First of all, what is the first cause theory?

If there's a cause for everything,

If you follow the cause of an event, it will lead to infinity and you will not be able to specify the cause of the event.

Therefore, the conclusion remains that "at least some things do not have a cause."

Imagine that you have a videotape.

Video footage shows the first piece of a domino being pushed by a person, and the dominoes fall one after another.

This videotape shows the connection between cause and effect.

The first video clip of this videotape shows a person knocking down the first piece of dominoes with his or her hands.

In other words, the first cause is the movement of the human hand.

In this image, there is no cause image before the appearance of the human hand.

In other words, in the world on video tape, there is no "cause of the first cause."

But the cause of beginning of the world of the videotape is the motor of the video machine.

The important thing here is that

The world in this videotape is distinct from the world of motors, the outside world.

That is, we may be virtual beings living on video tapes.

If the first cause exists, then the cause of the first cause lies in the outside world where the causal system is different.

  • The first cause (cosmological) argument makes no restrictions on which "world" causes belong to, this is how infinite regress is ruled out. Beyond that it is unclear what you are asking.
    – Conifold
    Mar 15, 2021 at 19:43
  • 2
    Do you think characters in a video tape have internal lives and self-awareness? So if you video yourself having fun, you'll have that fun for all eternity after you're dead, as long as someone plays the video? I never understand this aspect of simulation theory. Where does the consciousness come from?
    – user4894
    Mar 15, 2021 at 23:39
  • What u described is just like the plain demarcation of physics and metaphysics, they're two completely different categorical realms long identified since the ancient. As for "why characters in a video tape have internal lives and self-awareness", this is known as the Hard Problem of Consciousness summarized by David Chalmers in 1995 and still is unresolved till today... Mar 16, 2021 at 0:42
  • is-the-idea-of-a-causal-chain-physical-or-even-scientific? philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/70930/…
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 17, 2021 at 20:07
  • 1
    @user4894 - If one postulates lawlike relations between physical states and subjective experiences ('psychophysical laws'), then there are some plausibility arguments for thinking these laws would have the property that computationally identical systems would give rise to identical experiences, see David Chalmers' paper Absent Qualia, Fading Qualia, Dancing Qualia which focuses on what'd happen to a person's experience if their neurons were gradually replaced by functionally identical artificial neurons. The argument wouldn't work for tapes, though.
    – Hypnosifl
    Mar 19, 2021 at 2:24

7 Answers 7


According to Kant, time is subjective (not an intrinsic attribute of nature, but of our minds). Therefore, causality is subjective. This perspective is usually accepted in most branches of philosophy.

In simple words, events are points in the line of time. If your line of time goes ...-f-g-h-i-j-k-l-..., then perhaps j-k is a causal phenomenon. You might be tempted to think as this: ...And what caused j? Well, i...And what caused i? Well, h...And what caused h? Well, g... etc.).

But the problem is not finding predecessors. The problem is finding where does the line of time begin, and moreover, accepting time as a fact. Searching for a tentatively absolute predecessor in a sequence of causal events has no sense if there was a previous time, and our understanding tells us that for any possible instant there's always a before, where causal facts do occur. Thus, the problem is not related to causality or events, but to time.

And for such problem, Kant has also an answer: time is a fallacy, and he proves it with the first antinomy [1]. An antinomy is kind of a mental contradiction. Kant's antinomies are the result of a deep analysis, and they would prove that our conception of time is based on contradictions (this is not controversial, our mind is full of contradictions).

Therefore, accepting one or the other sides of the antinomy would imply denying the other one, and that you can do only if you explicitly decide to exclude logic from your analysis. And an illogical reasoning is just kind of poetry, not philosophy. Incidentally, have you written your question in the form of a poem?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kant%27s_antinomies

  • I think you're on the right track that time is in our minds. However I would follow that the first cause is therefore the cause of sentience. That is, the will to power - the will to life. As per my answer here Why is there something instead of nothing? Mar 19, 2021 at 21:37
  • Spacetime substantivalism vs relationalism is still an open academic debate topic today. You mentioned Kant and briefly described his first antinomy with a summary wiki link, but I don't see much reasoning behind your conclusion "they would prove that our conception of time is based on contradictions". Can u elaborate more on this about how Kant's logic and reasoning arrived this conclusion? Mar 21, 2021 at 0:51
  • Time can depend on location, a subjectivity, and still relate to conservation laws in an absolute way newscientist.com/article/…
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 21, 2021 at 1:37
  • Most theories of physics have time in them. Actually Kant's first antinomy is about whether time and space are finite, not about whether they exist at all. But even this is unjustified; we can consistently imagine and mathematically formulate a universe infinite in space and time, so it might be the case, and the only way to tell would be by observation. Some theories of physics involve infinite time, e.g. the colliding branes theory extends the timeline before the big bang. Armchair speculation like Kant's is no match for mathematical models that fit observations.
    – causative
    Mar 21, 2021 at 3:50
  • Substantivalism, QM, bigbang, etc. are scientific issues, not philosophical, will not enter there. "...contradictions..." is the word used on the antithetic, see the fifth argument of the metaphysical exposition of time, which seem to trigger the whole conundrum. Anyway, not even philosophers agree on the comprehension of time, I would really like to read an answer from the opposite perspective.
    – RodolfoAP
    Mar 21, 2021 at 8:16

