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DominicX's avatar

What is your take on the "first cause" argument?

Asked by DominicX (28338 points ) July 12th, 2012

I know we have a lot of atheists on Fluther and I’m curious to see what people have to say about the “first cause” argument for God’s existence.

The First Cause argument makes the following statements:

1. The universe is not infinite—it began to exist.
2. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
3. The universe had a cause.
4. The cause had to be something that always existed, i.e. God.

Of course the argument doesn’t say that the cause has to be God, but it does say that something had to cause the universe to exist and since the Big Bang itself was finite, it could not have been the “cause”.

Thoughts? Opinions? Musings?

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38 Answers

ETpro's avatar

My take is it’s a steaming load of BS. We do not know that 1 is true. We do not know that 2 is true. We do not know that 3 is true. And we don’t even know if the Universe always existed, or came suddenly into existence. The “first cause” argument is based on nothing but conjecture and an unsubstantiated assumption that what we currently perceive to be true has been as it is now throughout all time. It’s all based on human perceptions and observations made locally, and does not have any established validity when applied to all timespace.

bolwerk's avatar

It doesn’t seem remotely logical or defensible to me. It’s a series of unsupported assertions dressed up as an argument.

kess's avatar

The argument as stated is logical.

And it follows that the first cause must then be the cause of itself and must also be existence.

AdamF's avatar

1. The universe is not infinite—it began to exist.

I’m not a physicist, but from my understanding there are a heap of problems with this statement. First, something like our universe may occur in cycles. Second, our universe may be one of many. Third, the two aspects of the statement are disconnected. Not being infinite doesn’t equate with requiring a beginning. Fourth, as far as we know the universe continues to expand, and so is boundless (is that infinite or finite?), with the only restriction being time and rate. Fifth, any argument that can’t get out of the starting gate without making unsubstantiated childishly simplistic assumptions about something as complex as cosmology, is useless.

2. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

Requires clarification, but is built upon unusbstantiated claims (See above).

3. The universe had a cause.

Define “cause”. Gravity can “cause” a rockfall, it doesn’t require a hand, and furthermore, still groundless assertions (see above).

4. The cause had to be something that always existed, i.e. God.

Well, if that’s reasonable then so is, “The universe had to be something that always existed. ie god is redundant”. We can all make arugments built upon premises which assume the desired conclusion.

To cut to the chase. The whole argument starts with the preordained conclusion that god exists and works its way backwards, assuming whatever the author desires to keep their pet god. Underlying that is a “god of the gaps” argument. We don’t understand X. Ergo god. Great if one wishes to play silly buggers with logic, but not of much use for anything else.

ninjacolin's avatar

I’m with @ETpro on this one.
We don’t know whether 1,2,3 or 4 are true or not.

If they are true, then the conclusion may follow.. but as is, we don’t know whether or not they are true.

gorillapaws's avatar

I am not a physicist, but there are a few issues previously raised, namely that it’s possible the universe is infinite and cyclical, such that the most recent big-bang was preceded by an infinite cycle of expansion -> shrinking -> big bang -> expansion… etc. Another issue is that causation relies on time and sequence. From my lay-person understanding of theoretical physics, time is actually a very malleable thing, especially when affected by the tremendous forces, masses, etc of the conditions of the big-bang. It’s possible that our notion of causation may be inappropriately applied under such extreme circumstances, although I’m not certain about this point. There is certainly an unstated premise here that causation would behave the same way during the big bang as it does in how we generally understand it to work in normal circumstances, which may or may not be a valid statement.

CWOTUS's avatar

Regardless of various theological arguments in favor of one god (or some gods) over another (or others) and the logical traps that they attempt to set for those arguing against their version of god (or gods), I do frequently wonder, “Where did all of the stuff come from?”

Even if there is a god, I don’t believe that It can do magic and produce something from absolute nothing, so the question remains, “Even if a god shaped things in this way, where did the stuff all come from, anyway?”

ragingloli's avatar

It is nonsense.
1. We do not know that. We know that it once was a hyperdense singularity, but we do not know that this singularity has not existed for an eternity before it expanded. And then there is M-Theory’s 11 dimensional Hyperverse that could very well have existed forever.
2. We do not know that either.
3. See 2.
4. Special pleading. It invents an entity for which 1, 2 and 3 does not apply for no reason, and assumes that this entity is not only conscious, but also all powerful.

starsofeight's avatar

It is true enough that few of us know what is true, but, this is ‘our’ reality being discussed. Is it sufficient to off-handedly declare that we do not know that 1, 2, 3, & 4 are true? Truly, we do not know that our universe was once a super dense singularity. We must admit the insufficiency to be our own knowledge (or lack thereof). Also, the people and theories some of you are fond of falling back on are, in themselves, just as insufficient.

