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A lot of debates and conversations with theists seem to end up with the "ultimate" questions where the questions themselves seem to me to be conceptual/linguistic/psychological dead ends.

Infinite regress vs uncaused cause - the two sweethearts and their baby nothingness, which I personally think are just proxies for our conceptual limits as finite creatures evolved in the causal space-time continuum.

Those questions are like tricksters of the mind and I suspect people over-estimate their significance, in being able to 'understand' or know what they are talking about when they say those words... as beyond the confines of our universe, or multiverse, or wherever the line is drawn where all our conceptual frameworks break down... is simply unspeakable.

Any analogy might be futile: e.g. we are just like an electron that can't understand its place in the grander scheme of things.

I'm not saying it is pointless to ask deep questions per-se, but people seem to have strong opinions about the "realness" of those key concepts and talk as if they knew exactly what those things are beyond their brains.

e.g. "Infinite regress of causes and effects can't be real/ is illogical/impossible".

  1. Why assume it is impossible. (reality doesn't have to appeal to our common sense)

  2. why assume we understand what it actually IS as finite creatures.

  3. why assume that it is the only alternative to "uncaused cause"? Maybe there are million other alternatives we can't even begin to fathom as they don't touch "our reality".

Question: Do any possibility of gaining knowledge end in Agrippa's trilemma or can there be undiscovered means to founding knowledge?

  • Why bother with what we can not fathom and not focus on what we can? There is no assumption involved in ignoring what is beyond our ken anyway. Infinite regress is not considered impossible, and uncaused causes and infinite regress are not the only alternatives, by the way, see Agrippa's trilemma. – Conifold Oct 6 at 9:23
  • @Conifold - I feel you should make it clear that it is merely your opinion that these issues are unfathomable and only your assumption that they are 'beyond our ken'.; Stating it bluntly as a fact in this way suggests dogmatism and may deter the OP from doing the research. Your comment casually rejects all those who would argue otherwise as if there are none. . . – PeterJ Oct 7 at 8:56
  • @PeterJ I do not refer to any "these issues" in particular, you or OP can substitute whatever they might be for you, if any. – Conifold Oct 7 at 9:29
  • "I'm not saying it is pointless to ask deep questions per-se, but people seem to have strong opinions about the "realness" of those key concepts and talk as if they knew exactly what those things are beyond their brains." Do they? Or haven't we had 2500 years of earnest discussion on the issue? – transitionsynthesis Oct 8 at 6:04
  • @Conifold - Pardon me. I assumed you were saying the issues raised by the OP were beyond our ken. – PeterJ Oct 8 at 12:00
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"Infinite regress of causes and effects can't be real/ is illogical/impossible".

  1. Why assume it is impossible. (Reality doesn't have to appeal to our common sense)
  2. Why assume we understand what it actually IS as finite creatures.
  3. Why assume that it is the only alternative to "uncaused cause"? Maybe there are million other alternatives we can't even begin to fathom as they don't touch "our reality".

I will make some preliminary remarks, and then answer your three individual questions. As Conifold points out in the comments, this issue can only really be understood by understanding the Münchhausen trilemma, which is itself a logical consequence of the law of the excluded middle. Suppose you have a set of things, and a binary relation < (e.g., representing causality) where each thing can either be related to one other thing by that binary relation, or not related to any other thing by that binary relation. So, for example, thing A either has A < B for some B, or it does not have A < B for any B. Now suppose that you try to trace this relation from some starting item until it terminates. The Münchhausen trilemma tells us that there are three possibilities: (1) a circularity, where you get back to a previous thing: A < B < C < D < A < ... (2) an infinite regress, where you get a different thing each time and the series never terminates: A < B < C < D < ... ; or (3) the series terminates: A < B < C < D.

