Essay:First Cause

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If we go back to our Basic Arguing About Religion for Dummies 101: Chapter 1, we'll find the First Cause argument. This is one of the oldest theological arguments for there being an all-powerful God-character in charge the universe, having been cited by the ancient Greeks and more famously laid down a little later by Thomas Aquinas. This was all a bloody long time ago, back when we thought disease was caused by bad smells and could be cured by draining us of blood in order to balance out our humors. Of course, since then basic medical knowledge has advanced a bit, but this fundamental part religious apologetics still hasn't advanced a jot.

The first cause argument[edit]

For those who have not read Basic Arguing About Religion for Dummies 101: Chapter 1, and for the sake of completeness, the First Cause Argument goes a bit like this:

Cause and effect is a fundamental quality of the universe. Each effect has a cause. Each cause can be considered to also be an effect, which therefore also has a cause. Those causes also have causes. And so on and so forth until you hit one of two things; an infinite regress of cause and effect, or a single cause that itself does not require a cause. I.e., God.

The infinite regress of causes is considered absurd. This isn't not entirely some arbitrary bullshit reason, but because you can then simply ask what caused the infinite regress to appear in the first place, kinda orthogonally to the timeline of infinite causes and effects. Hence, it is (or is at least claimed to be) not a logical proposition to claim that infinite regress makes sense, so there must be a first cause of some kinda. This first cause is God. God is the uncaused causer, or the unmoved mover in Aquinas-speak.

Now, it's transparently obvious what the main problem is: Why is God exempt from having a cause? Is it because God doesn't require a cause "by definition"? Is it because God is just simply transcendent and so does not take part in cause and effect? Is it because...?

In short, we call this special pleading, which for the uninitiated is the formal logical fallacy whereby you exempt certain entities from obeying your own logical assertions merely because it's convenient for your conclusions, and not because there's any particularly coherent logical reason. Ideally, a good logical framework should have such exemptions built in, and so there is no special pleading involved; you simply point out that your exceptions don't obey the premises of the argument, and so are automatically exempted.

The Kalam argument[edit]

This brings us nicely to the Kalam argument. This is pretty much the First Cause argument exactly as has been stated for centuries, but is worded as a cute little syllogism. If you use big words like "syllogism" and "premise" it means you're doing serious philosophy and your logic is ipso facto airtight, right? Right?

The Kalam argument goes like this:

Premise 1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
Premise 2: The universe began to exist.

Conclusion: The universe had a cause.

This solves, to a reasonable degree at least, the special pleading involved in the straight-up first cause argument of Aquinas and predecessors. God is eternal by definition (this "by definition" argument is on firmer footing because such an eternal nature is actually part of the God Hypothesis and isn't being pulled out in an ad hoc manner as before) and so is exempt from requiring a cause via the actual logic outlined above. You don't need to suddenly exempt God from having a creator because the internal logic suggests an entity that doesn't have a beginning is already exempt from causality. "Who created God?" becomes a non sequitur question here.

Secondly, the cute little syllogism appeals to both logic and observation. We can't really argue against the general cause and effect of Premise 1 (well, we can, but that's outlined below) and the best science we know supports Premise 2 in the form of the Big Bang (there are subtle problems with this also, all in good time). Given all this, no wonder it becomes an argumentum ad nauseam for the likes of William Lane Craig, and remains the foundation of all religious apologetics, theology and evangelism. The entire concept of a supreme creator being rests on the creation of the universe requiring such a a thing, because if such a being is not a necessary requirement, then religion has no place in anything. Everything else is window dressing around this one core argument; and even so, it still remains the single weakest argument for God.

Joining the dots[edit]

As most formally presented, the Kalam and First Cause arguments stop at "the universe must have a cause". This is because the logical syllogisms presented can only formally prove this much. If everything that has a beginning has something that causes it to begin, and the universe began, then it had a cause. Within that logical framework, nothing about it tells us anything about the actual identity of the cause. Could it be an as-yet-unknown subatomic particle which can violate temporal causality? Maybe. Could it be two colliding branes as suggested by some extensions to string theory? Maybe. Could it be a little gnome with a red hat lighting a fart? Maybe. Could it be a wizard sticking his fingers into a void of space that magic isn't allowed to penetrate into? Well, that was also in a book so maybe. No one explanation you can put forward to this is more likely than another from just within the logical framework provided by a first cause type argument.

