Read AN EXAMINATION OF THEISM: CHAPTER V of Theism / Atheism‚ The Great Alternative, free online book, by Chapman Cohen, on


The argument from causation may logically follow that from existence, of which it may be regarded as a part. It is presented under various forms, and when stated in a persuasive manner, is next to the argument from design, probably as popular as any. The principal reason for this is, I think, that very few people are concerned with thinking out exactly what is meant by causation, and the proposition that every event must have a cause, wins a ready assent, and when followed by the assertion that therefore the universe must have had a cause, which is God, the reasoning, or rather the parody of reasoning, appeals to many. There is a show of reason and logic, but little more.

Quite unquestionably a great deals depends upon what is meant by causation, and still more upon the use made of the law of causation by theists. Thus we have seen it urged against Materialists that neural activity cannot be the equivalent of thought because they do not resemble each other. And in another direction we meet with the same idea in the assertion that the cause must be equal to the effect, by which it is apparently meant that the cause must be similar to the effect, and that unless we can discern in the cause the same qualities manifested by the effect, we have not established the fact of causation at all.

The complete and perfect answer to this last view is that the qualities manifest in an effect never are manifest in the cause, were it so it would be impossible to distinguish one from the other. The theist is, as is often the case, saying one thing and meaning another. What he says is that the cause must be adequate to the effect. There is no dispute here. But what he proceeds to argue is that the effect must be discernible in the cause, which is a different statement altogether. When he says that an effect cannot be greater than its cause, what he means is that an effect cannot be different from its cause, which is downright nonsense. He asks, How can that which has not life produce life? as though the question were on all fours with the necessity for a man to possess twenty shillings before he can give change for a sovereign.

Of course, the reply to all this is that the factors which when combined produce an effect always “give” something of which when uncombined they show no trace. There is no trace; of sweetness in the constituents of sugar of lead, or of blueness in the constituents of blue vitriol. In not a single case, if we are to follow the logic of the theist, is there a cause adequate to produce an effect, if we are to follow the reasoning of some theists; in each case we should have to assume some occult agent as responsible for the result. In reality and in strict scientific truth, it is of the very essence of causation that there shall be present in the effect some quality or qualities that are not present in the cause. And all the confusion may be eliminated if there is borne in mind the simple and single consideration that in studying an effect it is the qualities of a combination with which we are properly concerned. And to expect to find in analysis that which is the product of synthesis is in the highest degree absurd.

Sir Oliver Lodge in his little work on “Life and Matter” properly corrects the fallacy with which I have been dealing, and points out that “properties can be possessed by an aggregate or an assemblage of particles, which in the particles themselves did not in the slightest degree exist.” But in his desire to find a basis for his theism immediately falls into an error in an opposite direction. We are on safe ground, he says, in asserting that “whatever is in a part must be in the whole.” This is true if it is meant that as the whole contains the part, the part is in the whole. But in that sense the statement was hardly worth the making. What his argument demands is the meaning that as man is possessed of mind, and as man is part of nature, therefore nature, as a whole, manifests mind. And that is not true. Mind may be a special manifestation of a special arrangement of forces, and only occurring under special conditions. What Sir Oliver says, then, is that the properties of a part are in the whole, because the part is included in whole. What he implies, and without this implication his argument is meaningless, is that the properties of a part belong to all parts of the whole. And that is a statement so grotesquely untrue that I suspect Sir Oliver would be the first to disown the plain implications of his own argument.

And here is Sir Oliver’s illustration of his argument:

“the fact an apple has pips legitimises the assertion that an apple
tree has pips ... but it would be a childish misunderstanding to
expect to find actual pips in the trunk of a tree.”

