Whenever I argue from the existence of the universe to the existence of God (what is called the cosmological argument) I almost always hear this objection from skeptics: “If everything needs a cause, then what caused God?”
The objection is supposed to show that any divine explanation for the universe requires an explanation for itself, thus making it useless as a proof for God. The flip side of that objection is the claim that if God doesn’t need a cause for his existence, we can’t say that the universe does.
But this objection only reveals a common misinterpretation of the cosmological argument for the existence of God.
No competent theistic philosopher would ever say, “Everything needs a cause, and the universe is a thing, therefore the universe needs a cause and that cause is God.” If “everything needs a cause” then it does make sense to ask what caused God. But cosmological arguments for the existence of God do not make this claim. Instead, they contain premises like these:
- “Whatever begins to exist requires a cause”
- “Whatever can fail to exist requires a reason for its existence”
- “Whatever can change requires something else to cause it to change”
Since none of these statements claim that everything has a cause, none of them imply that God must have a cause. The God of classical theism never began to exist, cannot fail to exist, and (as St. Thomas Aquinas shows us) does not change but instead exists instead as pure actuality that changes all other things.
But there is a bigger problem with this objection: the intuition behind the objection actually supports the existence of God as the ultimate cause of all things.
When you ask, “What caused this?” you naturally progress up the causal chain until you are left with only two options: a causal chain that is infinite or a chain that terminates with a final, “uncaused” cause. This is true both for temporal causal chains and hierarchical causal chains.
A temporal causal chain is like a series of dominoes—the reason the dominoes fall is either because there is an infinite number of dominoes each being toppled by the one before it, or because something that is not a domino causes all the others to fall (for example, a person’s finger). When it comes to the universe, either there is an infinite series of past events (dominoes) or the universe began to exist from nothing and has a cause that is not the universe itself (a finger). This temporal chain of causes either consists of an infinite past or goes back to a first moment of time.
A hierarchical causal chain is like a chain holding up a chandelier. Each kink in the chain can hold the link below it only because a link above it is holding it. Notice that, unlike the dominoes, all the links are being “caused” to act on each other at the same time. You could throw away a domino after it fell and the rest would keep falling, but if you got rid of any link in the chandelier chain, the whole thing would come crashing down.
When it comes to the universe, this hierarchical chain either consists of an infinite regression of fundamental elements of reality supporting each other (links) or just one final element that simply “is” and is not explained by anything else.
So when both believers and atheists ask questions such as, “Where did the universe come from?” or “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, they both start to climb up this causal chain. The question is: where will they stop?
Believers think that these causal chains can only be explained with a final cause such as God that has no cause himself. If the universe had a beginning, only God could bring this physical reality into existence from nothing. Similarly, if the universe could fail to exist, only God could be the reason it does exist, because God just is “existence” or unlimited being itself.
I think many atheists who ask, “What caused God?” think God is too neat and tidy of an explanation for the universe. They might ask, “If something as big as the universe needs a cause, then why doesn’t something even bigger, like God, also require a cause?” But this objection also cuts against any place an atheist might choose to stop in his own causal explanation of the universe. I often wonder why atheists usually never ask:
- If the Big Bang caused everything, then what caused the Big Bang?
- If the multiverse caused everything, then what caused the multiverse?
- If everything exists because of string theory, then why is the universe composed of strings instead of something else, like quarks or other subatomic particles?
If an atheist says, “Maybe the Big Bang or the multiverse doesn’t need a cause,” his “what caused God objection” evaporates. We are now in a place to discuss the nature of the final “uncaused cause” of the universe and see if it is something temporal, material, and contingent, like a Big Bang singularity or multiverse, or if it is timeless, immaterial, and necessary—which are attributes that belong only to God.
Even if an atheist says, “We have no idea what the ultimate uncaused cause of the universe is,” we can always ask questions that exhaust possibilities in order to narrow down the possible candidates. For example, we might say, “Whatever the cause is, it must be material or immaterial, right? What do you think makes more sense: a material thing creating all of space and time or an immaterial thing? Could a material thing create something like space when it has to reside in pre-existing space in order to exist?”
On the other hand, if an atheist denies there can ever be some final or ultimate cause of the universe, then he must explain the absurdities that come with an infinite regression of causes. Reginald Garrigou LaGrange put it this way, “To do away with a supreme cause is to claim that, as someone has said, ‘A brush will paint by itself provided it has a very long handle.’”
Indeed, in my 2016 debate with atheist Raphael Lataster, his only response to my argument from the impossibility of an infinite past was to quote the non-religious philosopher Graham Oppy and say, “We should just embrace the absurdity of the infinite”!
When God is shown to be the ultimate explanation of the universe and a person asks, “What caused God?”, that is on par with showing that a locomotive is the explanation for the motion of boxcars and someone asking, “Yes, but what’s pulling the locomotive?”
Just as a boxcar’s motion can be explained only by something that is not itself a boxcar, the universe’s existence (including its beginning and motion within it) can be explained only by something that it not itself the universe. If an atheist sees that infinite regression is a bad explanation, then he needs a final cause to make the causal chain finite in length, a cause that by its very nature makes no sense to ask what caused it.
The question now isn’t, “What caused God?” but “What is this cause?” and “Is it God?”
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