The Feast of Ouroboros

As part of an ongoing conversation about infinite regress one objection raised, (and quite a reasonable one) is to ask about the possibility that rather than an infinite line of causes and effects reaching backward to no beginning, reaching in a circle?

Could not a hyperspherical bend of causation, so popular in time travel stories, have a line of causes and effects reaching backward as well as forward through time? Could our chain of causes and effects move through a great cosmic cycle with no beginning and no end?

Actually this idea calms none of the objections against an infinite regress, and raises additional difficulties.

The objection against an infinite line of contingent causes is that nothing is ultimately causing the effect, which means, in effect, nothing is causing any effect at all.

In our example mentioned previously, the caboose is moving thirty miles and hour rather than sixty because the second car from the rear it is also moving thirty, and it imparts its motion to the caboose; and the third from the rear likewise imparts the same motion to the second, and the fourth likewise to the third, and so on.

But if there is no engine to impart the motion to any traincar in the first place, there is no reason any of them is moving thirty rather than sixty, and, indeed no explanation as to why they are moving at all.

Yet another example might make this objection more clear. Suppose, instead of asking what cause is causing a motion, we ask what cause is causing a belief.

You ask Mr 1 why he believes Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater. he says Mr 2, his teacher, taught him. You then ask Mr. 2. He says his teacher, Mr 3, told him. Mr.3 says Mr. 4 and Mr. 4 says Mr. 5, and so on with no beginning.

However, if we never reach anyone who actually saw the shooting, if every man merely says he learned it from another, then in fact it is the same as there being no reason to believe Lincoln was shot in Ford’s theater.

Because if every belief is hearsay, then there is no eyewitness.

So here. If every event is contingent, that is, it is just so because the causes before it make it so, then there is no necessary first cause, which means, logically, no necessity for anything.

If event 1 is caused by prior event 2 and that by prior event 3 and so on and on with no beginning, then it is all contingent causes, things that happen because an earlier thing happens, and no one and nothing to set the whole in motion.

It is the same as something happening for no reason. Nothing comes from nothing.

If the answer to “what caused it?” is not “I don’t know but there must be a cause” but instead is “I know there is no cause: Nothing has the power to create this event out of nowhere for no reason” — then you have uttered the one answer that (despite what you may have heard from postmodern teachers) no honest scientist nor philosopher can accept, for it renders not just this effort at reasoning vain, but all reasoning.

Bending the line in a circle is the same as having an infinite line that is not bent so far as this argument is concerned.

In our example, if the train cars are running on a track that circles the equator of the globe, and each car is linked to the one before it in a great circle, then there is still no engine, and nothing to set it in motion, and nothing to maintain its motion against any air resistance or loss to friction.

To use the other example mentioned, a circle of cause and effect is something never seen in any small example, such as having a circle of falling dominoes that fall and rise continually, and have been circling and circling since before men counted years.

Nor do we see perpetual motion machines.

Likewise, if the rumor of Lincoln’s death that I heard from Rothbart who heard it from Klingsor who heard it from John Wellington Wells, who heard it from Sarastro, who heard it from Drosselmeyer who heard it from me, then I have no more proof of Lincoln’s death than if I invented the idea myself.

Granted, these examples are merely visual images meant to help one picture the abstract idea being mentioned. Just because there is entropy inside the universe, does not necessarily mean that one universe dying and creating an identical universe from its ashes is subject to entropy. Just because you have never seen a perpetual motion machine, does not mean that the cosmos cannot be one.

But the argument does not depend on the examples. They are there as pictures only.

The argument is that if the universe is a cosmic cycle, and had no beginning, then it has no reason why the contingent facts inside the universe are the way they are rather than some other way, which is to say no reason why anything is anything, and hence no reason for reasoning.

A faithful Buddhist who agrees that the universe is an illusion would perhaps agree with that in his world view, reasoning is vanity. Why a man educated believe modern physics is true would say so, however, is less clear.

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These examples are merely examples, that is, a simple visual image that is easier to grasp than the abstract argument.

This is not an argument by induction. Induction is the logical process by which we see specific examples of a case, and then assume, sight unseen, that all cases likewise will be the same case, unless there is a reason to believe otherwise: the sun rose yesterday in the east and in all days prior, so I have good reason to think it will rise tomorrow in the east, unless some reason sufficient to prevent the sunrise intercede.

That is not what is happening here. This argument is a reductio ad absurdam. There are two mutually exclusive and exhaustive possibilities: beginning point or no beginning point. One possibility is illogical, therefore the other is true.

The argument about a line of cause and effect running in a circle is the same as the argument against a line of cause and effect running in an infinite line with no beginning, because circles have no beginning. You do not need to break these into two subheadings, since the refutation is the same: if there is no beginning, nothing set the chain of cause and effect in motion.

The example of a rumor being started by someone who hears from someone else the rumor he himself started is merely one more example of a chain of cause and effect running in a circle.

It is perhaps the clearest example, because in it we can see that the specifics of what the rumor say is invented by the very someone who hears the rumor he himself set in motion: in other words, it is not even hearsay (hearsay is a secondhand or thirdhand, report from the eyewitness) because there IS no eyewitness. No eyewitness means there is not a sufficient reason to believe the rumor true.

Likewise, no man can lift himself by his bootstraps. No cause can cause itself.

A chain of causes and effects running in a circle is a case of every cause in the circle causing itself. A chain of causes and effects running backward in time to no beginning therefore, in effect, is the same as a chain of causes and effects running in a circle, because there is no beginning.

No eyewitness means there is not a sufficient reason to believe the rumor true. No first cause, whether of a circle or of a line with no beginning, means there is not a sufficient reason to explain the motions seen in the effect.