Cosmological arguments for the existence of God rest on several ontological assumptions none of them quite obvious, and all of them reasonable candidates for philosophical examination. Among them, (i) existence is a ‘property’ of contingent individuals; (ii) the existence of individuals is not a brute fact but is susceptible of explanation; (iii) it is coherent to suppose that this explanation is causal: that contingent individuals could have a cause of their existence. It is the third item on this list that I propose to examine here.
1. My concern is with the following question: Does it make sense to suppose that individual existing modally contingent things, whether taken distributively or collectively, have a cause of their existence? Or is it rather the case that only states of, and changes in, individual existents can be terms of the causal relation?
2. Schopenhauer is one philosopher who maintains that only changes can serve as causal relata. His idea is that the causal relation holds between changes of individuals, but cannot be extended to individuals themselves. Thus if a rock changes in respect of temperature, say going from cold to hot, one can legitimately ask for the cause of this change. But one cannot legitimately ask for a cause of the rock itself, or a cause of the existence of the rock. (See #5 below for a refinement of this thesis.) Nor can one speak of a rock as a cause. It is not a rock that breaks a window, but a collision of a rock with a window that causes the window to break.
Causation is always and everywhere causation of change and never causation of existence. One can legitimately ask for a cause of a change in something that exists, but not for a cause of the existence of something that exists. If this is right, then cosmological arguments cannot succeed. For such arguments aim to demonstrate a causa prima, a First Cause, of the very existence of what (contingently) exists. Accordingly, the “law of causality” is to be formulated as “Every change has its cause in another change immediately preceding it.” (World as Will and Representation II, 42) It is not to be formulated as “All that is, has its cause.” (41) For “the mere existence of a thing does not entitle us to conclude that it has a cause.” (42) Since we cannot legitimately demand a causal explanation of the sheer being of anything, we cannot make this demand of the world; hence the cosmological argument, as presupposing the legitimacy of this demand, rests on a false presupposition. One illegitimately extends the concept of causality from states of things to the things of which they are the states.
3. But why does Schopenhauer restrict causality to changes? By ‘change,’ Schopenhauer understands alteration (Veraenderung). Indeed, for him alteration is the only kind of change. It is not obvious that alteration should be the only kind of change since there is a prima facie distinction between alteration and what we might call ‘existential change,’ i.e., coming-into-existence and ceasing-to-exist. Is there not a tolerably clear sense in which coming-to-be and passing-away are changes? Think of the coming-into-being of a batch of hummus, and its passing out of being when I devour it.
It seems obvious that if there is existential change, then it cannot be understood in terms of alteration in that very thing: before a thing exists it is simply not available to suffer any alteration, and likewise when it ceases to exist. Coming-to-be is not gain of a property, but gain of a thing together with all its properties; ceasing-to-be is not loss of a property, but loss of a thing together with all its properties. But, as will emerge in a moment, Schopenhauer denies the very possibility of existential change with respect to the ultimate substrata of alterational change. His thesis could be put like this: The ultimate substrata of alterational change cannot be the effects of a cause, hence they cannot be the effects of a divine cause. They cannot because of the very nature of causality the relata of which are changes only.
4. Alteration may be defined by saying that x alters if and only if x has incompatible properties at different times. Change as alteration is always change in something which must remain the same through the change and which therefore, as the substrate of change, does not itself change in respect of its existence and identity. In a slogan, no change without unchange! The dynamism of change is erected upon a substructure of (relative) stasis. Without the latter there cannot be the former.
Thus there is alterational change only if the rock that was cold at t is numerically-existentially the same as the rock that is hot at t* later than t. Two rocks, one cold at t, the other hot at t*, do not a change make. For a thing to become different it must remain the same. If you deny this, then you are embracing a doctrine of Heraclitean flux. No doubt the world is 'fluxed up' but it is not that 'fluxed up.'
With respect to alteration, then, the slogan is ‘No change without an unchanging substrate of change.’ Schopenhauer’s point could then be put by saying that the ultimate substrates of change lie outside the causal nexus. They are presupposed by the causal nexus. As such, they are neither causes nor effects, and so they are not appropriate objects of causal explanation. One cannot meaningfully ask why there are substrates of change rather than none at all. And if this cannot be meaningfully asked, then “God caused them to exist” cannot constitute a meaningful answer. There is no room for God as First Cause of contingent beings. One cannot argue to God as causa prima a contingentia mundi, from the contingency of the world.
