Philosophy mind-bending if you think about it

Students locked in an infinite chain of causality crowd into the Castle St lecture theatre. Photo: David Loughrey
Students locked in an infinite chain of causality crowd into the Castle St lecture theatre. Photo: David Loughrey

David Loughrey went to university to hear arguments for the existence of God. He found nothing happens without a cause, but the possibilities are disturbingly infinite.

Nothing happens without a cause, but these things happened at the University of Otago this week.

A young woman was standing in the Union Building link being videoed on a mobile phone talking about her relationship with God and the forgiveness of sin.

In the library there were two books called Alfred the Great, one written by Peter Helm, who was educated at St Bees, the other edited by Alfred Bowker, the Mayor of Winchester in 1897.

Outside there was a young man at a table sitting in front of an open book staring into the distance, his finger stroking his bottom lip, his elbow nestled in his hand and his head cocked slightly to the left.

In Philosophy 101, in the Burns Building, a young woman was typing lecture notes into her laptop, adding bold headlines as she went.

‘‘Things do not just happen for no reason,'' she wrote.

This, we learned in the Burns lecture theatre, is an aspect of the cosmological argument and it goes something like this: Nothing happens without a cause.

Imagine a picnic table ending up in the Leith, for instance, which was there on Monday, but not there the Friday before.

Something caused it to end up there.

Not only that, but there is a causal chain of events that got the picnic table into the Leith.

Someone threw it there: they threw it there because they were drunk; they drank because they were unhappy, they were unhappy because of their violent father, their father was violent because ... back and back, and back, and back and back in time it goes, down generations, in an apparently infinite chain of causes, one following another in a sickening line through a backwards infinity that squeezes the comprehension into a frightened little ball that can't take in backwards infinity.

But who knocked the first metaphorical domino, watched it sway uncertainly back and forth, then topple and fall into another and set off a chain of events now going forward into infinity?

Thirteenth-century theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas said: ‘‘And this all men called God''.

He said something like that, anyway, or someone did.

At the link the young woman was talking to the mobile phone about God.

Nothing happens without a cause.

Perhaps what caused her to bare her soul about God and sin and forgiveness and perfect love was meeting a young man, a dreamer, a scholar at his table with his book open and his finger stroking his bottom lip, his eyes a million miles, a romantic staring into the distance, his hips slim and his skin so soft and his hair so dark and tousled.

Perhaps he was dreaming as he stared into the distance.


But while nothing happens without a cause, causality can be hard to pin down.

Perhaps he not been dreaming thoughts of purity and grace; instead he was weighing up the attributes of two copies of Alfred the Great he had recently seen on the first floor of the library, wondering whether to trust the editing skills of Mayor of Winchester in 1897, Alfred Bowker, above the research and writing skills of Peter Helm, who was educated at St Bees.


The philosophy lecture wrapped up with an introduction to the teleological argument that discussed the logical possibility of a great designer of life, before the students who had packed into the lecture theatre en masse now tripped down the theatre's steps and headed en masse somewhere else.

They joined hundreds, thousands of others each treading their own infinite line of causality as they jostled each other through the swinging doors of the university buildings.

The thousands crowded outside different lecture theatres trying to get in as thousands more pushed out, each slowing the others' passage, perhaps making them miss a date or an opportunity or an unexpected meeting or saving them from stepping in front of a car or making an unreasonable comment that would finally harden the heart of the person they might have married and had children with.

Each caused a change that no doubt would cause another change that would affect the universe on and on through eternity.

And each change affected others in tiny ways as students leaked causalities so numerous and subtle that none could count or measure or truly understand them, and each mixed and crossed and bounced off intersecting lines of human interaction into an infinity that doesn't go straight, but sideways and backwards in ways that our minds can't comprehend.

And we get a headache just thinking about.

No headache happens without a cause.

Oh God!


So to compress there seems to be a greater power because of infinity