Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Theistic Arguments: Essentially Ordered Series

I have been in a revived discussion with Martin, The author of the Thomistic philosophy blog known as Rocket Philosophy.  The discussion first began three years ago on my post where I was talking about infinite series, and WL Craig's illogical "proof" that such a thing can't exist.  Theists make claims of that sort to bolster their theistic arguments, assuming that there must be a first cause or a first mover.  For the record, while I agree that there cannot be an infinite set of physical things within the confines of our finite universe, there is no reason in logic or mathematics that an infinite set of things cannot exist in principle, and Craig's argument (based on mathematical logic) is both naive and incorrect.  But the comments following my article eventually led to the topic of "Essentially Ordered Series", and Martin entered the fray, trying to explain to me what that is, and that I am exasperatingly stupid because I couldn't understand the concept.  Martin later made comments to that effect on his own blog, like this:
Another time I was trying to get skeppy, again, to just UNDERSTAND what is meant by "essentially ordered series" and he refuse to allow his brain to go that far. Carrying on and on about "science!!!!" and how "science!!!!" has refuted essentially ordered series. Here is that thread: http://theskepticzone.blogspot.com/2014/09/theistic-arguments-series-on.html - Martin
It is my contention that Martin is so stuck on his medieval Thomistic philosophy that he refuses to take, or even to attempt to understand, a view that is more consistent with modern science.  Anyway, I stayed out of the discussion at his blog until just recently, and neither of us has budged in our position.  In light of that, I thought it would be worthwhile to provide a more complete explanation of my own understanding of the concept of essentially ordered series, and why it is shown to be meaningless in the context of modern science.

First, what is an essentially ordered series?  We're referring to some kind of causal chain, and there are two basic types, according to the philosophy of Thomists.  Martin explains it in his own post, but he used the term "vertical causal series" to identify it.  This is distinguished from a "horizontal causal series", otherwise known as accidentally ordered series.  The vertical (or essentially ordered) series is "concurrent", while the horizontal series is temporally sequential.  In the vertical series, all elements must exist simultaneously, and the original (or sustaining) cause is passed through the chain of causality to produce the final effect, which is concurrent with the original cause.  He uses the example of an illuminated room, where there is some distant power station that generates electricity, which travels down the transmission line and into the lamp, which in turn produces light that illuminates the room.  And as long as the power plant produces electricity, the room remains lit.  The horizontal (or accidentally ordered series), on the other hand, is temporally sequential, and causal elements in the chain need not continue to exist at the time the final effect is produced.  An example of this would be the siring of offspring, where the grandfather produces the father, who in turn produces his own son, even though the grandfather might be dead by that time.  The grandfather is not the sustaining cause of the son.

OK.  That's not so difficult to understand.  Here's another explanation of it.  I think I get the concept, despite Martin's insistence that I don't.  But there seems to be some kind of notion on the part of Thomists like him that this concept, which is used in Aquinas' First Cause argument (and that was the topic of Martin's original post), is either unknown to, or beyond the understanding of mere atheists, who have no inkling of the compelling power of Thomistic philosophy.
He also refuses to allow himself to understand the difference between ontological and temporal priority, so he keeps trying to "refute" essentially ordered series by slipping back into temporal priority. Drives me nuts. There's zero rational exchange with him. - Martin
But hold on.  There are some big problems with these Thomistic notions of causality.  And while I understand the concept, I disagree that it is realistic.  Based on a more scientific understanding of causation, my position is that there is no such thing as "concurrent" causation, there are no essentially ordered series, and the distinction between horizontal and vertical series is purely illusory.  So I tried to explain to Martin what I mean by all this, and he's the one who just doesn't get it.  The two major issues I have with essentially ordered series are 1: that the very notion of causal series is belied by the fact that any effect is the result of many causes, and 2: that causation is always temporally sequential. 

On the first of these, it is overly simplistic to say that A causes B, and B causes C, etc.  It is not only A that causes B, but innumerable other factors that may not be as obvious as A.  Consider the motion of the earth in space.  You could say that the sun's gravity causes the orbital movement of the earth.  But in reality it is mutual interaction between the earth and the sun (they actually orbit each other), the moon, and all other planets, along with their moons, as well as our galaxy, about which the sun orbits, and other galaxies that all influence the motion of one another.  The point is that there is never a single A that causes B, or a single B that causes C, and so on.  So the idea of a chain of causation, or causal series, is bogus.  You can identify causal items as a chain only by artificially narrowing your view to an arbitrary subset of the actual causal factors that are in play, and ignoring all the rest.  But that's not realistic.  Furthermore, from the perspective of a particular outcome, there is no "original cause" at the beginning of the supposed series, because the causal factors branch out in many different directions, and all of them play a role in the outcome.  Even though one of those branches may seem to be essential in producing the result, the same thing might be said about various other causal factors, even if they are not recognized as such.

On my second major objection to essentially ordered series, the notion that there is any concurrent causation is an illusion.  In Martin's example, if you remove the power plant, you have removed the sustaining (original) cause of the illuminated room.  But the effect is not instantaneous, as he claims.  In fact, nothing is.  An electric generator takes electrons from the transmission wire.  But that is only at its own end of the wire.  The deficit of electrons creates a charge imbalance, which causes electrons in an adjacent part of the wire to jump into the vacant space.  And that ripples down the length of the wire.  But each individual movement of electrons takes time.  In reality, if the power plant suddenly disappeared, the effect wouldn't reach the far end of the wire until a small time later.  So the reality is that the lamp would continue to produce photons for some time after the power source is gone.