To apply the Münchhausen trilemma in this context, start at some caused thing. Either this had a cause or it did not. If it had a cause, go to its cause. Either that had a cause or it did not. If it had a cause, go to its cause. Either that had a cause or it did not, and so on. This inquiry must either terminate by finding a thing that had no cause, or it does not terminate. If it does not terminate, this either occurs because you get back to a previous cause and then cycle through a finite number of causes circularly, or you don't get back to a previous cause, and so you have an infinite chain of different causes. Now, if we exclude the circular case by viewing this as not really being causality at all (because each thing ends up being asserted to be the cause of itself), we are left with the other two alternatives: either there is something at the base that had no cause, or there is an infinite regress of cause and effect.

The Münchhausen trilemma basically leads different schools of philosophy to branch off into different understandings of metaphysics and epistemology, depending on which of these things they think makes sense in the context of metaphysical and epistemological questions. Some schools of philosophy have no issues with infinite regresses of causes and effects, and others regard that as an indication of incorrect reasoning.

In any case, regardless of which particular school of philosophy you look at, if you accept the law of the excluded middle, and thus accept the Münchhausen trilemma, you are going to have to grapple with this trichotomy. There could certainly be millions of things that we do not fathom, but each of those things must logically either be causes of a particular thing or not. If you begin from the premise that you cannot reason about the available logical alternatives in a situation ---even to the extent of just applying the law of the excluded middle leading to the Münchhausen trilemma --- because there may be things that "we can't even begin to fathom", then your whole epistemology is a non-starter. This seems to be what you are saying when you assert that our conceptual framework breaks down and that certain things are simply unspeakable. That would not just impede reasoning about theism; it would seem to me to be a form of nihilism, which essentially means that humans can never reason validly, and can never know anything about anything.


  1. Why assume it is impossible. (Reality doesn't have to appeal to our common sense)

I don't think people necessarily assume this is impossible. There are some schools of philosophy that accept "infinitism" in the metaphysical realm, and would not be disturbed by an assertion of an infinite regress of causes and effects. Those schools tend to adopt this approach due to an aversion to the other two cases; they view a terminating uncaused thing as wrong, and they view a circularity of causes as wrong.

  1. Why assume we understand what it actually IS as finite creatures.

From predicate logic and the foundations of mathematics, we have a pretty good understanding of infinity, so I don't agree that we are "finite creatures" in the sense of being unable to properly understand the concept of infinity. To say that there is an infinite regress of causes and effects is equivalent to saying that the regress of causes and effects does not terminate in any finite number of steps, and there is no circularity of causes. So, if we can understand the finite whole numbers (i.e., the natural numbers), and we understand logical negation and the universal operator, then we understand infinity in this context.

  1. Why assume that it is the only alternative to "uncaused cause"? Maybe there are million other alternatives we can't even begin to fathom as they don't touch "our reality".

As shown above, this is not an assumption at all. If one accepts the law of the excluded middle, this leads to the Münchhausen trilemma. If one then rules out circularity of cause as not really being a valid form of causation at all, then one is left with the two other options, and thus has the dichotomy of an infinite regress of causes or an uncaused thing at the base. (Note from the Objectivist school that the uncaused thing at the base might not be a cause. The Objectivists argue that only actions pertaining to things have causes, and so the thing at the base is an uncaused thing, and its actions are caused by its nature, which is uncaused. This opens a can of worms that gets off-topic here, so I won't elaborate beyond that.)

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  1. We don't
  2. We don't
  3. Why not?

Okay, perhaps that was a bit pithy. There are indeed people who make these assumptions, and one can talk to their rationales if one pleases. There's a lot of people out there with a lot of opinions about what is going on. However, one can talk about the whole of philosophy, considering people who deviate from the "norm."

Infinite regress is not forbidden from reality as much as it is forbidden in logic. Infinite regress is not considered to be a valid way to prove a claim according to most philosophers. This opinion is had because infinite regress causes a boatload of issues and we haven't found a clear way to tease them apart as we have with other assumptions.

