The famous cosmological or first cause argument for God’s existence is well known, at least in the basics: it purports that the world around us requires a cause and that cause is God. The argument is associated with Plato, Aristotle , Aquinas and many other thinkers. Consider this post a half-arsed reconstruction of the argument.
It is built on a few basic ideas about causation.
Firstly: There is no such thing as something that could have a cause but doesn’t. So everything either requires a cause and must have one, or could not possibly have a cause and doesn’t.
Secondly: What does have a cause?
– Anything with a beginning
– Anything with parts (as something had to join the parts together)
– Anything that has changed (as something had to make it like it is now)
– Anything that could possibly not exist (as something had to make it exist)
Now, since anything with one or more of these qualities must have a cause, one of two results follows: either an infinity of stuff, as cause follows cause follows cause follows cause etc, or we arrive at a first cause that could not possibly have a cause itself.
Let’s assume for the moment that the universe does have a beginning. (I’ll deal with an eternal universe later.) Of course it might not, but it does look like it. Is it true that it therefore requires a cause?
Certainly that would be a commonsensical conclusion. If you were eating dinner, minding your own business, when an apple seemingly popped out of nowhere, you would ask yourself: where did that come from? In other words, assuming a cause.
But some argue here that if the Big Bang is the beginning of time as well as space, it can’t have a cause since causes must happen before their effects and there is no time before. So the rule becomes: anything with a beginning has a cause, except if there is no time before the beginning. Does this make sense?
I’m not sure that it does. Let’s go back to the apple example. Naturally you assume that an apple that appears seemingly out of nowhere has a cause, even if you don’t know what the cause is. Now, what if someone told you that the apple is Just There for no reason, because it is in its own spacetime continuum running parallel to this one, and in that spacetime continuum it is the First Apple and there was nothing before it?
Why can the first physical thing appear causelessly but not the second or third? Since they are all physical things, there must be a physical property that allows the first thing to appear without a cause but not the others. But what could such a property be? Why was this property only there once? Why doesn’t science know about it? The whole idea seems absurd.
To my mind, a universe that is just there for no reason is no better than an apple that is just there for no reason – it doesn’t make sense to talk about physical things in this way.
It seems to me that the atheist cannot accept a beginning for the universe; their position locks them in to an eternal universe.
An eternal universe
Now, presently all the evidence points to the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe, but this could change. So now I will consider the possibility of an eternal universe.
There is a second type of cosmological argument that operates here and now. This argument questions an assumption that is very rarely questioned – the assumption that the physical world keeps going or could keep going by itself.
Look at your arm – it is made of muscles (among other things) – these are made of cells, which are made of molecules, which are made of proteins, and atoms, and quarks etc. Whatever the bottom level of physical stuff is, does that require something else beneath it holding it together?
The things that must have a cause in point 2: only one of them mentions time.Can they apply here and now, as well as in the past?
Some more detail may be required to make sense of this. It’s most well-known proponent, Aquinas, had no less than three here-and-now cosmological arguments. The first of these was based on this principle: Anything that changes is changed by something else, which is based on Aristotle’s metaphysics of change.
In brief, Aristotle makes a distinction between potentiality and actuality. Your coffee is hot, but potentially cold. Your dog is potentially on fire, but right now it isn’t. Change, then, is movement from potential to actual. Since something that is potential cannot do anything, any agent of change must be actual, and nothing can change itself.
The most obvious retort here is that animals can change themselves, but that would be a misunderstanding, for the animal has many parts working together. Think of how a cell in your body is changed by another cell, and how each part of that cell changes as its atoms are changed by its subatomic particles and so on. So for example, if the quarks or quantum fields – whatever the bottom level of physicality turns out to be – if they also change, there must be something else changing them. To avoid an infinite regress, they require a first cause here and now. A first cause that can change other things but is itself incapable of change. Even in an eternal universe.
But what does this cause look like? What could we compare it to? It is not like the first domino that topples the others. Rather, it’d be like holding a pile of sand in your hands. If ever you stop holding it, it will fall to the floor and fall apart. In other words, a sustaining cause.
Back to the beginning
What is a first cause at the beginning of the universe like?
Here is my MS Paint style rendering of what we think when we think of the First Cause argument:
The red is the physical world and the blue is the first cause doing it’s thing.
Does this picture work? Since this cause is not itself in time, the mode of causation here is not that of something kicking off the universe, like the first domino in a row of dominoes. The first cause, whatever it is, caused the first physical thing. But the first cause is outside of time. From the position of something outside of time, does it matter if one thing comes later in time than another? The answer must be: no it doesn’t. To an atemporal cause, time is of no importance. Similarly, since the first cause is not in space, spacial differences do not affect it.
From the perspective of the first cause, the picture must look a little like this:
Given that the first cause is not separate from the first physical thing in time and space, it will not be separate from the others either. Also, things of the same type will have the same types of causal relations, unless we have some reason to suppose otherwise. So if the first physical thing requires an atemporal cause, doesn’t this show that other physical things do also?
This leads us to a model like the following:
We see that regardless of whether the universe has a beginning or not, we are led to the same place – that the universe has a sustaining cause, not just a cause at the beginning.
Next question: is the first cause intelligent? Since we know that the first cause causes everything else, we can answer this question from it’s effects. Is the universe stable and orderly? Do its parts work together? Or is it a chaotic disorderly mess? The answer is clear: it is stable and orderly. Therefore the first cause is intelligent.
So now we come to a conclusion: The universe has a first cause. It does not have a beginning. It is not divisible into parts. It cannot change. It could not possibly not exist. It is not physical. It is intelligent. It holds everything else in existence from moment to moment. I think it is clear why many conclude that the first cause is God.