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Argument from first cause

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If nothing comes from nothing, then God cannot exist, because God is not nothing. If that premise is true that “nothing comes from nothing,” and if God is something, then you have just shot yourself in the foot.
—Dan Barker[1]
Again, where could gods find

A model for creating things-what planted in their mind

The notion of mankind, so they knew what they undertook

To make, and they could picture in their hearts how it should

Lucretius, almost a hundred years before Christianity even existed.[2]

The argument from first cause (or the cosmological argument) states that the universe must have a cause, and that this cause is (the arguer's) God.

Argument structure[edit]

The argument from first cause proceeds as follows.

Everything that comes into being must have a cause.[edit]

This is determined from both observation and the logic behind causality. Everything that is observed in the universe has some form of cause behind it and this forms the basis of conservation of momentum and energy. Within causality there is a unifying logic between an effect (something caused) and an affect (cause). An affectless effect and an effectless affect are logically nonsensical propositions.

An infinite regress of causes is impossible.[edit]

Disallowing an infinite regress of causes is, technically speaking, an assertion required for the argument to work.

We must therefore arrive at a first cause.[edit]

Following from disallowing an infinite regress of causes, there must be a point where the first cause appears. This is the concept first developed by Aristotle and expanded upon by Aquinas as the "unmoved mover" or the "uncaused causer".

This first cause is God.[edit]

Having established the existence of the first cause, it is asserted that this cause is none other than the God of choice of the person making the argument.


Kalām version[edit]

P1: Everything that exists/begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
P2: The universe exists/began to exist.
C1: Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.


:P1: Everything that exists/begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
The change in phrasing from "everything that exists" to "everything that begins to exist" is an attempt to avoid infinite regress and the question of "So what was the cause for (your) god's existence?" in a slightly more clever way than claiming that the deity is self- or uncaused. By referring to "everything that begins to exist", the apologist is preemptively excluding any eternal (or "timeless" in William Lane Craig's even more clunky terminology) phenomena or beings (e.g the Abrahamic God).

:P2: The universe exists/began to exist.
The Big Bang theory does not prove that the universe had a beginning. The beginning would depend on general relativity (time is relative), which breaks down when the universe is as small as an atom and the rules of quantum mechanics (time is absolute) take over. Hence, the truth value of this statement is undefined, making this an unsound argument. Watch Sean Carroll's response to learn more. Also, Alan Guth, the creator of inflationary theory, does not believe the Universe had a beginning, and in fact there is a plenty of physically consistently past-eternal options in which the physical reality does not have an overall beginning. See the Wikipedia article on speculative models beyond the Big Bang.

:C1: Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.
Then add some (more) dubious logic to get from "a cause" to "(my) god". This approach is probably best known from William Lane Craig, who has used a version of the Kalām as the cornerstone of his apologetics since at least his 1979 Ph.D. thesis on philosophy of religion.

Platonic/Aristotelian version[edit]

See the main articles on this topic: Plato and Aristotle
P1: Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
P2: A causal loop cannot exist.
P3: A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
C1: Therefore, a First Cause (or something that is not an effect) must exist.

Thomistic version[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Thomas Aquinas
P1: A contingent being exists.
P2: This contingent being has a cause of its existence.
P3: The cause of its existence is something other than itself.
P4: What causes this contingent being to exist must either be only contingent beings or involve a necessary being.
P5: Contingent beings alone are insufficient to cause the existence of a contingent being.
C1: Therefore, a necessary being must be involved in the cause of the existence of contingent beings.
C2: Therefore, a necessary being exists.

The assumptions[edit]

Self-causation is impossible[edit]

Related to the infinite regress of causes is the idea that something may cause itself to come into being. Aquinas argues that this is impossible on account of it never having been empirically observed, but also because of the impossibility and absurdity of an object causing itself. Specifically, for an object to cause itself to come into being, it must be prior to itself. This expressly forbids the universe from causing itself, which would otherwise scupper the conclusion.

Prohibition of infinite regress[edit]

The argument assumes that an infinite causal chain cannot occur, absent any justification. There is no logical inconsistency in e.g. Chuck Norris naming all the digits of pi backwards, one per second, finishing …6295141.3 right now - and there are more physically realistic examples of past-infinite things (note that physical consistency is much stronger than the logical one), the simplest one being arguably just quiet static empty space with no matter, existing in eternity - manifestly, it has an infinite past without any inconsistency. Moreover, infinite regress can even occur in finite time, like in Zeno’s paradoxes, and yet the notion of continuous, infinitely-divisible time is rarely considered impossible or seriously objectionable.

