The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP's Bite-Sized Metaphysics (Series 115)

[The previous series, 114, can be found [url=]here. This series, 115, picks up with the topic arrived at the end of the previous series. An index with links to all parts of the work as they are posted can be found here.]

[Entry 1 for “in question of infinite regression”]

An infinite regression would be one ontological alternative to the existence of a single Independent Fact. Our evident system of Nature, in this case, would depend for its existence upon a substantially different and more fundamental system of reality; but that supernatural system would itself depend for its existence upon a substantially different and more fundamental system of reality; and that system would depend on another system which would depend on yet another more fundamental system, etc. etc. etc. with no ultimately foundational system of reality ever being reached.

Keep in mind, that although this proposal involves supernaturalism of some kind being true, rather than philosophical naturalism, this proposal is very different from our evident system of Nature being dependent for its existence on some ultimate reality substantially different from Nature. That type of supernaturalism would still be a single-IF proposal; even if there were multiple levels of substantially different reality between our Nature and the final reality, and so multiple levels of supernaturality, there would still be a final reality with such-n-such characteristics. If an ontological infinite regression is true, however, there would be no such final reality.

Or anyway, that’s the idea.

[Entry 2]

Let’s take a closer look at the concept, though. Suppose, for purposes of argument, that there is an infinite ontological regression. If this is true, then we immediately run into a deadly problem when it comes time to draw inferences in regard to the truth of anything in reality: if an infinite regress is true, then we have no means of reaching valid conclusions!

This is because we habitually presume, when we offer explanations or arguments, that somewhere ‘behind’ or ‘under’ the explanation (metaphorically speaking) is an actual reality that just is. This reality provides us the standard by which to explain other things; it cannot be explained the same way, in terms of something more fundamental than itself.

Now, we humans are very good at turning our analytical ‘spotlights’ onto our presumed grounds and discovering that those grounds can, after all, be explained in terms of something else. But then the ‘something else’ becomes in effect the ultimate ground. Perhaps it, too, can be explained in terms of ‘another something else’. That would be fine: as long as the next ‘something else’ doesn’t turn out to be one of the earlier ‘somethings’, because then we have a circular argument and all the conclusions reached along that train of thought collapse!

We can keep doing this for as long as it is non-contradictory, and non-circular, to do so. But every time we do this, we must functionally and practically presume that we have reached a stopping point. We may eventually discover that we really had not reached the last stopping point; but that is very different from proposing that there is no stopping point!

Come on Jason - you know it’s ‘turtles all the way down’ :wink:

Now I can’t remember where that was from… not Stephen King’s It, was it? (Definitely not turtles all the way down. :mrgreen: )

Terry Hatchet’s Discworld maybe? (Turtles and elephants there.)

[Entry 3]

We (usually) explain the existence of ‘something’ in regard to a more foundational ‘something else’. But an infinite regress, per se, means that there can never be ‘something else’ which stands as a proper explainer to any ‘something’.

Put another way: if there could be such a thing as a bottomless pit, you would never be able to answer the question “How deep is it?” Replying “It is infinitely deep” would be one way of saying the deepness is real but cannot be quantified: and “How deep?” asks for quantification. Yet in the case of an ultimately infinite metacosmic regress, this would apply to every question, and not merely in regard to quantification.

The infinite regressor may not be bothered by this. “Why, I can answer all sorts of questions!” he may snort. “I can add 2 + 2 and get 4 just like anyone else!” Yes; but you do this by presuming there is an unalterable characteristic of reality which cannot be ‘explained away’ or ‘explained in terms of something else’, which the math expression (and, for that matter, the logical ‘law of noncontradiction’) reflects.

“No, I pretend for purposes of convenience that there is a stopping point.”

Yes–because you know perfectly well that the statement will be reduced to absurdity if there is no stopping point! Yet, by saying there is (in fact) no stopping point, you concurrently (if only tacitly) assert that the proposition 2 + 2 = 4 is in fact (even against all possible appearances to the contrary) an ultimately unreliable statement. Furthermore, any arguments and conclusions you may draw with an infinite regress as your ultimate presumption, are rendered equally nonsensical.

Well you aren’t far adrift there (though it’s Terry Pratchett :wink: ) Anyway all about infinite turtles and more Here…


Oh, good, the article references Russell and Locke!

Later in this series I’ll be quoting Russell (via Dawkins, for trivia buffs) vs. the fallaciously simple (but popular) CosA I mentioned back in the last series.

[Entry 4]

“Christianity and similar theisms are false”, the infinite regressor may say, “because in fact there is an infinite regress.” (This attempt could, of course, be made against atheism by counter-atheists, too; perhaps by some kinds of positive or even negative pantheists.)

