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

  6. Timotheos5:05 PM

    Looking over this argument again, I'm starting to wonder about premise (4). Since Shepherd takes causation to be simultaneous, it would seem that a thing would both be and begin to be at the same time. And if this were the case, then something's beginning to be would exist at the same time as its own existence, and it seems that we wouldn't need a third party for this act to exist in after all.

    And that's why I originally appealed to a thing's beginning to exist being logically prior to its existence, but I'm starting to wonder if that claim can be substantiated, especially since it seems odd to say that something's beginning to exist is not its own act. Then again, it seems just as strange to say that something's beginning to exist depends on its own existence, so I'm caught in a bit of dialectical confusion.

  7. branemrys7:01 PM

    I'm not sure I follow your argument; in particular, I'm not sure what 'third party' you refer to. Consider two objects A and B, each with its own distinctive features; and A introduces one of its features into B so that it is now B'. The introduction of the feature is both A's causing B' and the beginning to exist of B'. so by 'third party' do you mean (in this scenario) A?

    I'm also not sure why you think it sounds odd to say that something's beginning to exist is not its own act; we certainly do at least often talk about beginning to exist in these terms, as when an author begins a chapter, or a contractor begins construction on a house, or a scientist begins an experiment, so it seems at least consistent with what we at least sometimes mean by the term. But it is true that there are slightly different positions that could be taken here; on a strictly Aristotelian account, for instance, beginning to exist is simultaneously the act of both the cause and its effects. It's not clear to me, though, that this is more than a verbal difference.

  8. Timotheos7:50 PM

    By "third party" I meant something distinct from the thing and it's beginning to exist; i.e. the cause.

    I suppose I'm just worried about how one can show that beginning to exist is not merely the act of the thing beginning to exist; that a thing must (logically) begin to exist before it exists.
    (I suppose Shepherd might just be taking this as self-evident, but a little analysis might be nice...)

  9. branemrys8:45 PM

    I suppose it depends on exactly what you mean by distinct; Shepherd thinks cause and effect are logically distinct, but she doesn't think that cause and effect have to be separate things. The effect AB, for instance, can have as its cause A and B in their very interacting as AB.

    If we have B, and a new feature F arises in B so that it is now B', the effect, the introduction of the new feature F just is the causing of B' and the beginning-to-exist of B'. B' is not starting into existence without a cause; it is caused by the introduction of F, and its cause would have to be either the introduced F or whatever has F so as to introduce it. B' is thus an effect with a cause. Even if we had no explanation of F, B', in its beginning to exist, is an effect of a cause.

    I'm still not quite sure I follow your second paragraph. In a thing that begins to exist, in what sense are we thinking that it might not be the case that its beginning to exist is logically prior to its existing? What kind of scenario are we thinking in which newly begun Y-in-X be logically prior to, or logically independent of, the commencement of Y in X?

  10. Timotheos3:01 PM

    So a little R&R indeed confirms that mid-term was
    causing me to hallucinate problems that were not there (which is something I already
    have a tendency to do with this sort of argument trying to prove self-evident
    truths of this practically undeniable nature)

    Two things seem to have been doing most of the work with the

    The first was that, for some reason, stating (4) as “The object that begins to exist cannot exist
    until it has already begun to exist,” kept making me want to treat the ‘object’
    as analogous to a substance and the ‘beginning to exist’ as analogous to an
    accident, which would make the ‘beginning to exist’ logically dependent on the
    substance, but not necessarily the other way around; re-stating (4) as “An object cannot act until it has already
    begun to exist” diffused that issue. (Ironically that practically says the same
    thing, but putting it in slightly broader terms made it clearer to me that if a
    thing is performing ANY action, then that thing must have already begun to

    The second problem was that
    I made too much out of something’s beginning to exist being also an action of
    the thing beginning to exist; I kept wanting to treat the action of beginning
    to exist as dependent on the thing beginning to exist since it is performing
    the action as well. Basically my error amounts to something like the error that
    people make when they think that causation always requires a material principle,
    or the error of making God really related to creation; I kept slipping into the
    thought that there must be something to receive existence in order to be given
    existence, which, if taken to be strictly true, would make causation literally
    impossible. And of course, that’s a good sign that something has gone wrong…

    Once I fixed those two
    things, the argument works like a charm; it really is impressive how
    fundamental this argument is. Throw it into act/potency language and you have a
    very clear way of analyzing exactly what is entailed in causation (and not just
    efficient, but the other forms of causation as well).

    It even illustrates how
    Aquinas was being very careful when he had taken himself to prove the principle
    of causality by showing that nothing can be its own cause, because, on an
    Aristotelian analysis, actualization is itself a sort of imperfect act, and if
    this act were merely the act of the thing becoming actual, then this would amount
    to something being prior to itself, just like in the case of self-causation. So
    the suggestion of “brute facts” as a counter-example to the principle of causality
    turns out to be just a special case of the objection Aquinas more explicitly considered.

  11. branemrys6:42 PM

    Throw it into act/potency language and you have a very clear way of analyzing exactly what is entailed in causation (and not just efficient, but the other forms of causation as well).

    Yes, I think that's exactly right. (One of Shepherd's major criticisms of Hume is, to summarize it in terms different from those she uses herself, that he claims that he can cover all kinds of causation, but he can't actually give an explanation of constitutive causation, -- and once you have constitutive causation, you can bypass all of Hume's arguments and give a rigorous account of efficient causation, through the introduction of constitutive qualities.) I think the interaction between an Aristotelian and a Shepherdian account of causation has an immense amount of promise.


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