The issue of our universe goes back as far as ‘something’ and ‘nothing’. That is reflected in the present discussion—‘not knowing versus knowing’. What do we do when we do not know? We take it upon ourselves to know. The real question is this this: what would it take for any of you to really know?

Obviously, a person may find a place to plant one’s feet, and simply take a guess. Make an assumption, go ahead; its alright. Make comparisons—that is how our awareness expands from nothing to something. Here is a guess from me—just a place to start, just a simple comparison. The universe is a cyst. Matter has erupted into an expanding sack of time which will, itself, soon burst.

So what if we don’t know! It would be really cool for us to sit around and brainstorm (make assumptions) until are ignorance erupted into knowledge.

digitalimpression's avatar

Whenever you throw the concept of infinity into the equation, nothing is certain. So, as a rational, thinking person (even though I do believe in God), I would not call the first cause argument legitimate.

gailcalled's avatar

@fundevogel: I thought that the turtles stood on an elephant. No?

Bill1939's avatar

The current estimate for the size of the universe is 93,000,000,000 metric light years. Our part of the universe may be expanding, but who is to say that other parts are not contracting. Like an undulating bowl of jelly, the kinetic energy on one side will eventually reach the other, but it will take more time than the creation of our galaxy took.

Given that particles and energy appear to be in a constant state of flux, how likely is it that the constituents that initiated our present physical, spatial and temporal conditions have remained the same? How would you define the where and when a beginning began, much less determine a time and place? At the human scale, for all intent and purpose the notion of a beginning is meaningless.

All things known have been shown to have a beginning and an end. It may not be possible for to imagine an existence that transcends causality, other than God, and even if the cosmos has no beginning, this would not exclude the possibility of God’s existence since most believers presume that God is everywhere, every when and in every thing.

whitenoise's avatar

As my boys asked me…

So where did this god come from, then?

Keep_on_running's avatar

I don’t understand how replacing one cause with another answers the question of why we exist…

fundevogel's avatar

@gailcalled I think it depends on who you talk to. Though the principle stands regardless of if the footing in question is elephantine or chelonian.

fundevogel's avatar

@Bill1939 “Our part of the universe may be expanding, but who is to say that other parts are not contracting. Like an undulating bowl of jelly, the kinetic energy on one side will eventually reach the other, but it will take more time than the creation of our galaxy took.”

I’m no expert, but I think I remember Stephen Hawking dismissing the possibility that our universe would ever stop start contracting in The Grand Design. His argument was that gravitation forces weaken as distance increases so the gravitational force at the center of the universe has less and less pull over the rest of the universe as it expands around it. It was his position that the universe would probably expand in perpetuity.

flutherother's avatar

I think this is the Watchmaker Argument that David Hume discussed in depth over 200 years ago.

Bill1939's avatar

@whitenoise: That’s the thing about a god/goddess or other transcendent being. They have always been.

@Keep_on_running: I thought the question was concerning the cause of the universe, and not “why we exist…”

@fundevogel: I recall something similar. However, that may have been before the notion of dark matter and dark energy entered the cosmological picture. The accelerating rate of expansion of the universe is currently said to be the product of dark matter, and not that of gravity diminishing with increasing distance.

Given that next to nothing is known about dark matter, and there is doubt that it is evenly distributed (some scientists suspecting it is absent in our solar system), it could be flowing into and out of galaxies like a cosmic honey pushing and pulling in different places.

Lastly, I am not sure that we have a good idea about where the center of the universe is. As vast as it may be, we could be far from it, and what looks like the center might be a local swirl or eddy in the cosmos.

fundevogel's avatar

@Bill1939 Interesting, I can’t reminder how or if dark matter figured into that model.

gorillapaws's avatar

@flutherother the watchmaker argument, more formally known as the Teleological argument is seen as a distinct argument from the Cosmological argument in philosophy.

flutherother's avatar

In my mind it boils down to this single question: why is there something rather than nothing? And this question could be asked of God as well as the Universe.

gorillapaws's avatar

@flutherother It is true that all of the classic arguments for the existence of God are attempts to prove the same thing, they use different avenues of logical reasoning to do so, which is why they are analysed separately based on their individual logical merit (or lack thereof). See also the Ontological argument as another logical approach.

SavoirFaire's avatar

Short version:

There are very good reasons to reject the first premise, which takes the third premise with it. The second premise is plausible and generally accepted, but not without problems of its own. All of this ultimately irrelevant, however, because the argument is invalid. The conclusion does not follow from the premises even if we accept them all as true.


