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Apologetics Press :: Sensible Science

The Bible and the Laws of Science: The Law of Cause and Effect
by Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
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INTRODUCTION

Indisputably, the most universal, and the most certain, of all scientific laws is the law of cause and effect, or as it is commonly known, the law (or principle) of causality. Scientists, and philosophers of science, recognize laws as “reflecting actual regularities in nature” (Hull, 1974, p. 3). So far as scientific testing and historical experience can attest, laws know no exceptions. And this certainly is true of the law of causality. This law has been stated in a variety of ways, each of which adequately expresses its ultimate meaning. Kant, in the first edition of his Critique of Pure Reason, stated that “everything that happens (begins to be) presupposes something which it follows according to a rule.” In the second edition, he strengthened that statement by noting that “all changes take place according to the law of connection of cause and effect” (see Meiklejohn, 1878, p. 141). Schopenhauer stated the proposition as, “Nothing happens without a reason why it should happen rather than not happen” (see von Mises, 1951, p. 159). The number of examples of various formulations could be expanded almost indefinitely. But simply put, the law of causality states that every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause.

This concept has been argued, pro and con, in treatises through the years with respect to its philosophical/theological implications. But after the dust has settled, the law of causality remains intact. There is no question of its acceptance in the world of experimental science, or in the ordinary world of personal experience. Testimony to that fact abounds. Many years ago, professor W.T. Stace, in his classic work, A Critical History of Greek Philosophy, commented:

Every student of logic knows that this is the ultimate canon of the sciences, the foundation of them all. If we did not believe the truth of causation, namely, everything which has a beginning has a cause, and that in the same circumstances the same things invariably happen, all the sciences would at once crumble to dust. In every scientific investigation this truth is assumed (1934, p. 6).

The law of causality is not just of importance to science. Richard von Mises observed: “We may only add that almost all philosophers regard the law of causality as the most important, the most far-reaching, and the most firmly founded of all principles of epistemology.” He then added:

The law of causality claims that for every observable phenomenon (let us call it B) there exists a second phenomenon A, such that the sentence “B follows from A” is true.... There can be no doubt that the law of causality in the formulation just stated is in agreement with all our own experiences and with those which come to our knowledge in one way or another. ...we can also state that in practical life there is hardly a more useful and more reliable rule of behavior than to assume of any occurrence that we come to know that some other one preceded it as its cause (1951, p. 160, emp. in orig.).

Dr. von Mises hardly is alone in his estimation of the importance of this basic law of science. Richard Taylor, writing on this topic in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, commented:

Nevertheless, it is hardly disputable that the idea of causation is not only indispensable in the common affairs of life but in all applied science as well. Jurisprudence and law would become quite meaningless if men were not entitled to seek the causes of various unwanted events such as violent deaths, fires, and accidents. The same is true in such areas as public health, medicine, military planning, and, indeed, every area of life (1967, p. 57).

SCIENCE AND THE LAW OF CAUSALITY

While the law of causality crosses strictly scientific boundaries and impacts all other disciplines as well, and while the principle of cause and effect has serious theological and/or metaphysical implications in its own right, the scientific implications it presents are among the most serious ever discovered. Obviously, if every material effect has an adequate antecedent cause, and if the Universe is a material effect, then the Universe had a cause. This particular point has not been overlooked by scholars. For example, Robert Jastrow, founder and former director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA, wrote:

The Universe, and everything that has happened in it since the beginning of time, are a grand effect without a known cause. An effect without a cause? That is not the world of science; it is a world of witchcraft, of wild events and the whims of demons, a medieval world that science has tried to banish. As scientists, what are we to make of this picture? I do not know. I would only like to present the evidence for the statement that the Universe, and man himself, originated in a moment when time began (1977, p. 21).

Effects are unknown without adequate causes. Yet the Universe, says Jastrow, is a tremendous effect—without any known cause. Centuries of in-depth research have taught us much about causes, however. We know, for example, that causes never occur subsequent to the effect. As Taylor observed: “Contemporary philosophers...have nevertheless, for the most part, agreed that causes cannot occur after their effects....it is generally thought to be simply part of the usual meaning of ‘cause’ that a cause is something temporally prior to, or at least not subsequent to, its effect” (1967, p. 59). It is meaningless to speak of a cause following an effect, or of an effect preceding a cause. Such is unknown.

We also know that the effect never is quantitatively greater than, nor qualitatively superior to, the cause. It is this knowledge that is responsible for our formulation of the law of causality in these words: “Every effect must have an adequate antecedent cause.” The river did not turn muddy because the frog jumped in; the book did not fall from the table because the fly lighted on it; these are not adequate causes. Whatever effects we observe, for those effects we must postulate adequate causes.

