Suppose there is a cause “for which all causal relations exist”.

The cause exists before “all causal relationships exist.”

Before “all causal relationships exist,” causal relationships do not exist.

Therefore, there are no “causal” causes.

Therefore, there is no cause “for which all causal relations exist”.

  • What does causal relations "exist for a cause" mean exactly? If something exists it exists, not "for" anything else. Except, perhaps, metaphorically as in "I live for you, my love" or "monsters from his visions exist only for him". But "exist for a cause" is obscure even metaphorically.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 7:58
  • @Conifold i mean "are there cause for "all causal relationship exist"?" Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 8:02
  • Line 2 does not follow from line 1. A cause can belong to the set of items it causes (be a self-cause) and does not need to do the causing in time for "before" to even make sense. This is how the first cause is usually interpreted in the cosmological argument, which yours seems to be attempting to counter.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 8:14
  • @Conifold If it is self-caused, doesn’t that mean there is no external cause? Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 8:21
  • There is nothing in the post about "externality", but sure, why not.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 8:28

3 Answers 3


Whether relations can exist without all their relata is one of the many open questions of philosophy. Perhaps the most pernicious (or interesting) example of the problem concerns intentional objects: "I believe in the First Unicorn; when I believe in something, there is something I believe in; therefore there is something that corresponds to the First Unicorn," etc.

If I understand your argument rightly, you are trying to say that if there were a First Cause, this being would have a causal relationship with all subsequent being even before these beings existed to relate to the First Cause. This is a perplexing issue: when x doesn't yet exist, then if nothing can be true of x unless it exists, how can it be true that X causes x to exist? Something must be wrong with either our belief that the existence of x can be caused, or our belief that we understand what we mean by the word "exists": either way, a belief making all secondary existence dependent on the action of some First Cause will seem incompletely proven or even outright refuted, now. But consider:

  1. A theism-friendly rejoinder: instead of saying "causes x to exist," replace that phrasing with something like "causes x to be actualized from pure possibility." Not without difficulties, of course, but it's not so "obviously" troublesome.
  2. Another one: distinguish degrees, forms, relations, etc. of existence and say that a yet-to-be-caused being exists in sense A and will exist in sense B once caused to be so.
  3. Distinguish types of causation, kinds of causes, etc. even further. This option can probably be manipulated to be theologically neutral, or along the lines of your intent to derive the nonexistence of a First Cause from the self-same existence of that thing.
  4. Deny that the existence/nonexistence distinction applies to a First Cause. This is a maneuver that takes a sophisticated perspective on the theory of predication/properties/substances/objects to interpret, understand, and apply: often denying such a distinction is taken as a first step towards declaring the meaninglessness of a term rather than the "mere" falsity or, Heaven and Hell forbid, the necessary truth of a positive statement built upon that term.
  • Re. 1. "causes x to be actualized from pure possibility," sounds like x would always exist, so either no need for 1st cause or x is 1st cause. Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 13:30
  • @ChrisDegnen too-abstract versions of the cosmological argument are quite weak as it is, so the more they're complexified, the less "metaphysically urgent" the "need" for a first cause of such sequences becomes. And once we let in circular causation (or at least circular grounding), all Heaven breaks loose and we are left with Earth and the physical cosmos seeming much more self-sufficient, here. Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 13:52
  • Going with a Kantian definition of existence i.e. in terms of position to cognition, causes of things are straightforward but the cause of cause (or reason for reason) puts cause and reason in a different category; reason and logos being no ordinary thing but part of the mechanism of cognition. Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 13:57
  • 1
    @ChrisDegnen the first-order/second-order distinction strikes again! Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 14:04
  • Re. self-sufficient cosmos, yes thoughts along the line of quantum vacuum and E8. Interesting but not substantiated. Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 14:09

Causal relations apply to things, for example: there is a ruler on my desk because I put it there. Cause and reason are synonymous: the reason for the ruler being there is that I put it there.

The principle of sufficient reason states that

nothing is without a reason (nihil est sine ratione) or there is no effect without a cause.

Reason is the principle by which the world is intelligible to one's mind. In Heidegger's 1929 treatise On the Essence of Ground (Pathmarks, p. 132) he comments on its origin:

it has become clear with respect to the principle of reason [ground] that the "birthplace" of this principle lies neither in the essence of proposition nor in propositional truth, but in ontological truth, i.e., in transcendence itself. Freedom is the origin of the principle of reason [ground]; for in freedom, in the unity of excess and withdrawal, the grounding of things that develops and forms itself as ontological truth is grounded.

original Sodann ist bezüglich des Satzes vom Grunde deutlich geworden, daß der »Geburtsort« dieses Prinzips weder im Wesen der Aussage noch in der Aussagewahrheit, sondern in der ontologischen Wahrheit, d.h. aber in der Transzendenz selbst liegt. Die Freiheit ist der Ursprung des Satzes vom Grunde; denn in ihr, der Einheit von Überschwung und Entzug, gründet sich das als ontologische Wahrheit sich ausbildende Begründen.

