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article • Thinking it Through

Of God and Mammoths

I’m always amazed at how modern animated movies are not shy to interact with philosophical concepts.

Sometimes they do so in objectionable ways, such as when Skipper, the main character in Penguins of Madagascar, proudly proclaims, “I reject nature. Who’s with me?”

So, naturally, I had my antennae up when I took my kids to see Smallfoot, a tale about a Yeti who discovers what the Yeti village thought didn’t exist—a human being. I sat down ready to pick out any promoted themes that run contrary to reason so I could talk to my kids about them afterward.

Sure enough, early in the film, an anti-religious theme began to emerge. But as I kept watching I realized that the belief tradition being portraying as unreasonable was in fact not grounded in reason.

For example, two Yeti skeptics ask the younger Yetis, “Do you seriously believe mammoths are holding us up?” (It was Yeti tradition that the cloud-shrouded mountain they lived on was supported by mammoths.) The children respond with affirmation: “Mmmm-hmmm.”

The village skeptics then counter, “What’s holding up the mammoths?” at which point the main Yeti character, Migo, comes to the children’s aid and retorts, “Hello, it’s just mammoths all the way down! Don’t listen to them.” Then he tells them not to question the village’s written traditions.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Maybe the filmmakers thought they were mocking religious belief, but what they were really mocking was the philosophical concept that there can exist an essentially ordered series of caused causes, which is something you must believe is true if God doesn’t exist.

An essentially ordered series of caused causes is a series in which every cause is simultaneously dependent on every cause prior to it for its causal activity. For the Yetis, it would mean that the mammoth holding up the mountain depends on every other mammoth beneath him. Without their causal activity, it wouldn’t be able to hold up the mountain.

(This is different from a series of causes that extends back in time. A man begets a son, who later begets his own son, and so on. But the begetting activity of later sons doesn’t depend on the simultaneous begetting activity of their forefathers.)

The movie does reveal that mammoths aren’t the explanation for what’s holding up the mountain. But it never solves the philosophical puzzle that it raises: why is it unreasonable to say that there can exist an infinite series of caused causes ordered in an essential way?

So, let’s think it through and see if we can help the Yetis come up with an answer.

In the supposed series of mammoths, the first mammoth’s causal power to hold up the mountain would be derived: dependent on prior mammoths. But if the chain of mammoths with derived causal power went on infinitely, there would be no mammoth with the power to hold up a mammoth in a non-derived way. The holding-up power exercised by every mammoth in the series would be derived from another mammoth.

In this case, there would be no source from which the mammoths could ultimately derive their power to hold up other mammoths (and thus the Yeti mountain). It would be like a flowerpot suspended above the ground by a series of chain links extending infinitely into the sky, with nothing from which each link could derive its power to hold up subsequent links, and thus nothing from which the chain could collectively derive its power to hold up the flowerpot.

But that’s absurd! Just as the top of a chain must be attached to something (like a hook in the ceiling) in order to give each link the power suspend the flowerpot, there must exist some source—like the ground—from which the mammoths ultimately derive their power to hold up other mammoths.

Spoiler alert: Migo eventually discovers this the hard way. And although he thereby comes to realize that mammoths do not hold up the mountain, we can see that thinking through the principles involved in an ordered series of causality does ultimately lead to God.

If a cause has to receive its causal power from something outside itself, that means it doesn’t have causal power by its very nature. But if every cause in a series was like this, it would force us to say that there is ultimately nothing from which the members of the series could derive their causal power. In which case the series would not have causal power at all: the mountain (or flowerpot) would fall.

But the mountain is clearly being held up, so the members of the causal series holding it up evidently do have causal power (even if they aren’t mammoths). Even though the causes in the series aren’t actually mammoths, we can still conclude by reason that whatever is at the beginning of the causal series doesn’t derive its causal power from something else, but rather has that power within itself.

That which has the power to cause completely within itself is an uncaused cause, or what we call God.

Who knew that children’s animated movies could be so philosophically stimulating?


Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

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