5. For Schopenhauer, then, the substrates of change lie outside the nexus of cause and effect as its presupposition. But this thesis clearly needs some refining. A rock may be a substrate of change, as when it goes from cold to hot in the morning sun, but it is not an ultimate substrate. For surely there is a sense in which one can reasonably ask: Why does this rock exist? One can reasonably ask this for the simple reason that it has a reasonable answer: “It was caused to exist by the congealing of lava.”
So we need to distinguish between ultimate and non-ultimate substrates of change. A meatloaf is a non-ultimate substrate of alterational change: straight from the oven it is hot, later it is cool. Clearly, its coming-into-existence is not a change in it. But this existential change can be construed as an alterational change in some other thing or things, namely, its ingredients. They are alterationally changed by being combined and cooked with the result that something distinct from them, but composed of them, comes into being. The proximate ingredients, of course, are themselves non-ultimate, but presumably we come to ultimate ingredients that are not a product of compounding. Now if all change is alteration, then ultimate substrates of change cannot come into existence or pass away. And since these ultimate substrates are the basis upon which rests all causation, there can be no legitimate question concerning the cause of their existence.
6. Note that ‘This rock exists’ can be read in two ways. We can take it as an instantiation-claim, to wit, ‘The properties characteristic of rocks are instantiated here in this thing.’ But we can also interpret it as an existence-claim proper, namely, ‘This thing, which happens to instantiate the properties characteristic of rocks, exists.’ This duality of readings stems from the well-known ambiguity of ‘exists’ as between a second-level and a first-level use. If I say of a property that it exists, I am saying that it is instantiated; if I say of an individual that it exists, I am saying that it -- exists.
Accordingly, one question is: Why are rock-properties instantiated in this thing? And then the answer might be: because the volcanic lava of which this rock was formed cooled off, hardened, etc. The other question is: Why does this thing that has rock-properties exist? Clearly the first question, the instantiation-question, is legitimate. For this question asks why rock-properties as opposed to say lava-properties are instantiated in the thing, or perhaps in the space-time region before us. But the second question, for Schopenhauer, is not. For what the second question asks is why this property-bearer before us exists as opposed to not existing at all. But this question makes no sense on Schopenhauer’s assumption that causes and effects are changes (alterations). The sheer existence of an ultimate property-bearer cannot be a change from a previous state of nonexistence because every change is an alteration, and every alteration requires a substrate of alteration. But it is clear that a thing’s coming into existence cannot be an alteration of that very thing for the simple reason that before it exists it is not available to suffer any alterations. And the same holds at the other end: when a thing ceases to exist, it does not merely lose a property; it loses its very existence together with all its properties. It follows that if all change is alteration, then the ultimate substrata of change cannot come into existence or pass out of existence.
7. Thus we may impute to Schopenhauer something like the following argument:
1. The relata of the causal relation are changes.
2. Every change is an alteration.
3. Every alteration presupposes a substrate of alteration that does not change in respect of its existence and identity.
4. Some, but not all, substrates of alteration are non-ultimate: there must be ultimate substrates of alteration.
5. If there are ultimate substrates of alteration, then they do not come into existence or pass away.
6. Because changes occur, there are ultimate substrates of alteration.
7. There are ultimate substrates of change that do not come into existence or pass away, and are thus sempiternal. (5, 6)
8. The existence of these sempiternal substrata are at the basis of all causation.
9. The existence of the ultimate substrata of change cannot have a cause, divine or otherwise.
10. Cosmological arguments, presupposing as they do that causation of existence makes sense, are one and all unsound.
8. What can we say in critique of this argument? The crucial premise may well be (2). If every change is an alteration, then nothing can come into existence except by the tranformation of some thing or things already in existence. That is to say: there cannot be creation ex nihilo. But then Schopenhauer's argument may be said to beg the question against the theist at line (2) -- unless there is some independent way of supporting (2).