Human transcendence to the capacity for thought allows the principle of reason to be grasped. As for the reason for the principle of reason, and the reason for the reason for the reason for reason, in The Principle of Reason (page 12) Heidegger writes:

what are we getting ourselves into if we take the principle of reason at its word and move towards the reason of reasons? Does not the reason of reasons press forward beyond itself to the reason of reason of reasons? If we persist in this sort of questioning, where can we find a respite and a perspective on reason? If thinking takes this path to reason, then surely it can't help but fall intractably into groundlessness.

original Wohin geraten wir aber, wenn wir den Satz vom Grund bei seinem eigenen Wort nehmen und so auf den Grund des Grundes zugehen? Drängt der Grund des Grundes nicht über sich hinaus zum Grund des Grundes des Grundes? Wo ist, wenn wir in dieser Art zu fragen fortfahren, noch ein Halten und damit noch eine Aussicht auf Grund? Ginge das Denken diesen Weg zum Grund, dann müßte es doch unaufhaltsam ins Grundlose fallen.

It seems that, as that which makes things (intelligible), reason is not a thing in the ordinary manner that "no-thing is without a reason" applies to.

  • I'm using a translator and your conclusion doesn't translate well. State your conclusion in simple sentences Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 9:14
  • @Displayname I have added original quotes that might translate better for you. Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 11:14
  • @Displayname As I summarised in a comment to Kristian Berry: cause/reason/logos is not an ordinary thing subject to the principle of sufficient reason because it is itself "part of the mechanism of cognition". Commented Oct 19, 2023 at 11:10

Suppose there is a cause “for which all causal relations exist”.

I don't need to. I can appeal directly to evolutionary epistemology. From the perspective of a naturalized epistemology and an evolutionary psychology, causation and all of its relations have a cause, reproductive fitness. Human beings have a mechanism of language in which the idea and language of causation reside because brains are engines that associate observations of the real world to promote survival and reproduction. In effect, the ultimate cause of why you understand that hungry lions cause human deaths is that if you didn't you would have been eaten a long-time ago by a hungry lion. Today, the Darwin Awards are given to people who remove themselves from the reproductive population because they fail to understand some usually obvious cause of death, such as, don't pull over a heavy vending machine on yourself to get your $1 candy that is stuck.

The cause exists before “all causal relationships exist.”

If one agrees that evolution is an explanation of the origin of species whose brains evolved to calculate cause in the environment, than this 'cause' predates linguistic causal relationships, because language to facilitate communication among hominids occurred in evolution billions of years after causation was mastered by the simplest neural structures.

Before “all causal relationships exist,” causal relationships do not exist.

The don't. It's a metaphysical article of faith that causation exists and possess any character. For instance, Judea Pearl has a book Causality that purports to provide an operational definition of causality, largely along statistical models and machine learning. A metaphysician could argue that 'causality' is simply a categorization and subset of reliable correlation.

Therefore, there are no “causal” causes.

Exactly, only correlations so reliable (it's convenient to call them causes but reject casuation) in the same way a mathematical constructivist reject actual infinity and accepts only potential infinity. In metaphysics and logic, "there are" is what is known as an existential quantification and there are different meta-onotological theories that can lead one to accept or reject "cause" with the Meinongian jungle being the most generous philosophical ecology to bring such ideas to life. Other ontologists, like Carnap were much more ruthless in what they accepted.

Therefore, there is no cause “for which all causal relations exist”.

Now, here is the interesting thing. You have most astutely invented a linguistic paradox, so kudos to you. You obviously are above the bar of average intelligence. But Charles Dodgson had recognized a long time ago, that by disambiguating the language, we are able to resolve paradoxes. Let's do so.

First, recognize that you are using use-mention distinction, and that affects on what your claim means. Thus, there are 'causes' and then there ''statements containing "causes"'. In your claim you use both. What this signifies is that one is a claim about reality, and requires a real definition, and the other is usage which relies on stipulative definition in philosophical discourse. Just because one's philosophy does not admit causation, doesn't mean that causation cannot be admitted despite objections. I can deny you exist, but would you accept that denial? Of course, not. You would simply say that "you do not exist" is a theory and language, and that I'm mistaken in using my language in making claims in the vein of correspondent truth.

And so we have it. What you say is not really irrational or illogical if you recognize that your use of cause-as-causal-cause" (cause1) is metaphysically distinct from you use of cause-as-metaphysical-relation (cause2). Now the trippy part is that cause1 is a cause in the scientific and explanatory theory about how organisms have any notion of causation, and that the organism's theory and language has a collection of causes of type cause2.

So, what we have are two theories, the metatheory of evolutionary epistemology cause1 and the object theory of the evolved agent which contains a host of causes in its mental model as cause2. And in my particular case, I deny the physical existence of causes all together (cause3) and just argue that cause1 and cause2 are both just linguistic illusions that help me explain and make sense of a physical world where no cause can be truly shown to exist beyond doubt, and also explain why for thousands of years, philosophers were convinced causes were real and not abstract. (I've moved to something akin to conceptualism as a metaphysical framework in the course of my life.) And since I have three domains of discourse with three different senses of 'cause', the physically real (cause3), evolutionary epistemology (cause1), and a modern theory of causation ((cause2), I have no contradictions to defend. Any attempts by other to attack my position which confused those senses would be characterized by equivocation.

BTW, it helps if you're also familiar with the Tarski's metalanguage and Quine's semantic ascent, since the intelligibility of my response presupposes those concepts.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .