Monday, December 12, 2005

To Begin to Exist Is to Be an Effect

The ever lovely and brilliant Lady Mary on beginning to exist:

Let the object which we suppose to begin its existence of itself be imagined, abstracted from the nature of all objects we are acquainted with, saving in its capacity for existence; let us suppose it to be no effect; there shall be no prevening circumstances whatever that affect it, nor any existence in the universe: let it be so; let there be nought but a blank; and a mass of whatsoever can be supposed not to require a cause START FORTH into existence, an dmake the first breach on the wide nonentity around;--now, what is this starting forth, beginning, coming into existence, but an action, which is a quality of an object not yet in being, and so not possible to have its qualities determined, nevertheless exhibiting its qualities?
[Lady Mary Shepherd, An Essay upon the Relation of Cause and Effect, p. 35.]

That's a pretty hefty sentence, so let's break down the idea a bit. Hume (who is Shepherd's main target here) says that it is possible to imagine something beginning to exist without a cause. Shepherd argues against this view in this way (more or less):

(1) Suppose there to be an object that begins to exist without a cause.
(2) Beginning to exist is an action.
(3) An action is a quality (feature) of something that exists.
(4) The object that begins to exist cannot exist until it has already begun to exist.
(5) Therefore the action involved in beginning to exist is not the action of the object that begins to exist.
(6) This is to have a cause, which contradicts the supposition.

As she puts it a bit later:

But if my adversary allows thtat, no existence being supposed previously in the universe, existence, in order to be, must begin to be, and that the notion of beginning an action (the being that begins it not supposed yet in existence), involves a contradiction in terms; then this beginning to exist cannot appear but as a capacity some nature hath to alter the presupposed nonentity, and to act for itself, whilst itself is not in being.--The original assumption may deny, as much as it pleases, all cause of the existence; but, whilst in its very idea, the commencement of existence is an effect predicated of some supposed cause, (because the quality of an object which must be in existence to possess it,) we must conclude that there is no object which begins to exist, but must owe its existence to some cause.
[Lady Mary Shepherd, An Essay upon the Relation of Cause and Effect, pp. 35-36.]


  1. Timotheos5:34 PM

    Just stumbled on this article while reading your blog. This is a really interesting argument, but I'm not 100% sure I see how it's supposed to work.

    As far as I can tell, she argues that every beginning is an action, and all actions are qualities of beings, so if something were to begin without a cause, the action of the thing's beginning to exist would (logically) precede the existence of the thing, which would mean an action would exist without being the action of anything, an obvious contradiction. Thus, everything's beginning to exist is (logically) first the action of something distinct, and, thus, everything that begins to exist has a cause.

    Am I anywhere in the ballpark?
    This argument is so unique that I'm having trouble evaluating it; do you think it works?

  2. branemrys6:17 PM

    More or less. The argument is not quite unique, however; it is also found in Rosmini's New Essay on the Origin of Ideas (apparently independently), and I've occasionally run across arguments at least similar to it elsewhere. I do indeed think it works, but it's not really intended to be stand-alone, and presupposes certain general claims about our experience of causation that (in both Shepherd and Rosmini) are established through a prior analysis and a removal of false assumptions about that kind of experience (Shepherd focuses on criticizing Hume, Rosmini on criticizing Kant).

  3. Timotheos7:00 PM

    Very cool! Thanks for the response!

    I'm not surprised that the argument isn't completely unique to
    Shepherd; these sorts of things rarely are.

    I also can see that the argument is not meant to stand alone since it does at least rely on a certain way of analyzing instants and logical succession which, along with the things you already mentioned, Hume would want to deny.

    I’m also curious now as to how Shepherd would deal with the possibility of a necessary being (in an Aristotelian sense) that has its existence, not of itself or another, but of nothing. I would assume that she would distinguish the logical succession between the act of something’s existing and the existence of the thing, and since presumably this necessary being would not be self-existent, it could not be identical with its act of existence, and thus would require something logically prior to it that would “first” contain its act of existence.

    Regardless, it’s clear that Shepherd was a brilliant woman, and I lament the fact that your blog is practically the only resource about her on the web. I await the day that a true Feminist actually does her job and refutes Hume’s opinions about causation using her methods; it would be about time that Hume gets some heat about his truly anti-women views since it seems like the church fathers are criticized for even writing the word women down.

  4. branemrys7:57 PM

    I think Shepherd lacks the apparatus for the kind of of analysis of necessity and self-existence you have in mind; but she is mostly getting what she gets by starting nearly from scratch, after all. She has a lot of interesting arguments, though; she is one of the first people after Hume to argue in detail that causation can be simultaneous rather than successive (she argues, in fact, that all causation in the most proper sense of the term is simultaneous rather than successive), and that causal reasoning has the same necessity as mathematical reasoning, and both of these are related to the divergence from Hume.

  5. Timotheos8:17 PM

    Had a suspicion that was the case since she was working in 19th century Britain. I assume she had at least some rudimentary ideas about that possibility though, since I assume she attempted to rule out the possibility of God being material. Still, it’s a major advancement from Hume’s positions, and all of her major points seem to be basically correct.

    Regardless, I think that, had she been antiquated with that sort of analysis, she could have given a response that was something like the one I gave.

    Leaving that aside, it’s always been a mystery to me why people cannot see that it is self-evident that causation, strictly speaking, is simultaneous**, but I suppose it is due to people not understanding what the term cause really means.

    **assuming both cause and effect are material and that time travel is impossible of course


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