I will first question the answerability of that ontological question and then give an answer according to the mathematical realist view.

The answers to some ontological questions may be as unthinkable for us as imagining the the color green for a blind person would be. So while there may be an explanation for the "first cause", the answer may be beyond phenomenological or intellectual capabilities for us to perceive.

Analogous, We already know that within sufficiently powerful formal systems, certain questions cannot be decided within the methods of the respective system. Quite well known are examples within the formal system ZFC , statement like the Continuum Hypothesis are not answerable from within the system. Those are limits within formal contexts. However, there is another way to investigate reality, which is through our senses, phenomenologically. We can only mentally perceive a small subset of all inputs to our senses, for example the visible spectrum with our eyes. It's utterly unimaginable for us to mentally construct the image of a 4 dimensional cube or the "true color" (I am aware that there is no such thing physically) of a wavelength beyond the visible spectrum. One again, our mental capabilities fail. I am arguing that there is at least a possibility that our inability to formulate answers certain ontological questions is due to limitations of our mind.

Assuming there is some ontological truth to mathematical realism (radical platonism, it differs from normal platonism by stating that mathematical objects aren't just abstract, but also are the fundamental real building blocks of reality, more here) and if sets are the fundamental platonic objects of reality, then asking for causality or a "first cause" is pointless as within the axiomatization of set theory there is no need for a concept of time: If we could axiomatize the "ontologically true" set theory according to radical platonism we would most certainly find time and thus causality to be unimportant, non fundamental within that axiomatization. Time itself only becomes important once you talk about dynamical systems or computation. Some similar view is proposed by Tegmark in his Mathematical Universe Hypothesis. In that view, indeed the cause for our world which is determined by causality to exist lies in the end in a causeless (radical /realist) platonic world of mathematics. Within mathematical realism, there is no consensus which mathematical objects should be considered to be ontological, real existing on the one side, and which objects are merely abstract, formal tools on the other side. In the above view, sets were assumed to be "real".

  • 1
    Tegmark is a crank, as is clear to anyone who actually understands mathematical logic.
    – user21820
    Mar 18, 2021 at 16:07
  • For me one main difference between MUH and classic platonism's ideal realm is MUH seems rely on Coherence Theory of Truth, while classic platonism uses Correspondence Theory of truth. So MUH cannot correspond to any outside world for validation. Betrand Russel once criticized Coherence Theory of Truth that the negation of any coherent set of statements may be also coherent, and lacking a real world for further validation, it seems hardly useful... Mar 21, 2021 at 0:30

The universe might be any kind of object at all.

At the very least, it might be any mathematical object we can conceive of, and we can certainly conceive of mathematical objects with or without causation.

Finding out what kind of object the universe is, is a question of empirical investigation. We can't a priori rule anything out.

What is causation? Well, if you have a system changing over time, and the system's state at a future time can be derived from the system's state at a past time, according to certain rules, then we can say that the past state caused the future one. This can be expressed as a mathematical property: see the article on causal systems. Some conceivable systems obey this property, some do not.

It is conceivable - and therefore possible - that causation is real and and goes into an infinite regress. It's conceivable that causation can be traced back only up to a point of genesis, and not before that point. It's conceivable that causation is not meaningful or fundamental. It's conceivable that time and causation go in a circle. It's conceivable that the universe is a simulation as you mention, and someone outside the universe is causing this one.

It's not up to philosophy to distinguish between these conceivable possibilities - rather, it's up to science. They are empirical questions whose truth we cannot decide through declarations like "everything must have a cause." Maybe only some things have a cause - who knows? To find out we have to go investigate. Theoretically, closed timelike curves present challenges for causality. At the Planck scale, even time might break down in a quantum foam.