But this statement has been rendered as moot as the statement 2 + 2 = 4. The only ‘explanatory power’ an infinite regressor has, is borrowed by him from the position of his direct opponents: the people (atheists, theists, etc.) who do propose an IF of some kind. A position that must borrow all of its strength (even if only ‘for purposes of convenience’) from a presumption that at least one of its opposition must be correct, can only be an untenable position.

In other words, infinite regression has an ultimate and inescapable problem, which I think sinks it as a viable alternative to an Independent Fact: no one can possibly believe in an infinite regression.

‘What!? Are you telling me I do not really believe my own position?’

Do you propose that there really is an infinite regress?

‘Yes, of course!’

Then you have proposed that there is, in fact, a final characteristic of reality: there is an infinite regress.


So, you are proposing that it is impossible to explain an infinite regress in terms of “something else” which is itself not an infinite regress.

‘Naturally; otherwise I would be saying there is ultimately no infinite regress!’

But an infinite regression requires precisely that everything can be explained in terms of “something else” forever! You must make a tacit exception against the infinite regress itself, to even seriously try proposing it is true; thus immediately contradicting your own position!

[Entry 5; yesterday’s entry]

Even if I tried to accept a so-called ‘infinite regress’, I would necessarily be putting it into, or proposing it as, some type of ultimate framework which cannot itself be explained in terms of something else–and this immediately undercuts the whole point to proposing an infinite regress. What does the infinite regress depend on for its existence? Nothing else? Then the infinite regress is the IF–but then, there is no infinite ontological regression after all.

I therefore conclude, that although I may assert I believed an ‘infinite regress’ to be true, I would have to be mistaken. I would actually be proposing an Independent Fact even in order to try to propose an infinite regress; and I would have been misled in my labeling by not considering one of the chief properties of an infinite regression: it must be self-existently what it is, and so not be grounded (even in principle, much less in practice) in terms of something which is not an infinite regress. But then I would no longer be proposing an infinite regression philosophy.

I find myself and everyone else (including the infinite regressors!) already presuming that an IF of some sort must in principle exist; so either an IF exists or we might as well treat reality as if it did. To do otherwise leads us precisely nowhere, even if it was possible to consistently (or even coherently) presume otherwise (which I think is impossible).

So an Independent (or Interdependent) Fact should be formally presumed to exist. For all practical purposes I should even believe it must exist; and all metaphysics and philosophy should center either on discovering what we can about it, or else on working out what must be true given presumptions about it (including the necessary presumption we all evidently make–whether we express it or not–that it in fact exists).

Yet, the infinite regressor still has one more bolt for his crossbow.

[Entry 6]

The IF must be something that is not ‘caused’ by something else, or ‘derives from’ something else, or is a ‘piece of’ something else that ‘includes’ it. It is what it is (or even “I AM THAT I AM!”) and absolutely no further reductive explanation is possible.

Opponents to supernaturalism (and especially to supernaturalistic theism) have a popular way of deploying this concept. “To explain the origin of Nature,” an atheist may say, “by invoking a supernatural Designer, is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer.” This is a common and, as far as it goes, a reasonable type of complaint, especially against an overreaching application of cosmological or ontological arguments. However, if we rigorously accepted the use of this principle, then to explain the origin of the DNA-replication process (for instance) by appeal to a blindly automatic Nature would also be “to explain precisely nothing”!–for it would also leave unexplained the origin of the Nature. Even when CosAs are over-applied to reach theism, there is usually some prior reason for inferring (or at least suspecting) that the system of Nature cannot be the IF, which points to some kind of supernaturalism being true. That prior rationale itself may be faulty, but this kind of reply doesn’t address prior rationales per se.

Be that as it may, our objector in favor of philosophical naturalism (and usually of atheism, in Western thought) does have a point worth considering. When we look at objects or systems within Nature, we find that we can ask how they came to be, and so we discover that they are dependent upon something for their existence. Nature itself is also a system, though; so we (naturally!) ask the same question in regard to it. But if we are coming to this with a presumption that anything of which we can ask the question must be dependent for its existence upon something else, then there is no reason in principle to stop with The-Something-Else-On-Which-Nature-Depends-For-Existence. This introduces an infinite ontological regress, however, with the logical consequences previously mentioned; which is exactly what the philosophical naturalist, in making this argument, is trying to avoid, and rightfully so.

[Entry 7]

“Aha!” says the infinite regressor (taking aim with his crossbow). “Now you see why I propose an infinite regress!” But there is no escape by that route; I can ask the exact same question about the infinite regress: how did it “come to be”? And this leads us back to my previous observation: either the infinite regression is what it is without recourse to further explanation, or the infinite regression depends for its existence on something that isn’t an infinite regression. Which is to say, either way, that ontological infinite regression is principally false.

