What caused God? To ask this question is to reveal yourself as horrendously ignorant and philosophically illiterate. The sophisticated philosopher, whether theist or atheist, will assume that you are one of those
atheists who think “What caused God?” is some kind of “Gotcha” question for theists, as if they had never considered such objections before. - LowderThis uncharitable interpretation applies whether you are just some stupid GNU like Richard Dawkins, or a highly regarded philosopher like David Hume or Bertrand Russell. They're all ignorant for thinking that there is merit in asking a question like that. Of course sophisticated philosophers of religion have considered this question and provided sophisticated answers. But have they really answered in a way that settles the issue? Maybe some of us just aren't satisfied with the answers we hear. Maybe there's some justification in continuing to ask the question after all.
This question was posed by Bertrand Russell in his essay Why I Am Not A Christian. Ed Feser claims that Russell is attacking a straw man that doesn't accurately represent the First Cause argument of Aquinas. Russell makes the statement "If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause." And Ed Feser thinks this is an ignorant misstatement of the First Cause argument. But it is not a statement of the argument at all. It is part of his response to the argument. Russell actually summarizes the argument this way:
It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God.So Russell correctly recognizes from the start that the argument doesn't say everything has a cause. This is not a straw man at all. But a more careful (and charitable) reading of his response would recognize that based on the first premise, and in light of the fact that the argument purports to be an a posteriori argument, it should be reasonable to conclude that everything must have a cause. If that is the case, then exempting God from this rule is special pleading. And this is Russell's first objection to the argument.
Having misunderstood the first part of Russell's response to the argument, Feser goes on to castigate him for not realizing that causation only applies to potencies that are actualized. And since God is pure act with no potency, causation doesn't apply to him. How could Russell be so ignorant as to not understand Aquinas' view of causation? To me, it seems rather presumptuous of Feser to assume that Russell doesn't understand this. But Russell didn't speak of the reason for God's exemption from causation, because it is irrelevant to his response.
First, it should be noted that God's properties (in particular, pure act) have to be assumed in order to grant him exemption from the need for causation, which, but for that, applies to everything else. This is a sophisticated diversion from the fact that God's properties (and by implication his existence) are assumed as part of the argument, in order to come to the conclusion that God exists. This looks suspiciously like circular reasoning. It is essentially defining God into existence.
But Russell doesn't fall into the trap of this sophisticated circular reasoning. The first thing he says after summarizing the argument is that "cause is not quite what it used to be." This is a rejection of act and potency as an explanation of causation, not an ignorance of it, as Feser assumes. And we have no good reason to think that it has any validity at all. In his second objection to the argument, Russell correctly notes that if anything can exist without cause, there is no reason to assume that it must be God and only God. We don't have to accept that there can't be an infinite chain of causation, nor do we have to assume that there can't be some brute fact that exists without cause.
Note that the reason for something existing without cause, whether it's pure act or something else, makes no difference to Russell's argument. Either everything needs a cause, in which case the conclusion of God's existence is special pleading, or everything doesn't need a cause, in which case the conclusion of God's existence is based on circular reasoning. This is Russell's argument against the First Cause argument, as I see it. I see no good reason to suppose that it is based on ignorance of the sophisticated philosophy of Aquinas.