Little wonder then, that the law of causality has such serious implications in every field of endeavor—be it science, metaphysics, or theology. The Universe is here. Some cause prior to the Universe is responsible for its existence. That cause must be greater than, and superior to, the Universe itself. But, as Jastrow noted, “...the latest astronomical results indicate that at some point in the past the chain of cause and effect terminated abruptly. An important event occurred—the origin of the world—for which there is no known cause or explanation” (1977, p. 27). Of course, when Dr. Jastrow speaks of “no known cause or explanation,” he means that there is no known natural cause or explanation. Scientists and philosophers alike understand that the Universe must have had a cause. They understand that this cause had to precede the Universe, and be superior to it in every way. Admittedly, there is no natural cause sufficient to explain the origin of matter, and thus the Universe, as Jastrow candidly admits. This presents a very real problem, however. R.L. Wysong commented on this problem as follows:

Everyone concludes naturally and comfortably that highly ordered and designed items (machines, houses, etc.) owe existence to a designer. It is unnatural to conclude otherwise. But evolution asks us to break stride from what is natural to believe and then believe in that which is unnatural, unreasonable, and...unbelievable. We are told by some that all of reality—the universe, life, etc.—is without an initial cause. But, since the universe operates by cause and effect relationships, how can it be argued from science—which is a study of that very universe—that the universe is without an initial cause? Or, if the evolutionist cites a cause, he cites either eternal matter or energy. Then he has suggested a cause far less than the effect. The basis for this departure from what is natural and reasonable to believe is not fact, observation, or experience but rather unreasonable extrapolations from abstract probabilities, mathematics, and philosophy (1976, p. 412, ellipsis in orig.).

Dr. Wysong presented an interesting historical case to document his point. Some years ago, scientists were called to Great Britain to study, on the Salisbury Plain at Wiltshire, orderly patterns of concentric rocks and holes. This find came to be known as Stonehenge. As studies progressed, it became apparent that these patterns had been specifically designed to allow certain astronomical predictions. The questions of how the rocks were moved into place, how these ancient peoples were able to construct an astronomical observatory, how the data derived from their studies were used, and many others remain unsolved. But one thing is clear: the cause of Stonehenge was intelligent design.

Now, says Dr. Wysong, compare Stonehenge (as one television commentary did) to the situation paralleling the origin of life. We study life, observe its functions, contemplate its complexity (which defies duplication even by intelligent men with the most advanced methodology and technology), and what are we to conclude? Stonehenge could have been produced by the erosion of a mountain, or by catastrophic natural forces (like tornadoes or hurricanes) working in conjunction with meteorites to produce rock formations and concentric holes. But what television commentator, or practicing scientist, ever would entertain such a ridiculous idea? And what person with any common sense would believe such a suggestion? Yet with the creation of life—the intricate design of which makes Stonehenge look like something a three-year-old child put together on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of a blinding rainstorm using Mattel building blocks—we are being asked to believe that such can be explained by blind, mindless, accidental, physical processes without any intelligent direction whatsoever. It hardly is surprising that Dr. Wysong should observe, with obvious discomfort, that evolutionists ask us to “break stride with what is natural to believe” in this regard. No one ever would be convinced that Stonehenge “just happened.” That is not an adequate cause, and everyone recognizes as much. Yet we are being asked every day to believe that life “just happened.” Such a conclusion is both unwarranted and unreasonable. The cause is not adequate to produce the effect.

It is this understanding of the implications of the law of causality that has led some to attempt to discredit, or refuse to accept, the universal principle of cause and effect. Perhaps the most famous skeptic in this regard was the British empiricist, David Hume, who is renowned for his antagonism to the principle of cause and effect. However, as fervent as Hume was in his criticism, he never went so far as to assert that cause and effect did not exist. He simply felt that it was not empirically verifiable, and stemmed instead from a priori considerations. Hume commented in a letter to John Stewart: “I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that anything might arise without a Cause: I only maintained, that our Certainty of the Falsehood of that Proposition proceeded neither from Intuition nor Demonstration; but from another Source” (see Greig, 1932, p. 187, emp. and capital letters in orig.). Even so rank an infidel as Hume did not deny cause and effect.

Try as they might, skeptics are unable to circumvent this basic law of science. Arguments other than those raised by Hume have been leveled against it as well, of course. For example, one such argument insists that the principle must be false because it is inconsistent with itself. The argument goes something like this. The principle of cause and effect says that everything must have a cause. On this concept, it then traces all things back to a First Cause, where it suddenly stops. But how may it consistently do so? Why does the principle that everything needs a cause suddenly cease to be true? Why is it that this so-called First Cause does not likewise need a cause? If everything else needs an explanation, or a cause, why does this First Cause not also need an explanation, or a cause? And if this First Cause does not need an explanation, why, then, do all other things need one?

Such a complaint, however, is not a valid objection against the law of causality; rather it is an objection to an incorrect statement of that law. If someone were to say simply, “Everything must have a cause,” then the objection would be valid. But this is not what the law of causality says. It plainly says that every material effect must have a cause. As John H. Gerstner correctly observed:

Because every effect must have a cause, there must ultimately be one cause that is not an effect but pure cause, or how, indeed, can one explain effects? A cause that is itself an effect would not explain anything but would require another explanation. That, in turn, would require another explanation, and there would be a deadly infinite regress. But the argument has shown that the universe as we know it is an effect and cannot be self-explanatory; it requires something to explain it which is not, like itself, an effect. There must be an uncaused cause. That point stands (1967, p. 53).