Now, why should the fact that an apple has pips legitimise the statement that an apple tree has pips, any more than it legitimises the statement that the soil from which it springs has pips? And if the tree has not actual pips, in what sense does it possess them? If the reply is that it possesses them potentially, one may meet that with the rejoinder that potentially pips, and everything else, including Sir Oliver Lodge, were contained in the primitive nebulae. As a matter of fact the apple tree does not contain pips either actually or potentially. In his championship of theism our scientist forgets his science. What the apple tree possesses is the capacity for building up a fruit with pips with the aid of material extracted from the soil beneath and from the air around. These pips are no more in the tree than they are in the air or the soil not even as a figure of speech. One might, from any point of view, as reasonably look for the colour and shape and smell of an apple in the tree as to look for the pips. The properties of the tree is really one of the factors in the production of a result. Sir Oliver makes the mistake of writing as though the tree was the only factor in the problem.

This is not the place in which to enter on an exhaustive inquiry as to the nature of causation. It is enough to point out that the whole theistic fallacy rests here on the assumption that we are dealing with two things, when as a matter of fact we are dealing with only one. Cause and effect are not two separate things, they are the same thing viewed under two different aspects. When, for example, I ask for the cause of gunpowder and am told that it is sulphur, charcoal, and nitre, or for a cause of sulphuric acid and am given sulphide of iron and oxygen, it is clear that considered separately these ingredients are not causes at all. Whether charcoal and sulphur will become part of the cause of gunpowder or not will depend upon the presence of the third agent; whether sulphide of iron will rank as part of the cause of sulphuric acid will depend upon the presence of oxygen. In every case it is the assemblage of appropriate factors that constitute a real cause. But given the factors, gunpowder does not follow their assemblage, it is their assemblage that is expressed by the result. There is no succession in time, the result is instantaneous with the assemblage of the factors. The effect is the registration, so to speak, of the combination of the factors.

Now if what has been said be admitted as correct the argument for the existence of God as based upon the fact of causation breaks down completely. If cause and effect are the expressions of a relation, and if they are not two things, but only one, under two aspects, “cause” being the name for the related powers of the factors, and “effect” the name for their assemblage, to talk, as does the theist, of working back along the chain of causes until we reach God, is nonsense. Even if we could achieve this feat of regression, we could not reach by this means a God distinct from the universe. For, as discovering the cause of any effect means no more than analysing an effect into its factors, the problem would ultimately be that of dealing with the question of how something already existing transformed itself into the existing universe. A form of a very doubtful Pantheism might be reached in this way, but not theism.

But here a fresh difficulty presents itself to the theist. A cause, as I have pointed out, must consist of at least two factors or two forces. This is absolutely indispensable. But assuming that we have got back to a point prior to the existence of the universe, we have on the theistic theory, not two factors, but only one. The essential condition for an act of causation is lacking. A single factor could only repeat itself. By this method the theist might reach “God.” But having got there, there he would remain. He is left with God and nothing else, and with no possibility of reaching anything else.

We land in the same dilemma if we pursue another road. Philosophers of certain schools place existence in two categories. There is the world of appearance (phenomena), and there is the world of reality or substance (noumena). We know phenomena and their laws, they say, but no more. We do not know, and cannot know, Substance in itself; and the theist promptly adds that this unknown substance is but another name for God. The philosopher also warns us against applying the laws of the phenomenal world to noumena, reminding us that what we call “laws of nature” have been devised to explain the world as it presents itself to our consciousness. And to this we have the theological analogue in the warning not to measure the infinite by the finite or to judge God by human standards.