  • Conceivable, by what standard? If anything conceivable is possible, isn't almost anything possible? We use tactics, like consilience, and transformations that allow us to work out what remains invariant. These greatly constrain what we think is possible. 'A priori' could mean deducible from direct experience in principle, and we don't know how far that could get a being - it might be possible to deduce we are in the E8 structure from first principles, for a being with the right brain.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 21, 2021 at 1:47
  • @CriglCragl The laws of the universe might be anything we can imagine that isn't logically inconsistent with itself. The only way to rule out conceivable possibilities is by experiment and observation.
    – causative
    Mar 21, 2021 at 2:29
  • Then how we can effectively "to rule out conceivable possibilities is by experiment and observation"? Will changing it to "intersubjectivity" (meme-like collaborative sharable experiment and observation) (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersubjectivity) offer any new insight compared to your previous platitude? Mar 21, 2021 at 3:55
  • @DoubleKnot Of course scientists collaborate, and this is "intersubjective" in the sociological sense. Just as importantly, scientists interact with the world. Imagine drawing a bubble for each scientist, and lines between the bubbles can represent communication between scientists. Now draw a big bubble for "the world" and draw a line from each experimental scientist to this big bubble. The lines between each scientist and the world represent experiments and observations. Not all of science is about the lines between scientists - it's also about the scientist-world lines.
    – causative
    Mar 21, 2021 at 4:14
  • In fact it's primarily about the scientist<->world lines; the scientist<->scientist lines are secondary. The scientist<->scientist lines represent communication about the experiments and observations represented by the scientist<->world lines.
    – causative
    Mar 21, 2021 at 4:21

The Simulation Argument, and related philosophical discussion, are in some ways a contemporary reboot of traditional arguments around the existence of God. Some of the most prominent of these are classified by Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica*. Talking about cause and effect and the intelligibility of an infinite succession of causes is Aquinas's second of five arguments; Aquinas thinks that the notion of a completed prior infinity of efficient causes is unintelligible, ergo there must be a first efficient cause which stands outside this cause-effect succession - he says that to this cause 'everyone gives the name of God', he got this bit wrong, nowadays some people call it The Simulator, but other than that I think your argument is basically the same as his.

For what it is worth, I think that:

a) Aquinas's third argument about necessity and contingency is more interesting than the second. The others (from motion, design, and gradation) are less interesting than either of these though.

b) the biggest weakness of a lot of contemporary simulation type arguments (e.g. Bostrom's) is that they seem to consider the world in which the simulation is running using considerations derived from what we do in our world (per hypothesis, the simulated one). If we take this hypothesis seriously we need to be lot more humble in my view; if we are in a simulation we have no reason whatever to believe that laws of physics etc. like ours apply outside the simulation. In fact thinking about what we can validly say about the world inside vs outside the simulation would be a pretty good heuristic for identifying what is a posteriori vs a priori. I think that I probably agree with @Dimer's question that cause/effect are not amongst the things that we can assume apply outside the simulation.

*n.b. this is very near the beginning of that vast tome (I, Q2, ARt.3) and you can get the whole enormous thing in a perfectly readable translation and format on Kindle for £1.50, this is a ridiculous amount of erudition for a very small amount of money. Anyone interested in philosophy should get this and browse a bit even just to get a feel for the style of the thing. I have not penetrated very far but whether you are a seminarian or a Dawkins-style new atheist, or any point in between, this is one of the true greats.


This 'everything' you speak of only 'exists' because there are living beings here to perceive it. As Camus put it in The Fall: "Is it not universal obliteration, everlasting nothingness made visible?"

What makes nothingness visible is life, and what makes life is variously described by philosophers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida as Will to Power, Beyng (as Will to Power), and Life Drive (by Derrida, after Freud, more).

The propensity for life to emerge is your first cause. Life Drive. That is what eventually makes nothingness visible.

Don't be distracted by the universal obliteration -- that has been here forever.

in the world on video tape, there is no "cause of the first cause."

Self-emergent life is a debated phenomenon, but nevertheless is accepted by many.

  • 'Many'. The Strong Anthropic Principle is not widely accepted or liked by physicists, because it raises more questions than it answers.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 21, 2021 at 1:38
  • @CriglCragl I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood what I meant by self-emergent life. I meant something like this: Self-Assembling Molecules. But since I’m being so specific, I should add that I wouldn’t rule out a cosmic version for a constitutive cosmopsychist perspective. Still self-emergent, in this case. Mar 21, 2021 at 8:01
  • My main point of course, is that self-emergence is the first cause, not the origin of the raw material, because that does not have an origin on the basis that a state of nothing is impossible. As soon as it is accepted that there is necessarily always raw material (even before the Big Bang - without wishing to get hung up on specific theories) then the emphasis can be phenomenological first cause - with the observer/participants and origin of 'existence'. Mar 21, 2021 at 8:23
  • As regards the Anthropic Principle, or the opposing Copernican Principle, these are astronomical theories about the everlasting raw material. The first cause principle would be the one that allows life to emerge (from the raw material), grow, survive and become sentient, producing being. Mar 21, 2021 at 8:56
  • My main point stands on the ground that without life the raw material is "everlasting nothingness", so this is a phenomenological perspective rather than an astronomical one. And I should perhaps clarify that I mean self-emergence, survival instinct, Will to Power, and Life Drive as aligning on the same basic principle, not separate stages, although they do differ in complexity. Mar 21, 2021 at 9:54

The cause and effect relationship comes from thinking time to be linear but that might not be the case at all. So therefore, 'effect' might be the cause of 'cause' as well. Just another perspective !

