.” But again, this is something I’ve gone on about at length elsewhere (such as in the posts linked to above).

We are also told that what the argument seeks to rule out is “a never-ending series going back in time” – God as the knocker-down of the first domino, and all that. Never mind that most philosophers who have defended the argument – Aristotle, Aquinas, and Leibniz, to take perhaps the most significant figures – explicitly reject the strategy of arguing for a temporal first cause. And while there are other philosophers who have argued for a first cause of the beginning to the universe (most recently, William Lane Craig) Warburton entirely ignores their actual arguments as well.

So, what does Warburton’s discussion provide the beginning reader who is interested in learning about “the basics” (Warburton’s subtitle) of what philosophical theists have said about the First Cause argument? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever.

It will not do to suggest in his defense that Warburton only intended to show what was wrong with some crude arguments sometimes given by non-philosophers. For the title of his book is Philosophy: The Basics – not Crude Arguments Given By Non-Philosophers: The Basics.

Furthermore, when discussing some of the other traditional theistic arguments – the ontological argument and the design argument, for example – Warburton does attribute them to actual philosophers (Anselm and Descartes in the first case, Paley in the second). To be sure, his discussion is superficial here as well, but at least he is in these cases oversimplifying the actual arguments of these thinkers. By contrast, the purported “First Cause Argument” he criticizes bears no resemblance to anything a philosophical defender of the First Cause argument has actually said. That Warburton himself realizes this is evidenced by the fact that in this particular case, he does not even attempt to attribute the argument he is attacking to any actual philosopher.

So, why do a disgraceful number of professional philosophers – Warburton is hardly alone here – even bother with it? This too is a question I address in the first of the two posts linked to above. And it is hard to believe that the answer has anything to do with promoting a better public understanding of philosophy.
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