His youthful essay The Necessity of Atheism, which got him expelled from Oxford, was simply an outpouring of ignorance. For instance, it presumed that the First Cause argument is designed to prove that the universe had a temporal beginning, which is just a mistake.I think Donway's wrong about this. You'll note he doesn't actually sketch out the first cause argument, nor does he quote from Shelley's essay.
Well, I went to a Jesuit high school. So I know the first cause argument, a.k.a. the cosmological argument, has a history, and multiple versions.
The legendary first cause
Pops up in Plato's Laws.
Then it takes off full throttle
In two works by Aristotle.
But perhaps it shows its finest
In 4 "proofs" from Thomas Aquinas.
If we only look at these 3 guys, Donway is right. They don't attempt to prove the Universe had a beginning in time. They try to prove that God exists, but they don't try to prove he created everything.
But it was against the Creator that Shelley was actually arguing:
There Is No God. This negation must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.So Shelley attacks a version of The Argument which tries to prove temporal beginning for the Universe.
Did Shelley create this version ex nihilo? No:
The mutakallimūm, theologians who used reason and argumentation to support their revealed Islamic beliefs, developed the temporal version of the argument from the impossibility of an infinite regress, known as the kalām argument. For example, al-Ghāzāli (1058-1111) argued that everything that begins to exist requires a cause of its beginning. The world is composed of temporal phenomena preceded by other temporally ordered phenomena. Since such a series of temporal phenomena cannot continue to infinity, the world must have had a beginning and a cause of its existence, namely, God (Craig 1979, part 1). This version of the argument enters the Christian tradition through Bonaventure (1221-74) in his Sentences (II Sent. D.1,p.1,a.1,q.2).Good golly,
They credit al-Ghāzāli.
I'm not saying Shelley read Bonaventure, but it's pretty clear he had been reading Hume, and Hume argues in particular against a temporal version of The Argument:
Add to this, that in tracing an eternal succession of objects, it seems absurd to enquire for a general cause or first author. How can any thing, that exists from eternity, have a cause, since that relation implies a priority in time, and a beginning of existence?
In such a chain, too, or succession of objects, each part is caused by that which preceded it, and causes that which succeeds it. Where then is the difficulty? But the WHOLE, you say, wants a cause. (Dialogues on Natural Religion Section 190)To those who have followed this far -
What brave fellows you are!
So here, at last, is what Shelley had to say:
It is urged that man knows that whatever is must either have had a beginning, or have existed from all eternity, he also knows that whatever is not eternal must have had a cause. When this reasoning is applied to the universe, it is necessary to prove that it was created: until that is clearly demonstrated we may reasonably suppose that it has endured from all eternity.I conclude that he made no such bonehead mistake.
He refuted one version. So give him a break!