Can an Atheist Have an Infinite String of Dodges?

The following is the first of Thomas Aquinas’ five ways of
establishing the existence of God. For our immediate purpose, we are merely trying to establish a beginning of causes. That the first cause is known as God, or how or to what
extent we have defined God, is secondary to our immediate discussion. For now,
we are merely interested in establishing a beginning.

Aquinas’ first way, from the Summa Theologica, is as follows:

It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world
some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by
another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that
towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act.
For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to
actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by
something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire,
makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and
changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in
actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects.
For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is
simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same
respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that
it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion
by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then
this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again.
But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover,
and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only
inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only
because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at
a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be
God. (ST, 1.2.3)

Now many introductory philosophy texts have ridiculed the
sentence which says “ But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would
be no first mover.” The accusation is that Aquinas assumes a first mover
without proving there to be one. But this criticism misunderstands Thomas’
meaning of movement, for his context is that of ongoing causation of movement. Thomas gives us an explanation when he states “as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand.”

Assume you are in your car, and pull up to a railroad crossing, and you see a series of boxcars rolling past. It would be absurd to say “The boxcars need no engine,
for there could be an infinite series of boxcars.” This is absurd, for boxcars
can only be moved, cannot generate movement, and cannot move themselves. If there is movement in the boxcars, there has to be something pulling the boxcars that is much different from a boxcar, something that can cause movement while itself is not being
moved by another. So a series of things being moved cannot go on to
infinity, for there would be nothing causing the movement in the whole chain. Perhaps
to the modern ear Thomas’ statement should read ‘But this cannot go on to
infinity, because there would be nothing causing the movement.’

Thomas is speaking of motion as continuous and present, as
in the example of the hand moving the staff. To Thomas, if there is motion, it
is immediate and continuous through the entire chain. Increasing the length of
the chain of objects being moved does nothing to eliminate the conclusion that
something is moving the chain of objects. Increasing the length of the chain of
objects to infinity merely increases the need for a cause of the entire set of
objects. If there is movement, something must be currently causing the
movement, while itself is not being moved by another. Posing the boxcars as being in a large circle still does not solve the problem, for boxcars can still not generate movement.

Further, theoretical infinites are no help to us in determining causality in the real world. We readily admit that a theoretical infinite can be placed into a theoretical situation, or plugged into a math formula. But math formulas that calculate things do not prove that the things actually exist in the world. So we find no answers in theoretical infinites that are not attached to actual things.

The question then arises about sequential infinites, or finite things that happen in succession. Suppose we come across a long line of dominoes in the road before us, going to the left and right as far as we can see. We suddenly see the dominoes falling over, each one knocking over the next one in line. Our question is then: “Could there have been an infinitely long string of dominoes that were always knocking the next one over?”

First, we are faced with the fact that something would have had to manufacture and set up this infinite string of dominoes, which defies explanation. We have not an infinite amount of materials to make dominoes with, or an infinite road to place them. Second, proposing the existence of an infinite string of falling objects leaves unexplained how the falling was created in the first place. In everything we observe, such a sequence would have had to be initiated. Supposing an infinite string of dominoes leaves us without an explanation of how the falling action came to exist. Of course, a lack of an explanation here does not prove that the falling did not exist everlastingly, but it does present us with a type of “atheist of the gaps” theory: we have no explanation for an observed sequence, so by golly, it must have always existed with no cause. This is an unacceptable answer.

Third, as we observe this string of dominoes falling over, if it were infinite, we must ask ourselves “how did the falling get to me?”  If the line of dominoes were infinitely long, it seems the falling would always be an infinite distance away from me. The atheist might reply, “Well, the ones currently falling over have to be somewhere. It just so happens that it is next to you.” But this misunderstands infinites. If the line were truly infinite, then the falling would always, at all instances, be an infinite distance away from any one point on the line. Pick any domino, and the falling would have been an infinite distance away. Since the falling is happening in sequence, it is impossible to select a domino where the falling is not an infinite distance away. The dominoes are always falling, but never arriving anywhere, which is an absurdity.

So we conclude that both simultaneous causation and sequential causation cannot be infinite. If we observe motion, or causality, in the real world, it cannot have gone on for an infinite sequence in the past. If we observe a cause, logic forces us to conclude that there is a first cause, one that is not being caused by another. This we call God.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Aquinas, Atheism, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Can an Atheist Have an Infinite String of Dodges?

  1. keithnoback says:

    Great. What we know about god from this argument is that god is something capable of knocking over a domino, an argument for monism by the way.

  2. Excellent.
    Am I correct that there can be no infinite in reality (only in mathematics?).
    I assume that means that time had a beginning, which for our meager minds begs the question of what time could mean before this beginning (if “before can have meaning in this instance – if not, how do we think of the term “before” as applied to the beginning of time?).

    Secondly, if infinites cannot exist, does that mean the universe has some sort of actual end, limit, or edge (ie: space is not infinite)?
    If so, what lies beyond the edge, or how are we to think about that?

    Hope you can reply and apologize for so many questions.

    –Wm Brown
    Forest, Virginia

  3. humblesmith says:

    What the argument holds is that everything in the following list must have a first cause, and a string of prior causes cannot go back to infinity:
    –Things with beginnings
    –Things made of physical matter (which are always finite)
    –Things composed of parts
    The things in this list must have a beginning. Once this is established, we can then conclude that the beginning, which is the first cause, is itself uncaused, without a beginning, not made of matter, and not composed of parts. If any of these were the case for the first cause, it would be subject to the argument in the post………it would require a prior cause and would not be the first cause, which the argument concludes must exist.

