First Cause

From New World Encyclopedia

First Cause is term introduced by Aristotle and used in philosophy and theology. Aristotle noted that things in nature are caused and that these causes in nature exist in a chain, stretching backward. The cause of the cat you see today, for example, was its parent cats, and the cause of those parents were the grandparent cats, and so on. The same for the oak tree you see; it was caused by an acorn from a previous oak tree, which in turn was caused by an acorn tree from a previous oak tree, and so on, stretching back to whenever.

The central question about such causal chains, raised by Aristotle and others, is whether they must have a starting point. Aristotle, and others following him, claim that the answer is yes, i.e., that there must be a First Cause because such causal chains cannot be infinite in length.

Aristotle referred to the First Cause also as the "Prime Mover" that is a deity of "pure form" without any potentiality, but theists such as Thomas Aquinas identify this First Cause with God in Christianity, and use this argument, usually known as the "argument from causation," as an argument for the existence of God. This argument was the second of Aquinas' "Five Ways" of proving (he thought) the existence of God.

The First Cause Argument

The argument itself

The first cause argument rests on several assumptions or premises. The first is that beings are not the cause of themselves. The second is that there must be an exception to that first premise or assumption; there must be a being that (who) is the cause of itself (himself). Thus, Aristotle and others who accept and use this argument say that the First Cause is different from all other beings in that it (he) is self-caused. They hold that God, or the First Cause, is a self-caused being, unlike all other beings because those other beings are other-caused. For Aristotle, the First Cause as a necessary being has always existed from eternity.

Another assumption usually made by anyone who accepts or uses the first cause argument is that there is only one such First Cause. Strictly speaking, though, this assumption is an extraneous one because the first cause argument, by itself, would permit any number of such First Causes because there could be numerous causal chains with no necessity that those causal chains ever converge into one single starting point or First Cause. Nevertheless, Aristotle said that the First Cause is only one because it (he) is the Prime Mover only with pure form without any matter. For there must be only one "Pure Form" because only matter coupled with form can result in the plurality of being.


There are at least two main criticisms toward the first cause argument. First, only those who already believe in God accept the causal relationship of God and the world, and atheists do not. So, the first cause argument is not acceptable to atheists.

Second, a God whose existence is established by this kind of philosophical argument is merely an abstraction from the living God; so, his character or characteristics can never be described well. Of course, the first cause argument can say at least something about God the First Cause. The First Cause as Prime Mover or Pure Form is understood to be uncaused, unchanging, impassible, all-powerful, incorporeal, and completely actualized in want of nothing. But, many believers do not think that it can successfully explain other important divine characteristics such as goodness, love, mercy, and kenosis (self-emptying).

Addressing criticisms

Richard Swinburne, one of the foremost contemporary philosophers of religion, being aware of the first criticism, has proposed a more humble, alternative argument, so that the existence of God may become acceptable to all people including atheists.[1] His argument, which we can perhaps call a hypothetical argument, is that the existence of the God of monotheistic religions as we understand him should be treated first only as an "hypothesis" and then be tested or verified by observing the world which was supposedly created by him. The verification process using scientific and experiential data about the world, according to Swinburne, would make the hypothesis on God's existence more probable than improbable.

Swinburne, however, does not explore the characteristics of God enough. So, one can perhaps come up with a more developed "working hypothesis" on God, by seeing the characteristics of God in terms of what Morris Cohen calls the "law of polarity," which refers to ultimate contraries such as actual versus potential, and plus versus minus as mutually interdependent correlatives.[2] One can, then, test and verify this hypothesis by observing the world. This way, one can come to realize that this kind of God as the First Cause exists even more probably than the God of Swinburne. Perhaps this approach can address the second criticism, because it can see in God love, mercy, and kenosis, as well as immutability, impassibility, and complete actuality.


  1. Richard Swinburne. The Existence of God, 2nd ed., (Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 0754614611).
  2. Charles Hartshorne and William L. Reese, (eds.), Philosophers Speak of God. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 2-3.

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aquinas, St. Thomas. Summa Theologica Part 1, Question 2, Article 3. 1st complete American ed. Literally tr. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province; with synoptical charts. New York: Benziger Bros., 1947-1948.
  • Aquinas, St. Thomas. St Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica, translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. 5 Volume Set Christian Classics; New edition, 1981. ISBN 0870610635
  • Aquinas, St. Thomas. Aquinas's Shorter Summa: Saint Thomas's Own Concise Version of His Summa Theologica, New Ed. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001. ISBN 1928832431
  • Aristotle, "Physics." in The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, [1941]. Reprint ed., Modern Library, 2001. ISBN 0375757996
  • Hartshorne, Charles, and William L. Reese, eds. Philosophers Speak of God. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953. ISBN 0226318613
  • Honyman Gillespie, William. The Argument, a Priori, for the Being and the Attributes of the Lord God: The Absolute One and First Cause. Edinburgh: Clark, 1906.
  • Negri, Vitali. The Creator and the Created; The Philosophy of "Existence" and the Knowledge of the "First Cause". Los Angeles: DeVorss & co, 1933.
  • Swinburne, Richard. The Existince of God, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0199271674
  • Trundle, Robert C. Medieval Modal Logic & Science: Augustine on Necessary Truth & Thomas on Its Impossibility Without a First Cause. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1999. ISBN 0761813985
  • Villanueva, Tino. Primera Causa = First Cause. Merrick, NY: Cross-Cultural Communications, 1999. ISBN 0893041769

External links

All links retrieved March 26, 2024.

General Philosophy Sources


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