It is one thing to say that the universe has a cause, but joining this dot to the dot saying "...who gave his only begotten son so that we'd be saved" is an arduous task. No consistent religious apologetic method can bridge this gap for one simple reason; multiple religions exist. Where such attempts are made, we can use the same logic (if it can even be called logic at this point) to justify any religion. For instance, a third-rate Facebook or YouTube comment (or Eric Hovind) may say:

But Christianity is the most consistent and logical position, therefore God can be the only logical first cause. Even if I grew up in an Islamic country I'd realise this and convert to Christianity.

This is really just an exercise in argument by assertion. We can demonstrate that this is the case simply by swapping some words around:

But Islam is the most consistent and logical position, therefore Allah can be the only logical first cause. Even if I grew up in an Christian country I'd realise this and convert to Islam.

Now, the historical relationship between the two major monotheistic religions aside, it's easy to see that both statements use the same logic to get to the same conclusions, the same line of reasoning to reach the same belief. Even if we extended it more to William Lane Craig's attempt to justify Christianity being the answer by citing Jesus can simply be swapped for a similarly-researched epistle regarding Muhammad. The Qu'ran presents an equally compelling and coherent narrative that is as difficult to prove/disprove as the Christian one. We know this because the likes of William Lane Craid, Eric Hovind and Ray Comfort always attack atheism as something to dispel, and never Islam - even though a Muslim will already have rejected the concept non-belief and so most of the hard work for the evangelist/apologist is already done for them. Nope, instead they attack atheism because even trying to admit the existence of another religion breeds the potential doubt that a different religion is True and Correct, and they can't generate a method that will dispel all alternative forms of religion while leaving their own in tact. If they, say, try to claim the Qu'ran and the Vedas are fallible because they were written down by humans and so are fallible with respect to the truth, well, that opens up one heck of a giant kink in the armour for someone trying to connect simplistic philosophy and/or theology to a religion that the Bible as its first edition rulebook.

Does the first cause argument support a personal relationship with Jesus and an obsession with sin, or does the first cause support calling God a slightly different name and following Muhammad's obsessive-compulsive form of worship? It could be either according to the arguments outlined above, all with equal validity. Both are horrifically ignorant of fact, though; specifically the fact that conversions between the two religions aren't noticeably one-sided. Conversion rates are more to do with geography and cultural factors - something most coherent with the idea of religion being a social construct rather than founded in reality. The apparent superiority of one over the other doesn't manifest itself in the form of convincing actual people in the actual world. So while we can dryly converse on the subject all day, the end result of religion-specific arguments is still null.

There is, however, a further issue with the assertion of one religion being "more logical", or superior by any other metric possible. Let's assume that someone did manage to solve the issue of proving that one religion was more "logical and consistent" than the other (and this is only a thought experiment, such an arduous task is not insignificant), then, as presented, the argument simply states that one person can tell which religion is more consistent and logical when they are shown to them. This is akin to simply picking out the person who looks most like the one who stole your wallet from a police line-up - which we know tends to still produce a positive result even if the real suspect is entirely absent from the line-up. It still doesn't really generate that religion from base principles. Any religious apologist who believes in anything less vague than Ietsism needs to be able to formulate their beliefs from scratch, from nothing, without having to be shown a list to arbitrarily pick from.

Again, the simple fact that there are multiple religions, each with a steady supply of followers shows that this has never been fully satisfied.

The vague concept of existence[edit]

The above is the most obvious flaw in first cause type arguments, and it applies to pretty much all pro-God arguments. Why is there Good in the world? Because of God! Which God? Well... Why is the world beautiful? Because of God! Which God? Well... This failure to logically connect between the simplistic concept of a creator - even connecting it as far as a personable creator is a massive leap - and the more specific tenets of a major religion is endemic in theology.

More specifically to the Kalam argument, however, there is a problem with its phrasing: what is existence?

This seems like pointless philosophical and linguistic pedantry at first, like an annoyingly curious child who cannot stop asking "why?" to every single answer given. "But of course we know what 'exists' means!" someone will shout "it means that it exists, it's there, it's real!"