Uniqueness and identity of the first cause[edit]

As Aquinas said at the end of his first cause argument:

Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.

There are two rather big assumptions in this sentence: first, that by following a causal chain back, one will always eventually arrive at the same starting point; and second, that this causal starting point is in fact a very specific God – precisely the one the arguer has in mind. The first assumption is wrong if, for example, each of the four fundamental forces of nature (strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, electromagnetism and gravity) have separate unrelated origins. The second has no basis at all, and constitutes a bit of sleight of hand. Finally, Aquinas himself (!) directly honestly admitted (in his treatise on the eternity of the world) that he is unable to prove that the world has not simply existed in eternity, with no beginning, and he accepts that it didn’t as a doctrine of faith.


Eternity of the Universe is an open question[edit]

As mentioned above, it is (still) not known definitively either physically or philosophically whether the Universe has existed forever. We simply don’t know yet what, if anything, happened before the Big Bang (and most physicists consider “true” singularities ultimately unphysical). As an illustration, at the opposite polar extreme from the affirmation of the second premise of the Kalam argument, the idea that there wasn’t even as much as a quantum gravity era (let alone a miraculous creation era) and ordinary Standard Model matter such as photons and neutrinos has simply existed in eternity is known to be a consistent possibility.[3]

Absurdities in similar arguments[edit]

Consider the following version of the first-cause argument: 1) Everything that begins to exist has an external cause; 2) Physical reality began to exist; 3) Therefore, physical reality has an external cause. (The cause being external is essential - otherwise, if it is itself physical, it is not God.) Let’s simply delete the word “physical” in the above argument, and see what we get: 1) Everything that begins to exist has an external cause; 2) Reality began to exist; 3) Therefore, reality has an external cause. Now the conclusion is manifestly absurd - “external to reality” means just not real, not actually existing, like Harry Potter (not to be confused with the idea of Harry Potter, which is real and popular) - and therefore one of the first two statements must be false. But then how does one justify that the corresponding statement(s) wouldn’t also be false in the first argument? Namely, as the first premise is strictly needed for the first argument to work (if it is sometimes true, sometimes not, why would it not fail in particular for the physical reality - with it not having a cause or its cause being itself or within itself, either way, not God?) a first-cause argument fan will have to concede that it is the second premise of the modified argument that is wrong - and things overall did not have a beginning. Which means that for anything (any event) there was something before it, and for that there was also something before it, and so forth, so an infinite regress is admitted, which undermines the philosophical justification of the second premise of the original Kalam. For example, if (as is sometimes claimed when justifying the Trinity) God existed in bliss of mutual love between the members of the Trinity before the creation of the world, and it is true that reality did not have an overall beginning per the above, then before any moment of bliss and love there was another, it never began (just like, according to the standard religious doctrine, for every moment of torture in eternal Hell there will be more tormenting later, it never ends) - and we get an infinite regress into the past, after all.

Consider also another strengthening of the first premise, which is fairly intuitive and commonly accepted by both atheistic and theistic philosophers - “Any event has a prior cause”. From this strengthened version of the first premise it already immediately follows that there was no absolute beginning of everything - as that would be an event that by definition cannot have any prior cause!

Special pleading[edit]

A commonly-raised[4][5] objection to this argument is that it suffers from special pleading. While everything in the universe is assumed to have a cause, God is free from this requirement. However, while some phrasings of the argument may state that "everything has a cause" as one of the premises (thus contradicting the conclusion of the existence of an uncaused cause), there are also many versions that explicitly or implicitly allow for non-beginning or necessary entities not to have a cause. In the end, the point of the premises is to suggest that reality is a causally-connected whole and that all causal chains originate from a single point, posited to be God. That many people using this argument would consider God exempt from various requirements is a foregone conclusion, but citing "special pleading" because finite causal chains are said to have an uncaused beginning is hardly a convincing objection.

