by Charles Johnson
August 15, 2000
Last revised 27 June 2000
The Argument from First Cause, also known as the cosmological argument for God, has been one of the most frequent defenses of the rationality of theism throughout its long history. Cosmological arguments have been proposed by some of history's greatest intellects, including Saint Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. In essence, it states:
All events have a cause, and the world as we know it is comprised of events. Everything that we observe is an effect of some previous cause. Since there cannot be an infinite regress of events, there must be some Uncaused Cause outside of the world, that is, a God.
The problems with this argument are manifold. Some, drawing from some interpretations of Quantum Mechanics or from Human skepticism on cause and effect, may deny the iron law that all events must have a cause. Some also question the premise that an infinite regress of events cannot exist. However, since physical evidence currently seems to indicate a Universe with a definite beginning point, and universal causality is central to most notions of science and reasoning, it may be beneficial to grant the premises and examine the conclusions that the Cosmological Argument claims to draw from them. Further considerations on the issue of infinite regress can be found in my discussion of William Lane Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument.
One way to circumvent the dilemma between infinite regress or a divine First Cause is to adopt an "oscillating" model of the Universe, which has at times received the support of Stephen Hawking, one of the foremost minds in modern cosmology. In this model, time is envisioned as circular, with the Universe undergoing an eternal cycle of Big Bangs and Big Crunches, where the collapsed Universe expands into another. Equations have been developed which can reconcile such a cyclical view with modern inflationary models of early Universe history. The primary factor in determining whether such models of the Universe's geometry are true is the total amount of mass in the Universe; the amount of known mass is safely within the realm of an open Universe, but dark matter may account for the "missing mass."
The logical implications of asserting that the Universe must have an explanatory entity are also theologically troublesome: the belligerent atheist can respond by asking why the Universe needs a Cause but God doesn't. While at first such a question seems insipid due to the conception of eternal God, it is quite important in the context of the Universe: for no apparent reason, the Universe is assumed to not be self-sufficient, while God is assumed to be so, which simply shifts the locus of the Uncaused Cause rather than resolving it. Thus, such a superficially trivial question in fact forges an important argument by analogy; the atheist is as justified in demanding, "What caused God?" as the theist is in demanding, "What caused the Universe?"
Even if we were to grant the theist's argument for an external Uncaused Cause, her conclusion that such a being is necessarily a conscious God in the Christian sense of the word is a non sequitur. This hypothetical explanation for the Universe could be any number of things which we would not call a god (indeed, Aristotle's metaphysical primary only loosely qualifies as one)--the Cause could just as easily be the Tao or other transcendental, unconscious forces.
The most critical flaw in the cosmological argument, however, lies in its faulty understanding of time and causality. Modern physics suggests that the beginning of time was part and parcel of the beginning of the Universe. Our concepts of events and causality require time as a frame of reference: events only occur within time, and causality links events within time. By definition the beginning of time - and therefore the beginning of the Universe as well - can have no cause in the traditional sense. The Universe did not non-exist for a period of time and then suddenly wink into existence; at the moment of the Big Bang, the Universe simply was, and time only existed after that moment. The ultimate cause cannot be traced back further because there is no frame of reference in which to trace.