Professor X is a cosmologist. He likes to deal in hard, brute facts and has little time for religious or philosophical speculation. It seems justifiable to ask this expert one of the most important questions that has occupied mankind’s thoughts for as long as there has been any thought: “Where do we come from?” Let’s put it another way, in more “scientific terms” if you like: “What is the cause of the existence of the Universe?”
The Professor would, no doubt, be able to provide an answer along the following lines: We know that you, as a human being, are a result of sexual reproduction. You are the cause of your mother and father. The human race as a whole, according to Darwinian theory, is the result of an evolutionary process from other life forms. All life forms on Earth are the result of atoms – particularly carbon and oxygen – combining into complex molecules in an environment warmed by a stable sun. Our Sun is a middle-aged star and the Earth, together with the rest of the solar system, was formed around 4.5 billion years ago. Our star is just one of an aggregate of stars that make up a galaxy – the Milky Way – which, in turn is one of an aggregate of galaxies that formed around 10 billion years ago. All the galaxies make up the universe which began around 15 billion years ago as a result of a “Big Bang”: an explosion that occurred ‘out of nothing’, beginning with the universe packed into a space smaller than an atomic nucleus that rapidly expanded in a tiny fraction of a second into a dense mixture of radiant energy and exotic particles.
So there you are! Glad you asked? At this point you could simply thank the Professor and walk away feeling quite content with the answer given. But why should you? Are you not still justified in asking the inevitable follow-on question: “Yes, but what caused the Big Bang?” The Professor may stumble a little here and, perhaps, will speculate over the possibility that the Big Bang is actually a part of a series of such events: the universe expands, then shrinks again and the whole process begins all over ad infinitum. There may also be other Big Bangs occurring in space at this moment; in which case space is not a universe at all, but a multiverse. But at what point does the good Professor drift from empirical fact to unproven speculation? Have we not moved from the belief that the universe does not have an infinite history, to one where it does? Is the suggestion that the Big Bang simply occurred “out of nothing” any different from a religious believer saying that God created the universe “ex nihilo” (“out of nothing”‘)?
Problems With Infinity
We are still faced here with the problem of “beginnings”. If there are a series of Big Bangs, what began this series? If there are many universes, what are its boundaries? Could we settle with the response that both the series goes on for infinity and that there are no boundaries? Therefore, both time and space are infinite: they will go on forever, and have done so in the past. There is no beginning and no end. Yet, conceiving of infinity has always proven to be difficult. The argument goes something like this:
Time and Space are infinite.
In an unlimited amount of time and an unlimited amount of space, there must exist unlimited possibilities.
Therefore, anything that you can imagine as a possibility will, at some time and place, actually occur.
This is the same as the thesis that if you have an immortal chimpanzee tapping away at a typewriter it will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. It may take billions and billions of years; but time is infinite! We have forever! As a thought experiment, imagine the most pleasurable life possible. It can be anything you like: immense wealth, ruler of the world, the perfect marriage, etc. Now, with infinite time on our hands, eventually the environment will be produced somewhere in space by which you are exactly what you have imagined. You can be assured that at some point in time and space you will live that life; and not only once. Rather disturbingly, you can also imagine the most unpleasant and horrific life possible and you’re also going to live that life again and again! It may, of course, be the case that you only have your consciousness once, and when you die that’s it; regardless of the likelihood that your physical state can re-combine, your soul cannot.
In addition, the argument for infinity could also be an argument for the existence of God: in an infinite amount of time and space it is logically possible that a God, at some point in time, will exist. Why not? You can imagine the existence of an all-powerful, superior being and, in a universe of infinite possibilities, that being must, at some point, exist! Moreover, of course, as He is God, He must have always existed. Therefore, He exists now. A retort to this argument is that God is not a logical possibility. That in an infinite universe only those things that perform according to the universal laws of nature can occur, and God is not according to those laws. Can we be sure that laws are so fixed? Even if they were, does the emergence of a being superior in power and knowledge to any other living creature fly against the laws of nature? What kind of God is logically possible?
Without getting into a debate over the nature of God, the important point is that infinity is riddled with conceptual difficulties that many find inadequate. For example, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), in his Theodicy, stated the following:
Suppose the book of the elements of geometry to have been eternal, one copy having been written down from an earlier one. It is evident that even though a reason can be given for the present book out of a past one, we should never come to a full reason. What is true of the books is also true of the states of the world. If you suppose the world eternal, you will suppose nothing but a succession of states and will not find in any of them a sufficient reason.