Effect without cause[edit]

Most philosophers believe that every effect has a cause, but David Hume critiqued this. Hume came from a tradition that viewed all knowledge as either a priori (from reason) or a posteriori (from experience). From reason alone, it is possible to conceive of an effect without a cause, Hume argued, although others have questioned this and also argued whether conceiving something means it is possible. Based on experience alone, our notion of cause and effect is just based on habitually observing one thing following another, and there's certainly no element of necessity when we observe cause and effect in the world; Hume's criticism of inductive reasoning implied that even if we observe cause and effect repeatedly, we cannot infer that throughout the universe every effect must necessarily have a cause.[6]

Multiple causes[edit]

Finally, there is nothing in the argument to rule out the existence of multiple first causes. This can be seen by realizing that for any directed acyclic graphWikipedia which represents causation in a set of events or entities, the first cause is any vertex that has zero incoming edges. This means that the argument can just as well be used to argue for polytheism.

Radioactive decay[edit]

Through modern science, specifically physics, natural phenomena have been discovered whose causes have not yet been discerned or are non-existent. The best known example is radioactive decay. Although decay follows statistical laws and it's possible to predict the amount of a radioactive substance that will decay over a period of time, it is impossible — according to our current understanding of physics — to predict when a specific atom will disintegrate. The spontaneous disintegration of radioactive nuclei is stochastic and might be uncaused, providing an arguable counterexample to the assumption that everything must have a cause. An objection to this counterexample is that knowledge regarding such phenomena is limited and there may be an underlying but presently unknown cause. However, if the causal status of radioactive decay is unknown, then the truth of the premise that 'everything has a cause' is indeterminate rather than false. In either case, the first cause argument is rendered ineffective. Another objection is that only the timing of decay events does not appear to have a cause, whereas a spontaneous decay is the release of energy previously stored, so that the storage event was the cause. One possible counter-objection is that the storage event may cause the conditions that allow for radioactive decay, but is not the immediate cause for decay. However, whether this counter-objection refutes the objection depends on how one interprets causality within this context.

Virtual particles[edit]

Another counterexample is the spontaneous generation of virtual particles, which randomly appear even in complete vacuum. These particles are responsible for the Casimir effect and Hawking radiation. The release of such radiation comes in the form of gamma rays, which we now know from experiment are simply a very energetic form of light at the extreme end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Consequently, as long as there has been vacuum, there has been light, even if it's not the light that our eyes are equipped to see. What this means is that long before God is ever purported to have said "Let there be light!",[7] the universe was already filled with light, and God is rendered quite the Johnny-come-lately. Furthermore, this phenomenon is subject to the same objection as radioactive decay, that we don't know if there is truly no cause or if there is a cause we just haven't found yet, which in turn is subject to the same counter-objection as for radioactive decay.

Fallacy of composition[edit]

The argument also suffers from the fallacy of composition: what is true of a member of a group is not necessarily true for the group as a whole. Just because most things within the universe require a cause/causes, does not mean that the universe itself requires a cause. For instance, while it is absolutely true that within a flock of sheep that every member ("an individual sheep") has a mother, it does not therefore follow that the flock has a mother.

Equivocation error[edit]

There is an equivocation error lurking in the two premises of the Kalām version of the argument. They both mention something "coming into existence". The syllogism is only valid if both occurrences of that clause refer to the exact same notion.

In the first premise, all the things ("everything") that we observe coming into existence forms by some sort of transformation of matter or energy, or a change of some state or process. So this is the notion of "coming into existence" in the first premise.

In the second premise there is no matter or energy to be transformed or reshaped into the universe. (We are probably speaking of something coming from nothing.)

The two notions of "coming into existence" are thus not identical and therefore the syllogism is invalid.

The equivocation objection is not a contrived objection but rather relates to fundamental differences between the two forms of coming into existence. The transformation of matter or energy to cause things to come into existence is restricted by the laws of physics; but when we begin with an absolute nothing, there are no laws of physics like the conservation of energy that would prevent the universe from coming into existence out of nothing, all on its own.[8]

See also[edit]

Want to read this in another language?[edit]

Русскоязычным вариантом данной статьи является статья Космологический аргумент

External links[edit]


  1. Dan Barker | God does NOT exist Oxford Union debate (Dec 21, 2012) YouTube.
  2. De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), Book V, Lines 182-186, translated by A.E. Stallings, ISBN978-0-140-44796-5
  4. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian
  5. W. Norris Clarke, The Creative Retrieval of Saint Thomas Aquinas
  6. Cosmological Argument, Reichenbach, Bruce, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), section 4.4
  7. Genesis 1:3
  8. Ex Nihilo Onus Merdae Fit