    The post does not demonstrate that no infinites can exist. Christians, including me, have often been guilty of saying “actual infinites cannot exist” which is an imprecise sloppy statement. Instead, the agrument in this post concludes that a first cause must exist, and we go on to conclude that this first cause is infinite. The atheists accuse us of special pleading, but this is incorrect, since the first cause is not subject to the things the argument speaks about……the things in my list above. What the argument does is conclude there must be a first cause, and we then conclude this first cause is not limited.

    As to time, we get confused when we think of time as a state of being…..something that we are “in” or “out” of. Instead, time is merely a measure of change between two things. “15 minutes” is only relevant when we measure a certain distance of earth rotation compared to the sun. So time is merely a measure of change. God does not change, therefore He is not subject to time. We change and the universe changes so we experience time. There can only be a “before the beginning” in reference to logically prior to the creation of the universe. Peter, in one of his epistles, speaks of God “before time began.”

    As to the universe, it is not infinite since it had a beginning. Any series of successive events after that is a finite series that continues to grow. Therefore at any moment it is a finite size. Whether it continues to grow is another question for another day.

  4. hausdorff says:

    “but it does present us with a type of “atheist of the gaps” theory: we have no explanation for an observed sequence, so by golly, it must have always existed with no cause. This is an unacceptable answer.”

    I agree that this is an unacceptable answer. It is not an argument that I have made, or that I would expect to see other atheists make. We are responding to the idea that the infinite is impossible. I merely aim to show that infinity is logically consistent and one possibility. A finite universe/multiverse is certainly a possibility as well. The opposite of “infinity is impossible” is not “it must be infinite”, but rather it is “infinity is a possibility”

    “But this misunderstands infinites. If the line were truly infinite, then the falling would always, at all instances, be an infinite distance away from any one point on the line”

    I think you are still imagining a start to this process. If there truly is an infinite line of dominoes, there is no start, that’s the whole point. And any two points on the timeline are a finite distance from one another, but since it is an infinite line, no matter how big a number we pick we can find two dominoes that far apart from one another. If these dominoes are falling, then they have always been falling. There was no finger at the beginning of the line that flicked them that got the whole process going, because there is no beginning. That’s the whole point, there is no first domino. We might colloquially say something like “the dominoes started falling an infinite amount of time ago”, but what we really would mean is that there was no start, it just has always been falling.

    Let’s go back to what you said “the falling would always, at all instances, be an infinite distance away from any one point on the line”. In this case, where is the falling happening? I would say there is no domino an infinite distance away, because infinity is not a number. In the situation that you described there is no falling, because there are no dominos falling. Infinity is not a number, there is no domino in the infinity-ith position. And yet, infinity is a concept that makes sense here, there are an infinite number of dominos. If we have an infinite string of dominoes, and somewhere along the way they are tumbling, then they have been tumbling forever, without a beginning.

    • humblesmith says:

      You have gotten close to one of the reasons why an infinite succession is an absurdity.

      I am not assuming a beginning. Once again: in the supposed infinite line of dominoes, we can select any domino….any one at all in the line with no beginning…..and there was a point prior to that domino when the falling action was an infinite distance in the past. Being an infinite distance in the past, the falling has an infinite number of dominoes to knock down, which is impossible by succession.

      Now you correctly pointed out that there is a finite distance between any two dominoes. But we are not talking about finite distances….we have an infinite line with no beginning, with the falling happening way back there. So at one time, the falling was always an infinite distance away from any one domino we may pick. Infinites cannot be crossed. Therefore, a beginning is necessary.

      • hausdorff says:

        “Now you correctly pointed out that there is a finite distance between any two dominoes.”

        “there was a point prior to that domino when the falling action was an infinite distance in the past.”

        Those two comments contradict one another. How can the falling action be an infinite distance in the past if there is no domino that is at a position an infinite distance away? Any time there is falling action, it has to be some particular domino that is falling. There is no domino an infinite distance away, and therefore there cannot be a falling action an infinite distance away.

    • humblesmith says:

      If we cannot speak of an infinite distance away, then we cannot make any conclusions about the possibility of an infinite series crossing this distance to reach me, and we therefore have no ability to conclude infinite series are a possibility. So such a position is either self refuting or invalid. The post stands.

  5. keithnoback says:

    If the universe began, did its beginning not induce a change in God, at least in his identity? If not it seems that we must either say that he universe always existed within God, just in a state wihich was somehow not essentially different from the current one, yet atemporal, or we must say that something else incomprehensible occurred. Either way, this argument looks like it amounts to a convoluted shrug.

    • humblesmith says:

      When God created, His being and essence did not change. The universe changed in that it went from a state of potentially existing to a state of actually existing. God, however, being the cause, did not change. When an effect is caused the effect is changed not the cause. We may refer to God as creator, but since He acts from eternity, He was always a creating being, although we did not see the effect except in time. Further, creator is merely a title that we assign, not a change in being. For example, God is always wrathfully toward those who rebel and is always loving toward those who repent. When we decide to stop rebelling and repent, we move from Gods wrath to His love. We changed but God did not.

      But this does not affect the fact that the universe could not go back infinitely into the past, which is the subject of the post.

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