One of the replies to the argument from first cause for the universe being created by God is that there is no apriori reason against there simply being an infinite number of causes, or an infinite regress. This counter argument is usually colloquially stated as: "Well if God must have created the universe, doesn't it stand to reason that someone must have created God as well?". Why hasn't anyone "rolled with it", so to speak? As in: "Fair enough, this universe was created by God, and God was created by Super-God, and Super-God was created by Meta-Super-God, etc..."?

Nietzsche, among others, believed in the doctrine of eternal return, that the universe is spatially finite but temporally infinite, and everything that has ever occurred will occur again, in some sort of cosmic infinite loop. I get the feeling that this is somehow connected to the concept of (causal) infinite regress, but I can't pinpoint the connection.

On a more contemporary note, it can be argued that humans are gods to the characters of the various fictional universes they create and manipulate in novels, movies, and video games. And that these universes have some sort of ontological reality, as thoughts embodied in the minds of their authors and in the mediums in which this fiction is portrayed. It is almost an inevitable logical step to wonder if we are not the same? Can it be that we are just characters in some metaphysical demiurge's video game or children's fantasy book series? And that demiurge is herself a character in a higher level demiurge's work of fiction?

  • My question is mainly a historical one: Have there been any religions or philosophical metaphysical systems that have held this view? That "Yes indeed, the universe has a creator, but that creator is in turn part of another universe which itself has its own creator, and so on,...."? It seems to me that this is no more farfetched than Berkeley's subjective idealism, or Nietzsche's eternal recurrence. Yet I've never heard of anyone subscribing to this "infinite regress" metaphysics.
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    I think it might hinge on what one holds as a creator; for A, the first cause by definition, is one that has no previous cause - but I'm not sure of the details - which tie up with his theory of causes. Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 17:56
  • I don't really see that the second and third paragraphs relate to the main thrust of the question. The third is an analogy that, for me, doesn't quite hold. You seem to be inserting "thoughts" as "causes" in various different ways. Similarly in the second paragraph, "cause" in the materially limited, recycled universe doesn't strike me as "infinite regress" or successive causation and "creation" in the more linear, Christian sense of time. Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 19:19
  • @NelsonAlexander I sense a certain Wittgensteinian family resemblance between infinite regress and eternal recurrence, and both ideas seems farfetched (from an everyday empirical perspective) - hence my mention of both. As for the demiurge analogy, I don't get your objection. Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 19:51
  • @AlexanderSKing. I'll have to think it through, but something is amiss there, even for an analogy. Again, using "causality" in different ways, but I'll have to get back to it. It would be good it you could frame another question around it. Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 20:30
  • I suggest you ask the angels dancing on the head of whatever pin is convenient... Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 21:48

4 Answers 4


Anecdotally, yes, there is a famous example of such a metaphysics, usually referred to as "turtles all the way down...."

Since the joke usually attributes this, via William James, to Hindu philosophies, perhaps there is some actual version of it in Eastern traditions, I really don't know. There are, of course, theogonies dating back to Hesiod, in which the present God has an ancestral lineage, a casual regress back to Chaos or Void, which might be defined as "infinite regress itself." But I don't think that's what you mean.

I believe most Western philosophers would regard it as useless, irresolvable speculation and a misunderstanding of infinity. It might qualify as an example of Hegel's "spurious infinity," Kant's antinomies of first cause, or even a variant of Everett's "many worlds" thesis. As far as I can tell, which isn't far, that implies a kind of "causal infinite" residing in mathematics. If you've gone that far, why not toss in God?

In general, I believe both God and Universe are taken to be absolute identities. Since God, at least, is already "infinite," nothing happens if we add more "prior" Gods, the successive totality remains the same. I don't know enough about Cantor's sets, but I don't see some convenient analogy where infinite beings from Aleph on could "line up" in some sort of causal sequence.

The problem seems to lie in the contradiction or incommensurability of "infinite" and "causal," which is why God is not regarded as understandable in either analytic or synthetic terms. Hence faith in He Who Is "beyond all understanding."

Now, there might be something pertinent in Hegel's theology. Geist is not infinite regress but more like infinite progress. Hegel does seem to mix causality or "history" with the "true infinite." But then Geist is not God either.