For Leibniz, there must be a ‘sufficient reason’: a complete explanation that explains why something exists. He, obviously, was not satisfied with the idea of infinity: a dissatisfaction that was based around the scientific premise that things are not ‘just there’, but are in some way related to other events. Leibniz, here, is a proponent of the ancient metaphysical thesis “ex nihilo nihil fit” (“of nothing, nothing comes”); but this sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside the belief that God created the universe ex nihilo!
In the Beginning
Wouldn’t it be much easier to say that there is a beginning? Let’s be empirical about this: when we observe the world we see that everything has a cause: the rain causes the plants to grow, the plants cause the production of oxygen, oxygen causes animal life to exist, etc. Does it not follow from this that the whole universe, too, has a cause? Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) – rejecting Plato’s concept of eternal Forms – believed that everything must have an ‘efficient cause’; the efficient and final cause was the ‘Unmoved Mover’. Aristotle was a major influence on Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who developed the causal argument as part of his Christian beliefs. Basically, Aquinas stated that if A causes B, and B causes C, then A is the first cause, and C is the last cause. But what happens if A does not occur? Neither B nor C will occur either. The causal chain must, therefore, have a beginning, and that beginning is God.
Is there anything wrong with that logic? After all, we experience this process every day. I get into my car, drive to the university, and give a lecture on the Cosmological Argument. If I had not got into my car and stayed in bed instead, then there would have been no drive in the car and no lecture. My difficult decision to get out of a warm bed and stumble into a cold car was undoubtedly the cause of my getting to the university to give a lecture. However, getting into my car was not the cause of everything else in the whole universe! It is not, therefore, the First Cause. If A is the first cause, then B must also be the first cause of C, and C the first cause of D, and so on. Every cause would be the first cause! We are also faced with the obvious paradox here of, on the one hand, saying that everything has a cause and, on the other, saying that there is a causa sui (cause of itself); something that was not caused by something else!
Aquinas rephrased the argument in terms of dependency: Doesn’t dependency have to be grounded somewhere in non-dependency? Every creature is dependent (i.e. contingent) for its existence on something else, without which it would not have been. For example, if my mother had not met my father during World War Two then I would not now exist. In fact, I also have the war to thank for my existence today. But how can you have a chain of dependent beings without, at the end of the line, having a being that does not depend on something else? There must exist a non-dependent, self-existent, necessary being. The very fact that one being depends upon another being suggests that dependence must come to an end at some point; or can you have infinite dependency?
This argument is still causal, but plays on the term “dependence” rather than “cause”. However, as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) once pointed out, just because every human being had a mother it does not follow that the human race as a whole had a mother. In other words, it is wrong to argue from individual cases to a whole collective. Three people can have their own individual reasons for, say, going to see the same film, but it does not follow that there need be one collective reason why the group of three are in the cinema at the same time and sitting next to each other. We could also follow the path of David Hume (1711-76) who would argue that, as the creation of the universe is beyond our experience, there is simply no empirical evidence to satisfy our curiosity. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), in his article Theism, said: “Our experience, instead of furnishing an argument for a first cause, is repugnant to it.”
Still, we can’t help being curious. Nonetheless, Hume and Mill have a point: where does all this speculation leave us? Does it help us to believe in a First Cause or, for that matter, in the existence of God? A religious believer may well be able to say that God is “special”: to ask the question “What or who caused God?” misses the point entirely and is, in fact, irrelevant here. God just is: he is the eternal, uncaused, timeless, creator.
Equally, the atheist could use a similar argument in response to the question: “What caused the universe?” As Russell once said: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all.” The universe just is: like the laws of nature, the universe is a brute fact; it’s the way things are. Neither response is particularly helpful, it has to be said.
A Question of Faith
Ultimately, whether you are a supporter or an opponent of the argument, a certain degree of faith is required. It is natural to feel a certain dissatisfaction with the “just there” argument, as it is natural for us to try and seek explanations for things. Yet, for the non-believer, a religious explanation simply will not do either. Both the for and against arguments are ‘a priori’ in that they appeal first to experience to substantiate their claims; yet both perceive what they experience differently. Supporters of the argument, such as Aquinas and Leibniz, see that all things have a cause and, therefore, there must be a first cause; whereas opponents, such as Mill, also see that all things have a cause and, therefore, there cannot be anything that is uncaused. Whereas, philosophers such as Hume and Russell refuse even to speculate beyond that which we are able to experience.
Even if it were proven that there is indeed a ‘First Cause’ and we define this as ‘God’ we are still left with the usual difficulties that occur in all arguments for the existence of God: does this definition fit within the classical theist concept of a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient, timeless being? Or would it be more accurate to redefine God as something far less personal: as a ‘force of nature’ rather than a Supreme Being? What kind of God are we talking about?