Long version:

As a bit of philosophical history, it’s worth noting that this argument was originally the second part of Aquinas’ Five Ways argument (in which he presents five arguments in favor of the existence of God). In all likelihood, Aquinas himself did not think that this argument proved anything on its own. The most plausible and charitable interpretations of Aquinas of which I am aware propose that he thought it was only when all five arguments were taken together that they formed a proof of God’s existence.

As already noted by @gorillapaws, the Second Way is known as the cosmological argument when taken as a separate entity and is distinct from the teleological and cosmological arguments. The cosmological argument posits God as the only possible explanation for why there is a universe at all, whereas the teleological argument says that God is the best explanation for the apparent order we see in the universe and the ontological argument says that the existence of God is logically necessary.

As for the cosmological argument itself, then, there are many problems (some of which have already been noted).

1. The universe is not infinite—it began to exist.

First, we need to clarify what this premise means. The claim here is that the universe has not existed for an infinite amount of time. It is not a claim about the universe’s size. So the premise could be usefully restated as “the universe has not always existed—at some point it came into being.”

This, as it turns out, might not be true. At the very least, we need not accept it as a given. While the Big Bang is the prevailing model of cosmology in science, that theory does not necessarily entail that the universe began to exist in the sense needed for this premise to be true. As such, the premise is open to rejection.

2. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

This premise is most likely true, and I think most people would accept it outside of an argument for the existence of God. If something began, it stands to reason that it had conditions for beginning and not already existing. There are hypotheses of quantum mechanics that contradict the claim, however, so maybe it will turn out not to be true (as surprising as that might be). But the mere possibility that it might be false isn’t really grounds for rejecting the premise. As such, we might at least grant this premise for the sake of argument (pending further investigation).

3. The universe had a cause.

This premise is a sub-conclusion and rests on our accepting both the first and second premises. Even if we accept the second premise for one reason or another, then, the reasons for rejecting the first premise are sufficient for rejecting the third as well.

4. The cause had to be something that always existed, i.e. God.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the argument is that this conclusion simply does not follow from the premises. Assume that all three premises are true: the universe would have to have a cause, but that cause could itself be something that came into existence (cf. theories that hypothesize that universes are born from the black holes of other universes).

In Aquinas’ original argument, this objection is parried by an argument about the (putative) impossibility of infinite regresses. The black hole theory was not around in Aquinas’ time, of course, but that’s the mark of a great philosopher—thinking of replies to objections before the objections even exist. Given his argument about infinite regresses, then, Aquinas could argue as follows: even if our universe was born from the black hole of another universe, that universe had to come from somewhere until eventually something had to be created outright.

There are reasons for doubting that conclusion, but we can leave them all aside. As before, let us assume that all three premises are true. Let us further assume that the infinite regress argument is true. At best, all this would mean is that the universe was caused by something that has always existed. It does not prove that this thing is God. Eternal existence might be a necessary condition for God’s existence (that is, anything that does not exist eternally does not count as God), it is not a sufficient condition for God’s existence (that is, it takes more than merely existing eternally to be God; said another way, God has more properties than eternal existence).

Consider: would any of the Abrahamic religions consider their views to be vindicated if it could be proven that the universe had a cause that existed eternally but was not omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent? The answer is clearly “no.” It takes more to prove the existence of God than proving the existence of an eternally existing cause of the universe. Thus the argument is defeated on two levels: first, there is reason to reject at least two of the premises (and maybe all three); second, the conclusion would not follow from the premises even if were to accept all three premises. Therefore, the cosmological argument—or at least, this version of it—does not prove the existence of God.

It is important to remember, however, that refuting an argument is not the same as refuting it’s conclusion. God could still exist even if the cosmological argument fails to prove His existence.

gorillapaws's avatar

@SavoirFaire This may be slightly off topic, but I think it naturally follows from the analysis of the cosmological argument the OP has asked about. I once posited an argument for the existence of God that is a bit of a hybrid of the Cosmological and the Teleological arguments for God. I suspect it probably fails, but I’d be interested in hearing your analysis. The basic idea is something like:

1. The universe has both observable laws (such as the laws of physics) and a priori laws such as the Laws of Thought and the laws of mathematics.

2. All Laws require some kind of intelligent “law maker”

3. There cannot be an infinite regression of laws (even if it’s show that some laws can cause other laws), because such a regression must yet obey other laws.

4. There must at some point be a core law, or core set of laws that cannot be further regressed.

5. Therefore there must be an original law maker.

Premise 2 is obviously a sticking point, but it is an interesting thought experiment to think how the laws of thought and of physics and math could have come to be without a “first causer.”

Keep_on_running's avatar

@Bill1939 I thought the question was concerning the cause of the universe, and not “why we exist…”

By “why we exist” I mean, why everything exists. Saying god created it doesn’t explain anything at all. It just leads to more questions, doesn’t it? (Most obviously – who created god?) Why is god exempt from all the questioning? That’s why the whole first cause argument is bullshit.