  • "where infinite beings from Aleph on could "line up" in some sort of causal sequence" -- or better still, an infinite regress of Platonic realms of ideas. Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 19:19

AFAICT, Gnosticism beat philosophy to this by a long time, and tainted it as an argument.

The dialectical cycle most clearly articulated by Hegel seems to first enter the West in Gnostic heresies that this world is rightly created in protest against a more genuine creator of a higher world, and that there are many layers of such objections and reversals.

There are illustrations in commentary on the Zohar by Christian Gnostics that show the Tree of Life extended not just the four traditional overlapping layers, but a pile of them stretching back into infinity. This suggests a thread in the Hermetic tradition that presumes the layers are far more numerous, perhaps stretching back infinitely far.

Unfortunately we cannot know, because the contents of heresies are not easily preserved with any integrity. This basic doctrine, with one level, invited endless political problems, in that it implies we are right to either worship Satan as a major part of God with an important point to make, or to attempt to worship the God against whom our God had rebelled, rather than worship the dominant God of this universe. That way lies endless repression and ultimate elimination from history.

The erasure from history is also somewhat self-inflicted. The texts alongside such suggestive diagrams are 'Apocrypha' (etymologically 'Hiddens') written in codes and allegories that purposely self-destruct without a lot of orally-transmitted information, so that the holders, if caught, could defend themselves as innocent of their meaning. They make no sense.

We have given up on studying any NeoPlatonist or Hermetic philosophy affected by Gnosticism as philosophy, and left it to crazy religionists in whose best interest it often is to badly warp history to manipulate internecine rivalries.

  • This is very interesting, but does Gnosticism predate "philosophy"? I am also wondering if "infinite regress" and "spirals" of a more Hegelian sort are really comparable... or if they mark a useful or necessary distinction. I tend to think of Hegel's "spurious infinity" as linear regression and reiteration, whether compounding or not. Finally, what are the "four layers" of tree of life? Is that something like gods, mortals, animals, plant? Or something else entirely? Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 16:38
  • No, it has three known periods -- very early Christianity, in stuff like The Gospel of Thomas, and the periods when Christianity was trying to incorporate NeoPlatonism around the 500's when the 'Hermes' of 'Hermeticism' wrote, and again when we were trying to incorporate the Zohar and Greek traditions elaborated at the peak of Arab culture into Scholasticism in the 12-1300's. But well before Hegel.
    – user9166
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 16:45
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    I am not pushing that these ideas are the same, but that the seeds of 'reversalism' are sown by this early heresy, and lie deeper in our tradition than their 'official' recognition in Hegel, Nietzsche and Marx. In classical Golden-age style, Gnostic 'syntheses' were seen as deeper transcendences of what already was, not the coming into being of anything new. But it supports the genealogy of morals to think this notion of paradoxical inversion was a basic component of early Christianity to a stronger degree than our religious history lets on, which is also seen in newly found old texts.
    – user9166
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 17:07
  • The four layers are traced to the four recapitulations of creation at the start of Genesis. Traditionally they represent Concept, Creation, Form (the Platonic Realm), and Matter, but for (at least some) Gnostics they represent four reversals of emphasis we are Adam created by God (who is Satan) opposed to the 'real' Yaweh, who separated himself out from the Elohim. The traditional 'message' is that each layer adds a dimension to reality. The Gnostic 'message' is that each layer is a rebellion from the above, so much is lost, but some part lost is regained.
    – user9166
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 17:39
  • (Is there any convenient way to just start a chat linked to a question? I would rather have put the pseudo-mystical rant somewhere that was primarily visible to the commenter who asked.
    – user9166
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 17:41

Not only is there no a priori reason against an infinite chain of causes, there is no reason for any of the causes to be anything like a creator either. One can simply imagine a physical causal chain stretching indefinitely back in time for example. This is usually transcended by a meta-escape: something like let us encapsulate the entire causal chain into a single item, and ask about the cause of that. If such a move is permitted then the chain of super-Gods can be dealt with in the same manner. And blocking the infinite regress delivers the uncaused cause, the ultimate creator, God. It is rather straightforward that two different entities can not both be omnipotent, so no more Gods after that.

Even accepting the meta-escapes and the prohibition on infinite regress we still have an obvious special pleading at the end (why not make something in the temporal chain an uncaused cause already for example), and the non-sequitur identification of the uncaused cause with the creator, and moreover God. These weaknesses of the cosmological argument did not go unnoticed, so Aquinas for example frames it not so much as an independent argument for God’s existence as a kind of inference to the best explanation: we need an uncaused cause to block the infinite regress, and God is available. He then reaches to the ontological argument for the latter.

