Monday, June 4, 2012

How Wikipedia makes you more stupid

I rag on Wikipedia quite a bit.  Not so much for its shortcomings (and there are quite a few) but more because of how people abuse it.  But there are cases where Wikipedia itself causes more harm than good.

The entry in particular is the one about the cosmological argument.  In particular the objections section.  But lets look at the argument section:

  1. Every finite and contingent being has a cause
  2. A casual loop cannot exist
  3. A casual chain be of infinite length
  4. Therefore, a First Cause (or something that is not an effect) exists
A few issues with this formulation.  

First is that "cause" is not the same as the mechanistic understanding that is implied by the "effect" parenthetical remark.  Something that "causes" something else explains the relationship between the two, where the "cause" moves something from potential to actual.  These are Aristotelian-Thomistic (AT) terms that are very abstract, and are very different from the mechanistic "cause/effect" that is espoused by the author.

Second, Aquinas proceeds from the existence of the "contingent universe."  The universe does not "need" to exist per se.  There is nothing about the universe that must exist (necessary existence).  And since nothing comes from nothing, that is, true nothing does not cause "something,"  there must have been a "something" whose existence is logically necessary.

Thirdly, the second premise is nonsense frankly speaking.  A proper understanding of "cause" would show that a casual loop implies that the entity caused itself, which from an AT perspective is a logical absurdity.  

So the background understanding of the author is faulty to say the least.  Let's look at the "objections" (I use the term charitably).  

What caused the First Cause - this is a non-serious counter.  The whole point of the proof is to demonstrate that an Uncaused Cause must exist.  IF the proof holds, then the question is asking, "what caused the Uncaused Cause", a question that literally has no meaning.

Identity of the First Cause - non-starter.  Aquinas and Aristotle used the First Cause as the starting point for defining more properties of "God."  The First Cause identifies ONE property of God, that He does not have a cause.

Existence of casual loops - this one is just silly.  Even if such a being existed, it causes itself, which violates the notion of causality (the being causes itself, a logical impossibility from a proper understanding of "cause" in AT metaphysics).  The other issue is that the loop itself must be explained, since "nothing comes from nothing."

Existence of infinite casual chains - begging the question.  Also requires an explanation given "nothing comes from nothing".

In short, while Wikipedia is great for a technical reference,  FAR TOO OFTEN it makes us more stupid by presenting a very shallow and often flat out wrong picture of complex topics.  So my rule of thumb is if the topic is even remotely controversial, throw it out.  You are only going to hurt your brain.


JC said...

Not to mention that this looks suspiciously like a conflation of Aquinas' second and third ways (efficient cause, necessary/contingent being). To be fair, some forms--and especially some popularized forms--of cosmological arguments actually are a conflation of these two ways; and the first way is also a type of cosmological argument.

CatholicGuy said...

True, but missing from this presentation are the basic principle of "nothing comes from nothing" and and the far more abstract notion of "cause" that Aquinas is actually discussing. It's a classic case of what Dr. Fesser describes when modern Cartesian mindset meets Aquinas' philosophy.