Thursday, December 11, 2014

Why an Infinite Regress Into the Past Isn't Possible

Yesterday on my Google+ page (follow me there if you don't already) I posted a link to an article from Reduction into Modernism explaining the first cause argument (Atheists: Infinite Regress is Impossible!). Said post was followed by the following conversation with an atheist on the possibility of an infinite regress that I thought it might be beneficial to share here.

Solamon Grundy
9:15 AM
I read it and discussed at length with the author. Why do you understand infinite regress to be impossible?

How many items are there in an infinite series?

Solamon Grundy
9:33 AM
A infinite.

And if I asked you to count each of those items when would you finish?

Solamon Grundy
9:40 AM

Personally never. For a being that can't die, a infinite amount of time.

Would even the being who couldn't die ever finish?

Solamon Grundy
9:50 AM

You're right, he'd never stop counting. He wouldn't finish.

If we met someone who had finished counting our series of items, what would we then know about the series of items?

Solamon Grundy
9:54 AM

We wouldn't meet that someone.

Or, if we did, we'd know the series wasn't infinite, right?

Solamon Grundy
10:01 AM

Nathan Barontini
10:07 AM

if instead of an infinite series of items to count we had an infinite number of causes leading up to event x, when would event x happen?

Solamon Grundy
10:09 AM
When ever on the timeline of infinite events it lies.

Nathan Barontini
10:11 AM
If I said I'd pay you a million dollars after an infinite series of events passed, would I ever pay you the million?

Solamon Grundy
10:11 AM

No, because the infinite series would never come to completion.

Nathan Barontini
10:12 AM
So it would never fall on the timeline? It would never happen?

Solamon Grundy
10:14 AM
Right, because the infinite series would never finish, which is what you are getting at right?

Nathan Barontini
10:15 AM


Solamon Grundy
10:16 AM

There is no point infinite. There is no point of completion.

Solamon Grundy
10:26 AM

Is there anymore to this?

Nathan Barontini
10:28 AM

Sure. If I'm sitting here writing you a check for a million what do we know about the series of events preceding it?

Solamon Grundy
10:34 AM
Yeah, I get that, but now isn't a completion infinity. Our universe isn't point infinite because that doesn't exist. Infinity is an abstract concept to describe something as without limit, so framing an event on a limitless series as the limit is nonsensical.

Nathan Barontini
10:41 AM
Sure, but the question here is whether a limitless series of events is even possible. As we saw I'd never have to write you a check if we were waiting for a limitless series of events to pass first. Is my writing you a check a unique circumstance or would the same hold true for any other event? Say I tell my wife I'll take her to the movies after I finish a limitless list of chores first or my boss tells me I can pick up my paycheck after I work a limitless number of hours would I ever go to the cinema or get paid?
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Solamon Grundy
10:45 AM
Again, you're framing it as finishing.

Solamon Grundy
10:48 AM
Think of that guy who never dies, or that guy who you already accept as possible, the God that is eternal. Say God counts forever. Even he will never finish an infinite set, but there is no number on that infinite set that he won't reach, correct?

Nathan Barontini
10:57 AM
It's not just impossible to count to infinity (to complete a limitless series), it's equally impossible to count from negative infinity to one (to reach any number on the timeline from infinity). Let's leave aside the hypothetical examples. If an infinite number of events had to pass before you were born would you ever have been born?
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Solamon Grundy
11:03 AM
How do you count from negative infinity? What do you start with, it's a concept, not a point.

Please consider the God question I just asked.

Solamon Grundy
11:04 AM
These are all hypothetical examples. You can't just throw away the one's that hurt your point.

Nathan Barontini
11:06 AM

You tell me, would even God reach one if He has to count an infinite series of numbers first? An infinite regress (ie an infinite series of past completed events) is what we are considering, not an infinite future.

Solamon Grundy
11:09 AM
Given an infinite dimension of duration, like time, which you are accepting if you believe anything is eternal or everlasting, it is just like an infinite future.

Nathan Barontini
11:24 AM
Is it? Let's say I have two challenges for you. First, is to count from one to five on a timeline that stretches from one to infinity. Could you do that? Second, is to count an infinite series of numbers to reach five on a timeline that ends at five. Are both equally possible tasks?
Thus the conversation ended, but I think the point was clear enough. If an infinite series of events, causes, numbers, etc have to pass before any event, that event can never in principal come to pass. If we know a certain event did come to pass, we then also know only a finite number of event, causes, etc proceeded that event. Thus, if something, anything, is caused today we know it could in principal only have been proceeded by a finite number of causes. Any finite number of things begins with a first in the series. Thus there must be a first cause that is itself uncaused (lest it not be the first cause). This first cause is what we theists call God.

Therefore, we either have nothing ever being caused (which is absurd) and atheism being true or we have things being caused (which is self evidently true) and God.

Solamon Grundy, before breaking off the conversation, touched on a separate issue - the relation between God and time. He seemed to be suggesting that an eternal being, God, would have lived through an infinite past number of days. Such, of course, isn't what theists believe at all about the relationship between God and time. No one presents this quite as elegantly as Frank Sheed in Theology and Sanity,
What then is time?... Time... is the duration of that which changes; time... is the measurement of the changes of the universe.... Where nothing changes, there is nothing for time to measure. Where nothing changes, time has no possible meaning. Thus time and the universe started together. God is infinite and therefore changeless.... The universe He created is a changing universe. And because change belongs to it and not to God, time belongs to it and not to God.... time is the ticking of the universe. 
Thus the phrase "before the universe was created" has no meaning at all. Before is a word of time, and there could be no time before the universe. To say "before the universe" means when there wasn't any "when"; which is to say that it doesn't mean anything at all. ...
Apply all this to the consideration of one further absurdity that tends to shadow the back of our minds, even when in the front of our minds we are by way of knowing better. It is the vague feeling we have that eternity had been going on for some time before God decided to create the universe. In light of what we have said, this is seen to be sheerly meaningless, for it brings time into eternity. We must not think of God creating the universe after a certain amount of eternity had rolled by, because there are no parts in eternity, and it does not roll by. This mental monstrosity is perhaps related to the picture of God as an old man. But God is not only not an old man, He is not even an old God. He is not old at all. For "old" simply means that one has lived through a long time; and there is no time to God. (pp. 66-68)
God, then, hasn't lived through an infinite number of "past days" or for a limitless time. Rather He lives in one present, changeless "now," an eternal instant which has no beginning, middle, or end - that doesn't have any time to it at all, but that stands apart from and outside of all time (which has no meaning where nothing changes). God then isn't an exception to the impossibility of an infinite regress rule (which would itself be impossible), but stands in a qualitatively different relationship to time altogether (one which doesn't require the passing of time at all).

The whole article at Reduction into Modernism is worth checking out.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I am no philosopher and I tend to struggle with being able to put these particular topics into words. But this really helps me wrap my head around some things. Thumb's up for the Sheed reference, by the way. I have "Theology for Beginners" and he touches on the topic there as well. :)

    1. Thanks for the kind words, David. I'm glad you enjoyed it! Sheed is a great resource.