Indeed, the point does stand. Science, and common sense, so dictate. As Taylor has noted: “If, however, one professes to find no difference between the relation of a cause to its effect, on the one hand, and of an effect to its cause, on the other, he appears to contradict the common sense of mankind, for the difference appears perfectly apparent to most men...” (1967, p. 66). It is refreshing, once in a while, to see scholars finally get around to appealing to “common sense,” or that which is “perfectly apparent to most men.” In the case of the law of causality, it is “perfectly apparent” that every material effect must have an adequate cause; common sense demands no less.

THE BIBLE AND THE LAW OF CAUSALITY

The Bible is filled with examples of the scientific concept of cause and effect. In showing us how to reason from the effect back to the cause, the Hebrew writer stated that “every house is built by someone; but he that built all things is God” (3:4). Common sense dictates that a house cannot build itself. As George Davis, prominent physicist, has well stated, “No material thing can create itself ” (1958, p. 71). Thus the house is an effect, which must then have had a prior, adequate cause—a builder. The apostle Paul, speaking in Romans 1:20, commented on the evidence for this very fact in regard to the Universe and its contents when he observed: “For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse.” Paul correctly reasoned from the effect to the cause, and wanted his readers to know that the Universe, like the house, is an effect and as such, must have had a prior, adequate cause. Since the Universe exhibits design, it must have had a Designer; since it exhibits intelligence, the Designer must have been intelligent; since it exhibits life, the Designer must have been living; since it exhibits morality, the Designer must have been moral. And so on. That Designer is God, said Paul, and even His “everlasting power and divinity” (i.e., the cause) are obvious, “through the things that are made” (i.e., the effect). There simply is no escaping the implication of the law of causality as the Bible presents it.

Christ Himself reasoned from the effect back to the cause in the case of the woman who suddenly appeared (uninvited) at the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). This woman approached Christ, shed tears upon his feet as she kissed them, and then gently wiped away the tears with her own hair. Simon, of course, was shocked; he could hardly believe that the Lord would allow Himself to be touched by such a woman. But, the Lord explained, her conduct was the result of her sins having been forgiven on a previous occasion. Thus, her actions (the effect) pointed back to a cause (forgiveness, and the gratitude it engendered). On numerous occasions the Lord employed such powerful logic to confound His enemies and refute their false concepts. [See Wayne Jackson’s articles on “Logic and the Bible” in the Christian Courier for an excellent discussion on this topic (1989,1990).]

Jesus declared that if a tree is good, it will bring forth good fruit, but if it is evil, it will yield evil fruit (Matthew 7:17,18). The Lord’s point was this: if one knows the character of the cause, the effects resulting from that cause are predictable. If we know that God is good (Mark 10:18), we would expect that which God produces to be good (at least in its original state). At the end of God’s creation week (Genesis 1:31), that is exactly what is stated. The creation was “very good.” On the other hand, Christ noted (Mark 7:21) that a corrupt heart (i.e., evil thoughts—the cause) will result in such atrocities as fornications, thefts, murders, etc. (the effect). Paul likewise made the observation that when “there is no fear of God” among men, one may expect deceit, violence, and misery in general (Romans 3:10-18). In fact, Jesus spoke a parable about a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man. It is not surprising, then, to discover that the judge was “unrighteous” (Luke 18:2,6) and had little interest in dispensing true justice. The effect logically followed from the cause.

CONCLUSION

Although critics have railed against, and evolutionists have ignored, the law of cause and effect, it stands unassailed. Its central message remains intact: every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause. Life in our magnificent Universe is here; intelligence is here; morality is here; love is here. What is their ultimate cause? Since the effect never can precede, or be greater than the cause, it stands to reason that the Cause of life must be a living Intelligence which Itself is both moral and loving. When the Bible records, “In the beginning, God...,” it makes known to us just such a First Cause.

REFERENCES

Davis, George E. (1958), “Scientific Revelations Point to a God,” The Evidence of God in an Expanding Universe, ed. John C. Monsma (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons).

Gerstner, John H. (1967), Reasons for Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Greig, J.Y.T., ed. (1932), Letters of David Hume (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1:187.

Jackson, Wayne (1989,1990), “Logic and the Bible” (Parts I & II), Christian Courier, 25:29-36, December/January.

Jastrow, Robert (1977), Until the Sun Dies (New York: W.W. Norton).

Meiklejohn, J.M.D., trans. (1878), Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (London).

Stace, W.T. (1934), A Critical History of Greek Philosophy (London).

Taylor, Richard (1967), “Causation,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan), 2:56-66.

von Mises, Richard (1951), Positivism (New York: Dover).

Wysong, R.L. (1976), The Creation-Evolution Controversy (East Lansing, MI: Inquiry Press).


Originally published in Reason & Revelation, March 1990, 10[3]:13-16.



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