One relatively straightforward theistic argument takes a look at the whole sum of reality as we know it and asks for a cause sufficient to explain it.
History is full of versions of this argument, including those of Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus, Leibniz, and many others.1 Presently, the most interesting and useful form of this argument is the Kalam Cosmological Argument, defended by William Lane Craig.2 The Kalam, traced back by Craig to medieval Islamic scholars such as Al-Kindi in the 9th century and al-Ghazali in the 11th century, is a succinct and compelling argument.3
Whatever has a beginning of existence must have a cause.
The universe began to exist.
The universe must have been caused to exist.
One fascinating feature of this argument is that it became more influential in the 20th century than ever before. Aristotle, for example, believed that the universe was eternal, thus denying the force of the second premise. However, in the age where Big Bang Cosmology is the agreed upon and assumed model of modern science, science has returned to agreement with Genesis that the universe did indeed have a beginning. If this fact may be assumed, then the argument stands fairly well.
From the conclusion, the theist will usually suggest that this argumentation will equally apply to any material cause for the universe. So if X caused the universe, then it is fair to ask, what caused X? The result is either an unhelpful shrug of the shoulders or an infinite chain of causes with no beginning. One powerful alternative to this infinite regress of causes is to believe in a First Cause, or what Aristotle would call an “unmoved mover.”4 This would be a primary cause that has no cause for itself, a motion not caused by some other motion.
Alternatives & Objections
Could it be that the first premise is false? From normal human experience, the premise seems true enough. Rabbits do not magically pop out of hats (or worse, from a hatless, empty nothingness); they come from other rabbits. If it is possible for the universe to begin without a cause, why would we not see a variety of things popping into existence spontaneously and inexplicably?5
Could it be that the universe is eternal or has no beginning? This would fly in the face of one of modern, scientific cosmology. Furthermore, it runs contrary to the principles of Thermodynamics, a field of physics often described as the most successful and certain of all physical knowledge. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the amount of useable energy in the universe is winding down.6 Since the amount of useable energy in the universe is not zero, it can be deduced that the universe is not infinitely old and, therefore, had a beginning.
Could it be that there is an infinite regress of causes for the universe? In other words, A could have been caused by B, which was caused by C, which was caused by D and on and on. Leibniz and his rendition of the cosmological argument have already anticipated this possibility. He argues that even in this case, it is fair to ask what gave rise to the infinite regress of A, B, C, D, … etc. “Therefore, even if you suppose the world eternal, as you will still be supposing nothing but a succession of states and will not in any of them find a sufficient reason, nor however many states you assume will you advance one step towards giving a reason, it is evident that the reason must be sought elsewhere.”7
Furthermore, Craig and a long list of philosophers and mathematicians argue that there is no such thing as actual infinites:8 “While the actual infinite may be a fruitful and consistent concept in the mathematical realm, it cannot be translated from the mathematical world into the real world, for this would involve counter-intuitive absurdities.”9 If this is the case, then the cause of the present state cannot be both infinite and material.Could it be that our universe is one of an enormous number of universes being cranked out by a multiverse creating mechanism? This trendy notion doesn’t help. The argument has simply moved the problem back one step from, “what caused the universe,” to, “what caused the multiverse?” Also, there is no scientific or empirical evidence for such a thing as a multiverse or a multiverse creating entity.
Could it be that our universe is one of an enormous number of universes being cranked out by a multiverse creating mechanism? This trendy notion doesn’t help. The argument has simply moved the problem back one step from, “what caused the universe,” to, “what caused the multiverse?” Also, there is no scientific or empirical evidence for such a thing as a multiverse or a multiverse-creating mechanism, and that should prove a problem for people who claim only to believe in what can be known by science. In short, the multiverse is an entirely metaphysical construction that doesn’t even satisfy the need for which it was imagined!10
Doesn’t God also face a cosmological argument problem? In other words, may we ask, “What caused God?” Isn’t assuming an eternal God just as bad as assuming an infinite universe or an infinite regress of causes? Under scrutiny, this proves to be a nonsensical question. By definition, the God defended by classical theism is the First Cause or an Uncaused Cause. To ask why he does not have a cause is like asking why a vacuum is always empty. A vacuum by its definition is empty, so if it is anything other than empty, it is no longer a vacuum by definition. Married bachelors and vacuums that aren’t empty are logical impossibilities. Likewise, if you find a cause for a being, that being is not the God of classical theism. To quote Plantinga, “If God does exist, He cannot cease to exist; nor could He have begun to exist. Now it becomes clear that it is absurd to ask why God exists. To ask that question is to presuppose that God does exist; but it is a necessary truth that if He has no cause, then there is no answer to a question asking for His causal conditions. The question ‘Why does God exist?’ is, therefore, an absurdity.” 11
Could there be a first cause that is not God? Maybe, but what does our experience tell us? Each and every day we see examples of people making choices that serve as causes for various effects. Free choices are the only obvious example of causes that are not themselves the immediate results of other physical states or causes. It seems reasonable to conclude that this sort of act is what constitutes the first cause. As Craig writes, “If the universe began to exist, and if the universe is caused, then the cause of the universe must be a personal being who freely choose to create the world.”12
See Brian Davies, ed. Philosophy of Religion: A Guide and Anthology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 179 and following.
William Lane Craig, The Kalām Cosmological Argument (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000).
The Islamic origin of this particular argument is important to notice, as this is a theistic argument, rather than a Christian argument. Davies notes that there are also important medieval Jewish renditions of the argument: Davies, 181.
See for example Aristotle, Metaphysics XII.
Modern physicists have shown that from the quantum mechanical characteristics of space, you can indeed get particles and anti-particles to pop spontaneously into existence without violating known conservation laws. However, in the first place, space that has such quantum features is not “nothing” in the strict sense, but rather something. From whence arises this space with its characteristics and rules? Second, the particles and their equally present anti-particles tend to annihilate each other, leaving us to wonder why there seems to be more matter than anti-matter in the universe and why it continues to exist at all rather than returning to the previous state by annihilation.
Or better, the amount of entropy in any closed system increases.
Gottfried Leibniz, “On the Ultimate Origins of Things,” 1697, as found in Davies, 194.
Instead of actual infinites, it may be better to say “real” or “material” infinites. All of these terms have specific meanings and therefore specific limitations and drawbacks. A more careful philosopher than myself would know which of these terms is best applied here.
Craig, 69. As a generic example, for a real set of objects, x, you can always add one more object to get x + 1. In the case of a real number, it is obvious that x does not equal x + 1. However, if x is an infinite, then x + 1 does indeed equal x, as the infinite is not actually larger by having added 1. This type of absurdity shows the divorce of the mathematically useful concept of infinites from reality, and therefore the impossibility of an infinite set of real causes.
It also leads to an important conclusion. It means that the mathematical success of physics is a random coincidence of this universe rather than a feature of reality. As some have called it, this conclusion might imply the “end of physics,” the realization that the mathematical description of reality is neither consistent nor meaningful. And neither are we. It is the farthest possible conclusion from that of theism. Instead of humans being a species carefully crafted by God, we are a passing bubble in a foamy sea of meaninglessness.
Alvin Plantinga and James F. Sennett, The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1998), 223. Furthermore, god, as an immaterial being, would neither be bound by our concerns about material infinites nor subject to physical laws like those of Thermodynamics discussed above.
Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Glenpool Church of Christ and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.
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