Causal Agencies, Occam’s Razor, and the Cosmological Argument

by Max Andrews

Objects that are thrown up in the air typically fall back down.  Lighting is always followed by thunder.  Rocks that are thrown into a puddle of liquid water or a stream always produces a splash or ripples.  The earth rotates, which may be observed by the rising and setting of the sun every day (unless observing from one of the poles at certain times of the year).  Thirst is usually remedied by drinking water and hunger is usually fixed with eating food.  Refracted light will distort the image of an object.  Magnetic fields with polar opposites will repel one another.  Gas under a constant pressure has a volume equivalent to its absolute temperature.  These are all examples of regular natural cause and effect relationships.

There are also agents of causation.  Causal agents have the ability to initiate and to cease a series of cause and effect relationships.  These agents themselves are “little unmoved movers” so to speak.  Now, it’s typically easy to attribute simple events like a rock falling off an embankment into a stream or throwing a rock in the air and watching it fall back down again as regular natural cause and effects.  However, there are more complex events such as tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, or meteorite impacts that have many more cause and effects to be explained.  The ancients tended to lean towards the simplest explanations (a tendency still practiced today with Occam’s Razor).  The simplest explanation then seemed to be causal agency–attributing complex events to the will of the gods.

How much can this be applied in a cosmological argument?  When would it be appropriate to invoke agent causation and at what expense to Sir Occam?  Let’s trim a little more off with the razor.  The ancients would attribute storms at sea to the god of the sea and volcanic eruptions to that respective god and so on.  Perhaps we don’t need many gods to explain complex various events.  It seems that if a god is needed to explain anything then we are left with one God.  The question then is can the razor cut off even more?  This is what Richard Dawkins advocates in The God Delusion, that we don’t need God or many gods to explain anything.  Here lies the nature of the debate in the cosmological argument.  Is the simplest explanation of all there is one uncaused causal agent or zero?

Today, we look back on the ancients and ridicule them for thinking that volcanic eruptions were the result of the will of the gods.  We now know the geological structure of the planet and how tectonic activity functions and tends to behave in certain areas and layers of the earth.  We can see the effect of the volcano’s eruption and extrapolate the causes to the movement of the iron core of the earth.  Our scientific knowledge in the field of geology and volcanology have progressed since the ancients.  So, has our scientific knowledge of the universe, of all that there is, progressed to the point that we can explain all that there is without having to invoke an uncaused causal agency?  First, before one proceeds with any scientific account for an explanation, one must notice the metaphysical aspect of the question.  This question is a philosophical question, not a scientific question.  Can we extrapolate all causes to have the first cause be self-caused?  Using something within the system of “all that there is” to explain the system itself (“all that there is”) is circular.  The whole notion is self-defeating.

It seems that if we use Occam’s Razor to trim the causal agencies down to zero then we no longer have any explanation for anything.  The explanatory scope and power cover nothing.  Using a causal agent as an explanatory hypothesis doesn’t seem to be an arbitrary ad hoc explanation either, it seems to be the only appropriate explanation that sufficiently fits the explanandum.  In the end, having one uncaused causal agent is the best answer to why there is something rather than nothing.

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3 Comments to “Causal Agencies, Occam’s Razor, and the Cosmological Argument”

  1. Another great post, Max. I’m really digging your blog. I’m going to repost this one!

  2. I found this via FB. Love the post. I’m just beginning to study this area of philosophy. How do you distinguish between instrumental causes and primary causes? Since instrumental causes are subordinate to primary, yet no less necessary, establishing the difference between the two seems to be a point of contention.

  3. Very nice, Max. A nitpick: the guy’s name was William, he was a priest and Ockham was his town so it’d be Sir William, if there had to be a knighthood. 😉

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