So? This doesn't really answer anything. What do we actually mean when we say something is "really there"? Existence like this must be quantified and qualified in a meaningful way, a way that allows us to understand what exactly an argument is getting at. A simple, hand-waving, and supposedly intuitive definition of "exists" isn't good enough here.

The best definition of "exists" that can work is one where existence is defined on what affects you as a person, what influences your senses, and what objectively affects your reality and others around you. This is reality. It's something that you have no choice in and doesn't go away when you stop believing in it. But what of thoughts and imagination? Do these "exist"? Yes, we can say that they exist if we can see our thoughts and hear our internal monologue, or use our imagination to envisage strange and fantastic worlds; but these don't "exist" in the same way that, say, a chair you can sit on exists. An idea doesn't exist the same way an tangible object exists. A drawing on paper, as a concept, doesn't exist in the same way that the paper itself exists. These forms of existence need to be clarified and cleared. It's important to draw a distinction between this sort of thing, lest we fall into a trap of thinking that we can sit on an imaginary chair and end up falling flat on our arses.

Clearly, then, assertions about "everything that exists" or "everything that begins to exist" needs to have this qualified very precisely. The need for this becomes a bit clearer when we consider what it means to "become", what it means to begin to exist, as the Kalam argument states.

Becoming[edit]

What causes something that "exists", by any definition you choose (preferably a meaningful one) to "become"? There are a few answers we can give, and each has a considerable effect upon the Kalam argument's use of "everything that begins to exist". For this, we need to clear up two pieces of philosophical jargon:

1: creatio ex nihilo, which means literally "creation out of nothing". This is where there is literally nothing, and then there is something.

2: creatio ex materia, or "creation from material". This is where a higher-level object is created out of material that already exists.

These two terms are important because how they're used in first cause type arguments; specifically, they're used interchangeably. Ex nihilo creation, from nothing, is what is suggested to occur at the beginning of the universe. This is the point. The need for religion focuses entirely on the fact that there is something rather than nothing in the universe, and for that to be, there must be some cause that generates this something from nothing - i.e., God, Allah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or whatever you choose. Now, this isn't necessarily true, but without it being true there is no place for religion. If the universe did not arise ex nihilo, then there is no need for a supernatural entity to make it "become" in such a fashion. There are a few other philosophical problems arising out of ex nihilo creation, mostly focusing on whether it is even consistently possible for it to happen; how is it possible that you can act up on literally nothing to create something? By definition this something did not exist, so what was acted upon to begin its existence? It's all confusing and strange, and generally ex nihilo creation is an absurdity, but let's assume for a moment that the being in the God hypothesis can overcome that in some magical manner and ignore it. This is doing the first cause argument an unreasonable favour, however. Like with proving one religion to be objectively superior by a particular metric, it is not an insignificant issue to be leaped over and is only being glossed over here for reasons of it being just slightly beyond the scope of the discussion.

The reason that we can briefly toss aside any further discussion about whether creatio ex nihilo is even possible is because the observations that form the two premises of the Kalam arugment all refer to creatio ex materia. "Everything that begins to exist has a cause" is true in observation only for ex materia creation. To make a person, we first take atoms that already exist and rearrange them. To make a bed, we take wood and metal screws and rearrange them. Even to make a painting we take different pots of paint and rearrange them onto a canvas. All of this is ex materia creation. The first cause argument, therefore, by its own internal logic, can only support a universe being made ex materia - ex nihilo creation isn't supported by observation at all. But what if such higher-level entities can be considered distinct enough? You can clench your hand and say you've brought a fist into existence ex nihilo - as there is now a fist where there was no fist - but what has been proven there? Only that lower-level entities have changed their relationship to produce a higher level entity of a different form; this is not the same ex nihilo as required by creation of the universe out of literal nothingness and is still effectively ex materia only. A rearrangement on a lower level, even when the higher level entity appears to pop suddenly into existence, is still a purely material process. This is all we view in reality. Nothing is on record as popping in or out of existence at the most base level.