Now granting all this, let us see how the argument stands. The laws of phenomena belong exclusively to the phenomenal world. Their application and their validity are restricted to the world of phenomena. When we leave this region we are in a sphere to which they are quite inapplicable. What, then, can be meant by speaking of God as a “First Cause”? Cause is a phenomenal term, it expresses the relations between phenomena, and it has no meaning when applied to this assumed and unknown reality. We are in the position of one who is trying to use a colour scale in a world where vision does not exist. The theist is trying, in a similar way, to use the conception of “cause,” which is created to express the relations between phenomena, in a world where phenomena have no existence. Thus, when the theist, to use his own words, has traced back an effect to a cause, and this to a prior cause, and so on, till he has reached a “First Cause,” what happens? Simply this. At the end of the chain of phenomena the theist makes a mighty jump and gains the noumenon. But between this and the phenomenon he can establish no relation whatever. It cannot be a cause of phenomena because on his own showing causation is a phenomenal thing. He has worked back along the chain of causation, discarding link after link on his journey. Finally, he reaches God and discards the lot. And here he is left clinging with no intelligible way of getting back again. If on the other hand, he relates God to phenomena he has failed to get what he requires. He has merely added one more link to his chain of phenomena, and the “first cause” remains as far off as ever. For if God is not related to phenomena he ceases to be a cause of phenomena in the only sense in which he is of use to the theistic hypothesis.

Further, one may ask, Why travel back along the chain of causation to discover God? What is gained by travelling along an infinite series, and saying suddenly, “At this point I espy God.” Confessedly we may trace back phenomena as far as we will without finding ourselves a step nearer a commencement. All we get is a transformation of pre-existing material into new forms. Consequently all the evidence that exists at the moment we cease our journey existed when we began it. In short, if God can be shown to be the efficient cause of phenomena anywhere, he can be shown to be the cause everywhere, and the proof may be produced through phenomena immediately at hand as well as from those removed from us by an indefinite number of stages. The evidence becomes neither stronger nor more relevant by being put farther back. Proof is not like wine, its quality does not improve with age. To say that we must pause somewhere may be true, but that is only reminding us that both human time and human energy are limited. But it is certainly foolish to first of all induce mental exhaustion, and then use it as the equivalent of a positive and valuable discovery.

And even though by some undiscovered method we had reached that metaphysical nightmare a cause of all phenomena, and in defiance of all intelligibility had christened it a “First Cause,” how would that satisfy the “causal craving”? Professor Campbell Fraser very properly says that “the old form of each new phenomenon as much needs explanation as the new form itself did, and this need is certainly neither satisfied nor destroyed by referring one form of existence to another.” If A. is explained by B. we are driven to explain B. by C., and so on indefinitely. Or if we can stop with A. or B. then the causal craving is not so persistent as was supposed, and man can rest content within the limit of recognised limitations. For what Professor Fraser calls an “absolutely originating cause” is only such so long as we have not reached it. We are satisfied with an imaginary B. as an explanation of the actual A. so long as B. does not come within our grasp. So soon as it has become the originating cause of the phenomenon in hand we are off on a further search. “First” has no other intelligible sense or meaning than this. “First” in relation to a given cluster of phenomenon we may grant; “First” in the sense of calling for no further explanation is downright theological lunacy.

An eternal “First cause” could only be such in relation to an eternal effect. And in that case it could not be prior to the effect since the effect is only the existing factors combined. Causation cannot carry us beyond phenomena since it has no meaning apart from phenomena. The notion that because every phenomenon has a cause therefore there must be a cause for phenomena as a whole meaning by this for the sum total of phenomena is wholly absurd. It is not sound science, it is not good philosophy, it is not even commonsense. It is simply nonsense which is given an air of dignity because it is clothed in philosophic language. You cannot rise from phenomena to the theist’s God; first, because, as I have said, cause and effect are names for the relation that is seen to exist between one phenomenon and another, and the theist is seeking after something that is above all relations. To postulate something that is not phenomena as the cause of phenomena, is like discussing the possibility of a bird’s flight and dismissing the possibility of an atmosphere. Secondly, causation can give no clue to a God because the search for causes is a search for the conditions under which phenomena occur. And when we have described these conditions we have fulfilled all the conditions required to establish an act of causation. The theist, in short, commences with a wrong conception of causation. He proceeds by applying to one sphere language and principles from another, and to which they can have no possible application, and where they have no intelligibility. And having completely confused the issue, he ends with a conclusion which, even on his own showing, has no logical relation to the premises laid down.