here is an age old argument for the existence of God called the cosmological argument, or the argument from first cause. It was famously advanced by the medieval Catholic theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas, though the concept goes back at least to Plato and Aristotle. There are several variations. Essentially it goes like this:
- Everything that exists has a cause.
- The universe exists.
- The universe must have a cause.
- The cause of the universe is God.
Once upon a time atheists could combat this argument by suggesting that the universe has always existed, so the assertion made in step one is simply wrong. In refuting the argument from first cause, the philosopher Bertrand Russell said,
There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination.
Russell made these remarks in a lecture in 1927. Two years later, the astronomer Edwin Hubble observed the redshifting of galaxies and realized that the universe was expanding, and therefore the galaxies must have been closer together in the distant past. This supported the theory of a Roman Catholic priest and physicist, Georges Lemaître, that the universe originated in a singularity, a “primeval atom,” that exploded into a Big Bang. This news excited theists and gave new life to the cosmological argument. Pope Pius XII crooned,
It would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux [Let there be Light], when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies. Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator. Hence, creation took place. We say: therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists!
Beautifully worded, Pope! But not so fast. Bertrand Russell had another criticism of the cosmological argument:
If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.
If we accept the first premise of the cosmological argument – everything that exists has a cause – then God too must have a cause, and God’s cause must have a cause, and God’s cause’s cause must have a cause, and we get an infinite regression.
Or, if we assert that something can exist that is uncaused (like God), why not suppose the Big Bang itself is the First Cause? Why bring God into it?
God as an answer to the big question (“Why is there something instead of nothing?”) is necessarily unsatisfying, for it begs the follow up: “Why is there God instead of nothing?”
There is a fatal error in the cosmological argument. The insertion of an uncaused cause at step four in the argument simply obliterates the logic, because it contradicts what is asserted in step one, that everything that exists has a cause.
Perhaps Russell was right that “the idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination.” The first assertion in the cosmological argument is a hasty generalization stemming from a theistic bias, for while it may accord with everyday experience and with scripture, it is not self-evident that everything that exists has a cause. The concept of God as an Intelligent Designer and a Creator probably derives from an intuitive analogy to tool-making humans, but it’s a bad analogy because humans don’t literally make things, we only reshape them. The potter does not produce the pot ex nihilo; she shapes clay that lay waiting in the earth long before she came along, and before it was clay it was something else.
There are no true beginnings in our universe, excepting the Big Bang. The total quantity of mass-energy is fixed. This follows from the first law of thermodynamics (the conservation of energy) plus the theory of relativity (the equivalence of energy and mass). Energy may change in form but is never created or destroyed. All supposed beginnings – the formation of stars and planets, the rise of continents, the births of living beings, and the shaping of pots – are but transformations. Metamorphoses, not geneses. New recipes utilizing old ingredients. The stuff that we see around us – the dirt at our feet, the air we breathe, our homes and the things in them, our neighborhoods, the food we eat, our bodies – has existed in some form or another since the first click of the clock, some 13.7 billion years ago. Mass-energy is cosmic Play-Doh, and like the laws of physics it is an integral part of the universe, here since the start and with us until the end.
- Epicurus assumed this was the case. In his Letter to Herodotus he said, “[T]he sum total of things was always such as it is now, and such it will ever remain… Further, the whole of being consists of bodies and space.” It is remarkable how far the Greek atomists got on observation and intuition alone.↩