I think most philosophers readily admit that they do not understand the infinite. Those that do tend to approach it from a very different perspective (such as the argument that the whole universe is one unified thing and division is an illusion). However, don't knock the possibility that reality is merely really big, rather than infinite. Its hard to disprove that one.

As for alternatives to the uncaused cause, it is the one alternative because of the way causality is defined. If you have causality without an uncaused cause, you need infinite regress. That being said, there is no reason one is obliged to consider causality to be a fundamental reality. Some philosophers explore what the world might be like if causality is merely an approximation of reality.

  • Personally, I'd recommend listening to some of Alan Watt's work. He likes to poke at the kind of questions you raise, and he does so in a way that is accessible by those of us that are not philosophy students. And, frankly, I appreciate the bemused tone he takes so often. – Cort Ammon Oct 6 at 5:16
  • However, don't knock the possibility that reality is merely really big, rather than infinite. It's hard to disprove that one. Thanks Cort Ammon. For me, the reality is very big but not infinite. – salah Oct 7 at 19:59
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An infinite regress is evidence that our thinking is incorrect. Such contradictions do not arise when our thinking is correct. They are found all over the metaphysics of our universities. They are not found at all in the philosophy of the Upanishads, which endorses a neutral global theory.

Why this is not regarded as a vitally important issue I have no clear idea. It appears that scholastic philosophers are not interested in the whole of philosophy.

Question: Do any possibility of gaining knowledge end in Agrippa's trilemma or can there be undiscovered means to founding knowledge?

Metaphysics is perfectly capable of leading us to the correct world-theory. The infinite regressions and other contradictions that arise for unworkable theories allow us to identify the correct one. For instance, where Materialism does not appeal to a miraculous creation event it leads to an infinite regression, and this allows us to know it is logically incoherent. If we throw out all the views that cause these problems then we end up being forced to home in on the one that does not cause them. This process may be called abduction or 'inference to the best explanation'.

This process allows us to calculate that all positive global theories fail in logic, or in Kant's terminology 'All selective conclusions' about the world-as-a-whole are undecidable'. None of them work so we cannot choose between them. These are the views that lead to infinite regressions. if we trust logic and reason and abandon these views then the regressions disappear and we are left with a theory that works.

The reason philosophers do not often follow logic in this way are various. In our internet age the main reason seems to be a reluctance by professors to venture beyond the Academy to study the whole of philosophy. Thus you have to ask whether knowledge is possible. If you study only that part of philosophy examined by academics and ignore the rest then the answer is 'no', as you will be able to verify from a literature review. For this approach metaphysics is a waste of time, as is well-argued by the current Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics.

If you want to get rid of all these hopeless regresses and other 'barriers to knowledge' then you would need to study a neutral metaphysical theory and the philosophy of Lao Tsu, Nagarjuna and the Upanishads. For this philosophy there are no barriers to knowledge and, at least as a logical conundrum, metaphysics is fairly easy.

In a comment above Cort Ammon mentions that Alan Watts pokes fun at the sort of questions that lead to regressions and contradictions. This is because he endorses a neutral theory for which they do not arise. His view is called 'mystical' and is placed off-limits by many philosophers, but if you were to avoid hobbling yourself intellectually in this way and delve into it you'd discover that the search for knowledge need run into no obstacles even in metaphysics.

Alan Watts will be able to explain that the 'means to founding knowledge', (by which I presume you mean placing it on a fundamental basis or perhaps 'finding' it), are not undiscovered but well-known and well-tested.

A good discussion may be found in physicist Paul Davies' bestseller The Mind of God, where he discusses some of the metaphysical questions that arise for theoretical physics. He examines the 'Something-Nothing' problem and the regressions and contradictions to which it gives rise and concludes that either it is intractable or mysticism has the answer. He does not endorse the latter but has done his homework and seen that an answer is possible. This may be a useful book since it spends some time on the question you ask here.

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