Energy, according to thermodynamics, cannot be created nor destroyed, simply rearranged. This is all we do when we begin to exist, or we become. We don't appear from nothing when we become, we are simply emergent entities that come from such exchange and rearrangement. A mind is an emergent entity of the brain in the same way that an arm is an emergent entity of atoms and molecules and cells. We no more come into existence when we're born than a television show comes into existence when we switch on the TV and then poofs out of existence when we turn it off again. This article, in a form that is readable to any human who understands the English languages, comes in and out of existence whether or not a computer monitor is displaying it at the time, otherwise it remains in a different form as raw data stored on a hard drive somewhere, unreadable to the human eye.

Ex materia creation like this is supported everywhere we look, but it remains only trivially true with respect to arguing for supernatural creation from nothingness.

Acausality in reality[edit]

Finally, we need to examine the assertion of causality here. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. But what is a cause? Simply, something, X, that precedes Y, and without which Y would never occur. Getting bogged down in the myriad philosophical definitions of "cause" (necessary cause, efficient cause, and so on) is a bit of red herring here. For this particular weakness of the first cause argument we can use a vague and handwavy definition of "cause", which seems odd given the pedantry of the above but this should suffice.

The question is; does everything that begins to exist (in the emergent, ex materia, kind of way that applies to reality) even need a cause?

This seems like a stupid question. The cause and effect chain alluded to in the first cause argument (the one that was modified to "everything that begins to exist" in the Kalam argument) appears unquestionable. But a lot of science does suggest that things do happen for no reason. At least, no direct reason. At least, there seems to be a break in the cause-and-effect chain that means no deterministic, direct cause influences a particle to do one thing or the other. An example should clarify this.

Consider radioactive decay. To the best of anyone's knowledge, radioactive decay is a spontaneous process that happens at a set rate. To the best evidence we can find, this isn't even affected by temperature. Obviously, we can cause it to occur by exposing radioactive, or even non-radioactive, atoms to more energy and radiation, but it can still happen in a spontaneous, natural way, with no external influence. If there is one radioactive atom sat in a box, there is no direct cause - that we know of - that causes it to naturally decay and emit radiation. It will just happen. It might be a bit arrogant to say that this is truly acausal, but considering all tests so far made, there seems to be nothing but pure chance governing radioactivity. It's well-calibrated chance, of course (otherwise radiometric dating wouldn't work), but it is pure chance that is unaffected by causal interference (again, otherwise radiometric dating wouldn't work!). It can be said that radioactive decay is "caused" by the fundamental forces and decay rates, or controlled (therefore caused) by probability, but this probabilistic and non-determinative cause isn't exactly the same thing as a deterministic cause. When we push a car, it moves in a deterministic way, if we push harder it goes faster; F = ma takes over. This is a one-to-one correspondence between a cause (a push) and an effect (movement). This relationship does not exist for spontaneous atomic decay.

Consider also quantum superposition and wavefunction collapse. Again, it might be arrogant to suggest such a thing is truly acausal, but the only reason we might think it isn't acausal is the further arrogance that the universe must make sense to us and be a fundamentally classical system under all that quantum theory where probability and uncertainty rule. If we have a system entangled under quantum theory, represented by AB + BA then whether we get AB or BA when it collapses is purely chance, it is about as close to being acausal as we can get. We can initiate the collapse of a quantum superposition, for sure, but that chain of cause and effect is broken at the point where the system decides what it wants to do. Do we get one or the other result? We can't tell.

So not everything in reality supports the idea of a deterministic cause and effect relationship as rigorously as is required for the logic of a first cause argument to work. Especially in the case of the Kalam argument that requires such observational rigour to convince people that everything that "begins" to "exist" requires a "cause". The fact we have such exceptions becomes a very big problem.

Conclusions[edit]

The first cause argument has undergone little mutation in hundreds of years. It remains the bedrock of apologetics and theology, it is the only way over the first hurdle of "does God exist?" that theologians must leap before they can discuss how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But it is rife with flaws.

  • No arguments can coherently connect this first cause with any specific God.
  • It requires a strong cause-and-effect relationship that doesn't necessarily manifest in reality.
  • It must make leaps between ex materia and ex nihilo creation.

And yet when people repeat it again and again, they're considered bright theologians, and when people criticise it, they're not versed enough in philosophy and must read more of the Bible. Oh well.