Does the very existence of physical things mean there is a God?
The stuff of the universe had to have come from somewhere. One can trace one’s own being to one’s parents, and their parents before them, and so on. But where did the first parents come from? And whether those first parents were human or evolved from other life, where did that come from? And how did organic material form from non-organic? And the elements that comprise non-organic material–the star-stuff that is said to be in all of us—where did that come from? Theists argue that it’s no answer to point to contingent existence, and then the previous contingent existence, and so on. There had to have been a first, uncaused-cause. Something cannot come from nothing.
Something from Nothing
Materialists do not accept this proposition, of course, and so attempt to answer it in one of the following ways.
One, we don’t know where stuff came from, but it couldn’t have been God, because there is no God. That’s not an answer, of course. It’s just a restatement of the atheist position. It is an instance of allowing one’s a priori metaphysical stance to substitute for reasoning to an answer. (What theists are accused of doing, incidentally).
Two, materialists might argue that something can come from nothing. But this breaks down rather quickly, too. It always turns out that the “nothing” is really some sort of something, and what is then described is a physical phase transition, not a true spontaneous generation of material. Lawrence Krauss attempted to show something from nothing, for example, in his A Universe from Nothing (Free Press, 2012). He built an entire theory of the beginning of every material thing, plus time, from nothing. But the whole theory rests on an illusory foundation: the “nothing” isn’t really nothing. Quantum physicist David Albert straightened us out on this in his review, on the Origin of Everything. In the preface to a later edition of his book, Krauss walked it back, essentially abandoning his “nothingness” premise, this time suggesting the question of true nothingness was unimportant (despite his choice of book title). It is unimportant, however, only if you’ve already made up your mind to remain committed to materialism, regardless of the evidence.
Three, multiverse theories suggest the possibility of numerous, possibly infinite, universes, as a dodge of the evident fine-tuning of this one, which implies a creator to do the tuning. The multiverse theories fail at getting around the first cause problem, too. Multiplying universes just multiplies contingently-existing things, it doesn’t explain the first cause. Not to mention that it flies in the face of the principle of Occam’s Razor.
Four: infinite regress! This one is the most interesting, and is frequently trotted out by atheist apologists like Richard Dawkins (as mentioned in this review of one of Dawkins’ books). It is the rejoinder that the something-from-nothing argument does not prove the existence of God, because it doesn’t explain what created God. We still have the problem of infinite contingency, so the argument goes.
The infinite regress argument is wrong on many levels. For starters, it’s simply not an answer to the question how we get something from nothing. It’s only a counter to the proposition that God answers the question. It is a (rather petulant) assertion that whatever is the answer, it can’t be God, because God doesn’t exist. See item one above.
It’s wrong on another level, too. It presupposes that God is Himself a contingent being, rather than the only non-contingent being by definition. An atheist can and typically will make all kinds of arguments that the God of the Bible isn’t real, but how does one get around the proposition that there had to be an uncaused cause of physical reality? Attaching the label “God” to that uncaused cause excites objection, but why? Whatever was the uncaused cause of the universe had to have contained within itself all the source; the full actuality; of all that came after. This was something quite powerful and quite intentional, in the way intelligent beings are intentional.
This first, uncaused-cause is something we envision being first in time. The first domino to tip, so to speak, setting off a chain of causes–all the rest of the dominoes falling. Because it was uncaused, it had to have decided to tip into the next domino.
But there’s more, and it’s illustrated superbly by Michael Augros, in Who Designed the Designer (Ignatius 2015). That this first cause is first should be understood to mean it is “primary,” not just first in time. That is, the uncaused-cause—let’s go ahead and call Him God—is the pure actuality existing at the root of all action. All of it. At all times. He could not have been present for a moment, to set off all the later contingent causes, and then have disappeared, or become irrelevant. He remains the first cause.
Cause and effect are, after all, nearly simultaneous. The hammer hits the nail, the nail is driven into the wood. So it cannot be that there was one great cause at the beginning of everything, and then all effects occurred subsequently. So cause exists now, and for every effect.
Temporal Priority vs. Causal Priority
But causation is also a concept not limited to temporal causation; that which occurs prior in time to the effect. Augros explains that causal priority is not synonymous with temporal priority. “First cause” can mean not just first in time, but first in the sense of being primary.
[T]he great thinkers who all insist there is a first cause used the expression first cause not to mean (necessarily) a cause before all other causes in time, but a cause before all others in causal power. It meant a cause of other causes that does not itself depend on any other cause. It meant, in other words, something that exists and acts all by itself, without deriving its existence or causal action from anything else. And it meant not a thing stuck in the past, but a thing existing in the present.
There is a primary cause regardless whether the universe had a beginning. This philosophy did not arise with the advent of the Big Bang theory, after all. In fact, early philosophers who held to this view of a first cause believed that the universe had always been.
If the world had always been, an uncaused cause was sustaining it and causing the motions and changes we see taking place in it.
Implications of a First Cause
Augros proves that there is a first cause, and only one, and then turns to its attributes to show that it moves other things without moving itself. It is unchangeable. It cannot come to be nor cease to be. Contingent things are at all times a mix of both actual things and potential things. But the first cause is not potential in any sense. It is pure actuality. The first cause provides the actuality of all things. It therefore possesses in itself all the types of actualities found in things.
And that makes the first cause the supreme being, the most intensely existing thing.
Read Augros’ book. He proves analytically that which ought to be manifest to us already, just in the sheer astonishing fact of the existence of anything. God created it.
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