  • This sounds like the often-heard "beginninglessness" in eastern metaphysics, very similar to one of epistemology schools of thought called coherentism. Besides its unsatisfactory described in Münchhausen Trilemma referenced in my answer for this question, another issue is its usability. When applied in our physical world, the whole world would never have 2 "exactly" same state of affairs comparing 2 different time instants, there may be always some differences here and there when you zoom in enough. So even it's possible logically, our contingent world may never have such wishful case... Mar 21, 2021 at 16:39

For me your question sounds like you wish to philosophically prove the existence of First Cause?

The key in metaphysics and in philosophy generally, is to identify contingent truths and necessary truths. What we can experience and communicate about are perceived phenomenal world where contingent truths prevail most of the times.

Efficient chain of causes and effects (possibly infinite as you mentioned) are used to explain contingent truths as dependent arising, this can also be summarized as Principle of Sufficient Reason. Note that most of these causes and effects are based on inductive reasoning, which is inherently uncertain by nature due to lacking deductive reasons but highly effective in practice, such as sciences. Some epistemology schools may deny the possibility of this infinite regress, such as coherentism or foundationalism. These schools don't need and accept a First Cause outside our contingent world. Till today, none of the 3 epistemic schools of thought is satisfactory as famously described as Münchhausen Trilemma within philosophy's circle. Regardless the difference of these major epistemology types, most people realistically subscribe to materialistic physicalism. At its extreme one may find almost all perceivable biological, chemical and physical appearances can be reduced or eliminated to either quantum field or even Platonic math objects/structures. From here simualtion universe (computationalism) theory can be speculated to try to explain our mind. And so far there seems no need for any First Cause.

However, introspectively speaking, we seem to understand abstract concept through oneness in a private, idiosyncratic and unexplicable way, not through any mere aggregate or system of discursive pluralities here and there all over the places (a root cause of the Hard Problem of Consciousness). Thus we have an "ideal demand" for a "necessary" ontological First Cause as the ultimate truthmaker to bear our perceived contingent world. This can be intuitively felt, desired, or concocted when we're lost in the extremely puzzled wonderful wilderness. Most theology's proof of the existence of First Cause just hinges on this seemingly unavoidable and necessary demand. If proved, then we can finally have a source to deduce thus completely understand all our perceived phenomena with certainty. However, this ideal demand for necessity is not a contingent truth itself which can be scientifically measured, predicted and validated sufficiently enough in our contingent world to be widely accepted and qualified as a publicly sharable knowledge. That's why most philosophers intellectually accepting the existence of First Cause are idealists, not nominalists, pragmatists, existentialists, emergentists, phenomenologists or consciousness-only yogacaraists. And there's no established philosophical logic or principle which can have a definitive judgement on the above said theology's proof.

  • Isn't nature the first cause in emergentism? (Nature having no first cause.) Mar 27, 2021 at 18:19
  • @ChrisDegnen Thx for your critique! All idealists always would make some specific "ideal" demand as their wished ultimate necessary antecedent, first cause is one such common demand such as the doctrine expressed by Neoplatonism or Leibniz's famous pre-established harmony. I've made clear above these cannot be scientifically supported yet. On the other hand I'm also doubt for emergentism or epiphenomenism to account for mind, if true, then all kinds of cravings must be naturally emergent. However, many people learned to get rid of most cravings, thus seems emergence is not a sure thing. Mar 28, 2021 at 5:09
  • I think the naturally emergent will to survive reapplies at various stages leading up to mind, from molecules to will to power. Mar 28, 2021 at 7:04
  • So for example, persistent molecular patterns emerge from prehistoric primal soup, and psychological defense mechanisms emerge from mammalian brain soup. Mar 28, 2021 at 7:47
  • @ChrisDegnen Of course 20th century soup theory may explain the origin of life. I regard emergence as useful in application, since qualia can be explained to be emerged from certain informational neural reentrant signaling process/pattern, see neuroscience reference (mindtheory.net/summary). However, personally I'm more inclined towards Eliminative materialism to explain and thus eliminate emergence myth further since a quale may be a Language of Thought (LOT), which I don't hold as units of our ultimate cognitive level. I also accept panpsychism as a possible candidate... Mar 29, 2021 at 5:10

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