The reasoning involved in the cosmological argument had an interesting afterlife. Kant justified the meta-escape by "ideal of pure reason" striving for the unity of experience. But it justifies it as our own projection only, applying it to things in themselves is an error we just can not help making. Cantor, who systematically studied scholastic arguments, incorporated the idea into his "three generation principles" for transfinite sets. The first one just adds an extra element to a given set, and gives us finite ordinals, the second encapsulates all of them into a single “limit”, and gives us the first infinite ordinal ω. This first escape is purely extensional, like a temporal chain. From this we can restart applying the first two principles again, but all so generated ordinals will be countable. And there comes a higher order, intensional escape:"if already generated ordinals share a property then they can be grouped together to form a new ordinal". And thus he transcends the countable, and arrives at the first uncountable ordinal ω1. Making the God move however resulted in the incoherent ordinal of all ordinals, the subject of the Burali-Forti paradox.

  • Interesting. But I am curious about two points. First,there is "no a priori reason against an infinite chain of causes." I would assume that "infinite" and possibly "cause" can only be a priori, so "a posteriori" would make more sense to me there... I think. Also, in this logic is there any crucial distinction between "cause" and "creation" or "creator"? An unmoved mover suggests to me a "limit," as you say, and a static universe, while "creator" suggests an emphasis on the reality of time and novelty. Must a "creator" share some formal properties with its "creatures," for example? Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 16:25
  • @Nelson Infinite regress of causes was considered a priori unacceptable since antiquity, but it was a "self-evident" postulate not backed up by an argument. And from Stoics to Spinoza and Leibniz causes were conflated with reasons, and causation with logical deduction. This made causes into sufficient causes which no novelty can enter, such a cause already "contains" all of its effects. Even in Creation there was nothing that was not "prior" in God's mind, ex nihilo nihil. Only after Kant disentangled causes from reasons "creative evolution" ideas appear e.g. in Hegel, Peirce and Bergson.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 23:25

I have thought about this myself. The issue is perplexing and I believe at this point not really important. Infinity and Eternity are also just concepts to us and not truly conceivable in our present (finite) form. A lot of religions and belief systems hold that our creator is located beyond what we can see, and thus it is conceivable our reality was created to be a 'sandbox' of sorts. We should note however that the consciousness that we experience cannot (in my view) be emulated by a tradition turing machine type computer. Some physicists hold that every atom holds infinity in it, thus the whole universe is located in every particle and what we see is just a perspective of it. Regardless of what the answer may be, if you believe we are in a very special place, I think these ideas/concepts will become less dominant to the psyche.

Reference for infinity in a particle (as requested):

check excerpt from here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulated_reality As Richard Feynman put it:[17] "It always bothers me that, according to the laws as we understand them today, it takes a computing machine an infinite number of logical operations to figure out what goes on in no matter how tiny a region of space, and no matter how tiny a region of time. How can all that be going on in that tiny space? Why should it take an infinite amount of logic to figure out what one tiny piece of space/time is going to do? So I have often made the hypotheses that ultimately physics will not require a mathematical statement, that in the end the machinery will be revealed, and the laws will turn out to be simple, like the chequer board with all its apparent complexities".

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    Could you please nominate the physicists who "hold that every atom holds infinity in", thanks.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 18:39
  • please check my edit
    – kns98
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 18:49
  • Feynman does not claim that "every atom holds infinity". He emphasizes that our computations need infinitely many steps - he means a limit process - to calculate what happens. That's a difference. Feynman speculates that the atom follows a simple rule, but today our only means to figure out its behaviour are complex mathematics.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 19:05
  • I don't think "atom" would be technically the right term or that infinite mathematical divisibility is the same as the infinite "inside" a simple substance. It seems to me that Feynman is suggesting the opposite, that infinite divisibility to mathematical point is an error. Leibniz's monads apparently are simple substances each containing or "reflecting" the whole universe, but I can't say I grasp the monadology. Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 19:07
  • ok, point taken, I didn't quite understand what Feynmann said. It is interesting that some concepts like a true circle for example require infinity in our Cartesian space.
    – kns98
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 19:18

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