So whatever philosophy we propose (and apparently whyever we propose one), we end up explicitly or implicitly requiring the existence of an ultimate Fact that is not dependent on anything else, and so is not caused by anything else.

“Hah!” barks the infinite regressor (releasing his final bolt for what logicians call a tu quoque rebuttal). "That which is uncaused, does not exist! Here is a contradiction! Eat your own sword; for your own position is no less nonsensical than mine!”

Well, actually there is quite a bit of dispute about this in the history of philosophy. Does it make sense to say that an uncaused causer exists? Is this a legitimate paradox, or only a contradiction?

Not wishing to interrupt the flow of this excellent series too much I hope it’s appropriate here to post a link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s page on the ‘Cosmological Argument’ (which is what is being examined here).

It makes no judgements either way as to whether the argument is correct or not but looks at the history of the argument and its proponents and detractors and I for one found it an interesting adjunct to this part of Jason’s series (even though he is being meticulous in trying (and largely succeeding) not to pre-load his own bias into the text.)


That was a fine link, Jeff!–thanks!

(Incidentally, for those who are wondering, there doesn’t seem to be a SEP entry for infinite regression yet.)

[Entry 8]

An uncaused causer would certainly be an Independent Fact, if it exists, whereas a causer caused by something other than itself would certainly not be an IF. But these are not the only two conceptual options. The third option is a self-causing causer–which would also be an IF.

So, there are two concepts to consider for an Independent Fact: un-caused, or self-causing. In technical parlance, this would (respectively) be privative or positive “aseity” (which roughly means ‘is-ness’ or raw existence.)

Now, self-causation may be ‘circular’, but it isn’t self-contradictory; indeed it would involve the very reverse of self-contradiction. Would an uncaused causer be self-contradictory?

Many philosophers and theologians throughout history (including many Christian authors) have thought not; there doesn’t seem to be anything contradictory about a sheerly static existence–it is hardly contradictory to say that existence ‘exists’, after all! But, on the other hand, does it make sense to say that something which in its own self-existence is sheerly static, behaves to cause anything? Or does it make sense to say that something which is the ultimate source, one way or another, of all behavior, has utterly nothing to do with behavior in its own intrinsic self-existence?

Just to say - thanks Jason for this series as I am learning so much about the philosophical side of things (and the Stanford resource helps loads with the terminology).

The SEP is still very much a work in progress, but it’s a great resource tool.

Personally, I’m grateful for the mention of the turtles. :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

[Entry 9; next to last for this series]

Our infinite regressor may in fact be right to be suspicious about claiming that anything, even the IF, can exist without causing! And as it happens, I can say in hindsight that later (in Sections Three and Four) I will be agreeing, for reasons related to the questions I just asked, that it would be contradictory for the IF to be an uncaused causer–therefore, I will not believe such a thing to be true. Meaning that I will agree that our infinite regressor is right to disbelieve an uncaused causer, too.

However, I am not presented, at this point, with only multiple contradictory proposals to believe. I am presented with at least one obviously non-contradictory option: that the IF is self-causing. The infinite regressor, on the other hand, presents me either with a self-causing infinite regression or an uncaused infinite regression; but neither way is going to help his position because (as I previously demonstrated) his infinite regression is either way actually a tacit claim of the existence of an Independent Fact after all. A self-contained infinite regression might even be one way (if not the most accurate way) to describe an eternally self-causing IF! But in any case, there is no escape for the infinite regressor by means of his ‘yeah, well, you too!’ (or tu quoque) attempt. One way or another, we seem to both be talking positively about the same thing, and we may even be in some substantial agreement about this thing; and at the very least, our regressor cannot appeal to a regress in order to avoid making particularly definite claims about final reality: such claims are inherent in his own appeal, too.

Sorry to interrupt, but I have to admit that I’m still confused by this. In order to bring oneself into existence, wouldn’t one have to exist before one existed?

WLC pointed this out to Dennett when he suggested that the universe brought itself into existence. “In order for the universe to bring itself into existence, it would have to exist before it existed” (paraphrase)

Why is God immune to that problem? Please correct/inform me.

  • Pat

Good question. The answer is that self-causation isn’t about the entity bringing itself into existence. It’s a category of constant fundamental existence, like uncaused causation. The qualitative difference is whether behavior of some kind is an intrinsic characteristic of fundamental existence. If yes, then we’re talking about self-causation; if not, then we’re talking about uncaused causation (assuming we acknowledge the existence of causes and effects at all, of course. But if we don’t, we’re fatally handicapping our own rationales conceptually, which we can only get out of by cheating, to put it bluntly, and assuming the existence of cause/effects after all.)