And what we see as an illuminated room is really a series of individual events, where our eyes sense photons, one at a time, which then produces a fused image in the brain, which we see as a coherent picture.  No one photon produces more than a tiny part of the image.  In reality, whenever we see an image, it is always a result of many individual events that happened some time earlier.  But that time may be so short that we believe the effect is concurrent with the cause, when it's really not.  And the same thing can be said of any cause that Martin calls "concurrent".  There is always a time lag, and there are always temporally sequential events that are involved in any given outcome.  Concurrent causation is an illusion, and essentially ordered series, as envisioned by Thomistic philosophy, simply do not exist in reality.

Does Martin understand any of this?  I don't think so.  "Science!!!!" is something that Martin dismisses out of hand, on the assumption that his philosophical beliefs are superior.  But we must remember that Thomistic philosophy, while compelling to someone who desperately wants to have a philosophical justification for his theistic belief, is based on assumptions that have no epistemic justification, and a medieval understanding of how things work in the world.  Martin doesn't want to adopt a more scientific view of reality, because he understands, deep down inside, that it would destroy the basis of his belief system.  And he's not about to let that happen.  So instead, he lashes out at me, and anyone else who would challenge those beliefs.


  1. im-skeptical, I think this is a much better response than everything I read from you on Martin's blog. The main point really is that 'the notion that there is any concurrent causation is an illusion'. I was also thinking about that when I wrote my answer, and I thought it was obvious, but I did not specify it. I now realize that it was not clear at all, either from my comment or what you wrote to him before. Therefore, I think it's a bit unfair to claim that Martin is rejecting science here. It's not even clear whether he considered that detail...

    Moreover, even though I think this is a great point, the notion that existence itself cannot be an infinite series is not justified anyway. So even if there were such a thing as true instantaneous/congruent causation, it would still not mean that there must be some initial item, as everything we observe has a cause and it thus creates an exception, for no good reason, other than the alternative sounds worse to some people.

    Also, I think yet another example can be used to make your point even stronger here, and it's the hand-stick found in the article you linked to, or the hand-hammer used by Martin (a hammer being kind of a short stick in this case). This is a splendid example because we can prove that it is not concurrent, even if it looks like it is. How? By thinking of an hypothetical stick that is, say, 1 light-year long. Under the concurrent view of causation, the person moving the stick would move the rock at the other end as soon as they move their hand, which moves the stick, which moves the rock. However, in reality, it would take more than 1 year for the rock to start moving. We know it's 'more' than 1 year as that would be the fastest possible path for the force from the hand to travel to the rock, via the stick, to put it simply (it would be much longer in practice).

    This is the same as the same principle as the transmission line you mentioned, but I would argue that it's even stronger, as an example, as it uses a solid object which 'looks' like it causes something to change right away, when we know it doesn’t, and cannot.

    Finally, all that to say that this notion of concurrent causation being an illusion is actually exactly the same as my idea that everything, literally everything, we see on Earth can be traced to the stars in our galaxy. It shows that temporal events are sufficient to explain everything, the kind of non-essential series basically, and it pushes back the question to existence itself, to the universe itself. And that point, who are we to pretend that we know that a thing is needed for the universe to exist? Who are we to say it must have not been infinite, or that it is infinite, or that we can even know in the first place?

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that the example of the stick would be stronger, but to me it seems more difficult to explain. I think of it in terms of strain in the material of the stick. When the hand moves, it causes the stick to bend slightly, as the part being held by the hand begins to move, and the far end of the stick has not yet moved. The resulting strain propagates down the length of the stick as the material begins to move in response to the strain. It is most easily seen by observing something that is much less stiff, like a flimsy yardstick, for example. The stiffer the material, the faster the movement propagates (and with less bending). But it is never instantaneous.

      As for starting causes, I didn't want to get into that, but I think that all macro-scale events are caused bu something else (which is always temporally before it). But quantum events are uncaused (at least by any notion of causality that we can identify), and they can initiate events at the macro scale. For example, an atom may spontaneously decay, emitting a particle, that then strikes a DNA molecule, producing a mutation. This is something that can't be traced back to the early universe, but is entirely random. And the initiation of the universe itself, according to current cosmological theory, was a quantum event.

  2. Yes, completely agree! Good point with the stiffness of an object, and how it's harder to explain...

    The DNA comment makes me think of Martin's use of the banana and enzyme examples and why it's wrong, because it's all the same atoms anyway if one wants to really trace it all thr way

  3. In QM theory - "spooky action" is thought to be instantaneous. (I'll leave the details for you to look up if you want to....)

    1. Ya I was thinking about that too, but it seems different from a notion of sustaining existence of something else, which is what the argument we are discussing is about (you can see more on Martin's blog). QM's entanglement is more about 2 things changing at the same time because of some cause.

    2. Well, I think entanglement might infer some difficulties for skeps points here (as well as aquinas's). If the universe is nonlocal at the particle level , that suggests our intuitive notions of time and space and cause may not give us much insight at all about the way things "really" are

    3. Yes, exactly. I mentioned in a recent comment that one of the biggest problem with this argument is that it assumes that we have the correct picture of causation/reality/existence, but we could be wrong... we're just humans trying to understand an extremely large old and complex universe, from our point of view. I find it both humbling and fantastic that we cab know that we almost certainly don't know... if you know what I mean.

    4. In my discussion of causation, I was careful to include the caveat of macro-level phenomena. I understand that quantum events do not follow the same set of rules. And I think that's OK for the purposes of the discussion regarding essentially ordered series, since Thomistic notions of causation are macro-level, anyway. Aquinas had no concept of quantum events.

      I agree that when quantum phenomena are taken into account, things are not what they seem to us. But I don't think Thomists are ready to take physical reality into account at the macro-level level, let alone quantum.