Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What Caused God?

Posted by Peter Payne

Many people use as an argument for belief the creation of the universe. This is called the “first cause” argument: if the universe had a beginning (ie, the Big Bang,) then the cause of the Big Bang must be something that transcends the physical universe. Coupled with the apparent fine-tuning of the natural laws which make life possible and the claim that it would take a super-intelligent Being to so arrange natural law, this argument designates “God” as the transcendent cause of the universe.

There are objections to this position. As Bertrand Russell puts it, “If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.” And, “if there can be anything without a cause, then it might just as well be the world as God.” To fail to seek a cause for God is to abandon the premise that everything must have a cause.

Furthermore, if one allows that God is an exception to the rule, then why not simply stop with the universe and suppose that the universe came into being without a cause? Alternatively, why not suppose that the universe has always existed? “The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination,” Russell says. His conclusion is that “there cannot be any validity to the argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, ‘How about the tortoise?’ the Indian said, ‘Suppose we change the subject.’ The argument is really no better than that.” It should be said in response to Russell that when he wrote this essay in 1927, the big bang theory had not yet arisen.

This, of course, does not address the “fallacy” that Russell said is committed by the first-cause argument: the apparent conflict between the principle that “everything must have a cause” and allowing that God be uncaused. To see what is wrong with Russell’s claim, let’s alter the Indian tale. Suppose that upon being asked, “What about the tortoise?” the response had been, “The world rests on the back of an elephant, and the elephant on the back of a tortoise, but all three rest in infinite space.” If this had been the reply, it would clearly block the further question, “But what does infinite space rest on?” Were such a question asked, the Indian master would rightly have replied, “Your question reveals that you do not understand the concept of infinite space.”

At this point, it might be objected that God is not infinite space. This is, of course, true, but God is in some respects more like infinite space than like any finite thing. God is not some sort of cosmic superman, like other beings yet with super strength and abilities. Rather, God is completely unique. His power is literally without limit. He is not limited by space, or time, or anything else in creation. Although we refer to God as “a being,” there is an important sense in which it is inappropriate to think of God as a being, one more being amongst the many that exist.

The being of God, God’s nature, is reflected in some ways in what God has created, but God is categorically distinct from all that he has created. We can relate to God, and we speak of God as the object of our worship, but God is not an object or an entity in the sense that all finite things are. The theologian Paul Tillich aptly expressed this by stating that God is “the ground of our being” – not another being, but the source of all being; not a thing; but the creator of all things.

Coming back to Russell, when Russell says, “If everything has a cause, then God must have a cause,” he is taking “everything” to mean all that is real. God is real, but one must ask whether God is the sort of being which one should expect to fall under the principle “everything has cause.” Every thing may have a cause, but is God a thing in the sense which this dictum supposes?

To illustrate the caution here, consider the reality of mathematical truths. The metaphysical status of mathematical entities is a difficult issue, but suppose one were to say that mathematical entities are real, should one therefore expect that they are caused? It would be rather odd to suppose that they must be caused. Mathematical entities are not at all like physical entities. Experience tells us that physical entities are caused and their existence seems to depend in an obvious way on prior states of affairs. But mathematical entities, if they exist, do not seem to have this same sort of contingent status. Now, this in itself does not demonstrate that it is utterly impossible for mathematical entities to have been caused—God might in some sense cause or sustain the existence of mathematical

entities—but at minimum it would seem quite unwarranted to suppose that mathematical entities must have a cause.

In a similar way, it may or may not be logically coherent to ask whether something could have caused God. Whether or not such a question is logically coherent depends on how the concept of God gets defined. But at minimum it would be unwarranted to assume that God must have a cause. Given that God is infinite and has the character described above, there is good reason for suspecting that the principle “everything has a cause” ought not to be applied to God.

Does this mean that the first-cause argument is a compelling argument? Not necessarily. Yet, its weakness does not lie in the sort of fallacy that Russell says it commits. The question “What caused God?” may or may not be intelligible, but there is good reason for suspecting that someone who takes this as a serious objection to the first-cause argument, either does not comprehend the concept of God or is not taking the concept seriously when the question is asked.

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