A naturalistic (and possibly atheistic) version of this concept, applied to the space-time continuum, would be the reciprocative universe theory. (I don’t remember what astrophysicists technically call it; popularly it’s called the Bang-Bang-Bang Theory, where the universe reverses inflation after a point, and progressively collapses to a bang-flashpoint again, over and over forever. Last I heard, this had been ruled out as an option by various astrophysical properties, but that was several years ago.)

There are some physicists who are impressed enough with various observations seeming to indicate a real beginning to the evident system of Nature, but who want to retain their philosophical naturalism, who have tried to propose that the beginning of the universe from nothing can be explained by property behaviors (e.g. zero-point energy eruptions at the lagrange points in the vacuum between energy particles) which, however, could only be generated by (or at least are generated within) the reactions of an already-existent universe.

Without having read the exchange, I can’t tell whether this is the kind of thing that Daniel Dennett was proposing. (I suspect so, from previous experience with Dennett, but possibly he was trying to suggest a form of atheistic positive aseity instead.) WLC’s rebuttal is certainly aimed at a proposal of self-existence from non-existence, though.

However, self-existence from non-existence is not what positive aseity, or self-causation, is about. Consequently, the proposal of God being eternally self-begetting and self-begotten (or, alternately, the proposal of an atheistic IF as actually self-causing instead of existing uncaused), is immune to the kind of rebuttal being given by William Lane Craig here. (WLC might have different rebuttal attempts to launch against it, of course.)

Did that help you with the distinction? It’s a pretty sharp difference: positive aseity has nothing to do (or anyway should have nothing to do) with a shift from non-existence to existence. It’s more like the difference between a perpetual motion dynamo (positive aseity) and an absolute zero particle (privative aseity) being the eternally existent foundation of all reality.

The intuition of our infinite regressor proponent, in the text above, against what (for purposes of fictional illustration) he considers to be the only other option, is that (analogically speaking) an absolute zero particle would not be intrinsically able to cause anything (true enough); no causation = no existent effects (ditto); the zero particle is itself uncaused (not even causing itself); therefore it couldn’t exist, either; consequently the privative aseitist is no better off than the regressor is. I think that’s a pretty good intuition, but I would rather wait until later to nail it down more specifically. (Meanwhile, the regressor would still not be able to avoid a critique that he himself is proposing an IF, though, and not in fact an infinite ontological regression.)

[Entry 10; last one for this series]

So I find, whatever I do, that I am necessarily presuming an IF exists. I would feel nervous about this, except (as I’ve already noted) I think virtually every philosopher does this already, whether they spell out the implications or not.

(Note: I have not yet considered cosmological dualism; but I will be discussing this and related ideas soon. A cos-dualist would, in principle, agree that at least one (actually more-than-one) Independent Fact exists, and so (to that extent) they would also be in favor of the IF notion over against the proposal of an infinite regression. I have been careful, up until now, about switching back and forth between saying ‘an’ IF and saying ‘the’ IF, with an emphasis on ‘an’ IF, precisely because I do not want to exclude dualists before discussing them.)

For most people, this shouldn’t require anything like a jolting revelation. If I go to an atheistic naturalist and ask her, “Does Nature really exist and is it dependent on anything else for its existence?” she would probably answer Yes to the first part, and certainly answer No to the second. Please see extended footnote below.] If I go to a certain type of pantheist (one who is not a ‘negative’ pantheist in the sense that everything must be illusion, although he might perhaps say that most things are illusion) and ask him whether the Absolute exists and if it depends on anything else, he will also say Yes and No respectively. If I go to a Muslim and ask him if Allah exists and if anything created Allah, he will also say Yes and No to those questions.

(Notice, by the way, that I am not hanging anything here on positive aseity being true instead of privative aseity. The Muslim, for example, would almost certainly be a privative aseitist: even Allah doesn’t cause Allah to exist. I won’t be focusing on one or the other aseity being true, until much later.)

All of these people (I would fall into the same basic class as the Muslim, as a supernaturalistic theist) are affirming the existence of what I am calling ‘the IF’. They will be assigning different properties to the IF (and probably not calling it ‘an IF’, of course–that’s my own handy term for it); but they are still talking about an IF. They can even all be correct about the IF, to at least some extent.

But, to what extent?

Next up: in question of infinite possibilities]

Footnote: If she thinks Nature depends on something other than itself for its existence, then she is not a naturalist but a supernaturalist. She could, of course, still be an atheist: she might claim there is a supernatural-but-non-sentient system that produces the ‘natural’ Nature of physics, chemistry, etc. On the other hand, if she denied that Nature really exists, I am not sure what she would be but I doubt she could be usefully called ‘a naturalist’.]