AdamF's avatar

@gorillapaws It’s circular (as you seem to suspect) because premise 2 at least indirectly assumes that the conclusion is true, and thereby cannot constitute evidence for that same conclusion.

All we know is that we can describe the universe using constructs/laws which in the best cases enable us to predict remarkably well what is going to happen in nature, or seem to account for how aspects of the universe came to be the way it is.

The fact that all such laws written by us required us to write them is a truism that has no bearing on why the universe exists or functions the way it does. We cannot extrapolate from the fact that a conscious being like us can describe the universe using “laws”, to the conclusion that therefore the existence and function of the universe itself similarly requires authorship for its existence. It’s the ultimate non sequitur.

All adding god to the equation does is sweep our ignorance under a mythological carpet, thereby solving nada.

ragingloli's avatar

@gorillapaws
You are right, point 2 is where it falls apart. You are conflating natural “laws”, which are actually just observed repeating patterns of how things appear to work in observed reality, with laws that are rules which are created by humans for humans. The use of the word “law” for observed natural patterns is purely metaphorical, not an accurate description or definition of the nature of these patterns (the same with the use of ‘information’ for DNA. Humans seem to lack an interesting lack of creatitivity of inventing new words for things, they mix and match from already existing words that have an originally quite different meaning). It is comparable to the watchmaker phallusy fallacy, where complex things that occur naturally are assumed to be ‘designed’, based purely on the circumstance that everything that has been designed by humans has been designed by humans.

gorillapaws's avatar

The point is that these laws did exist prior to humans formalizing them with language. And some exist independent of physical experience, such as the “a priori” laws of thought, and mathematics. In other words, they don’t require humanity to exist. I agree that this is a God-of-the-gaps style argument, and I do appreciate the counter-points raised. But it does beg the question where did the physical laws come from that governed the behavior of the big bang? Clearly they had to have preceded the big bang in order for it to have happend in the manner that it did, right?

I should also add that premise 2 is really more of a truncation of the classic watchmaker argument, that could have been laid out more formally with regards to the laws of nature instead of describing things in nature.

AdamF's avatar

“But it does beg the question where did the physical laws come from that governed the behavior of the big bang?”

No idea. My solution to all this pondering comes in two parts. First, I accept that “I don’t know” is the best answer in the face of ignorance. Second, going on the past record, if we are to continue understanding more of the underlying turtles, we’ll continue to do so via science.

gorillapaws's avatar

@AdamF I don’t disagree with the value of science for solving some of these issues, philosophy too can be a very useful tool for reasoning about these issues.

AdamF's avatar

@gorillapaws Agreed. I see philosophy as helping us think about how we think, with the hard answers then provided by the tool of science.

ragingloli's avatar

@gorillapaws
“The point is that these laws did exist prior to humans formalizing them with language.”
So did “information” in DNA before humans, that does not mean that DNA had to be designed by a mind, because the term “information” applied to DNA is metaphorical, an approximation of the effect of things unravelling from it based on DNA’s purely material properties and resulting physical interactions between molecules on an atomic and subatomic level.
In the same way, the so called natural “laws” describe the microscopic and macroscopic effects of interactions between particles based purely on their material properties, not because some outside will forces them to do so.
And because of that, the “laws” of physics did not have to exist prior to the big bang, as all those particles formed together with their material properties at the point of the big bang, and the values of these properties and the resulting “laws” of observable behaviour during particle interactions are by no means required to have ended up the way they did.
“And some exist independent of physical experience, such as the “a priori” laws of thought, and mathematics.”
In this universe, and I posit that the reliability and “truth” of these “laws”, are also dependent on the physical properties and the resulting interactions of this universe, as these “laws”, or rather models of observed reality, also were formed by human brains (which also are slaves to physicality and evolved according to environmental pressures), based on observation of how things appear to work in this universe.
There could be universes out there in which our mathematics and logic would be nonsensical to its inhabitants, and even if they are the same in all possible universes, they still are not laws in the human judicial sense, but observations of patterns of activity, and since they are not equivalent in any actual way, they could very well be just be the way they are because that is the way they are.

gorillapaws's avatar

@ragingloli I’m having a hard time envisioning a universe where the law of non-contradicition could be violated, as an example. I appreciate your thoughtful analysis. I suspect we are viewing these concepts using a different metaphysical ontologies. I see (at the very least the a priori laws) as being universal across all possible universes. Maybe this is a limitation of my brain existing in this universe, but it seems rather strange to picture a universe where p and not p can both be true at the same time, hell in such a universe god and not god could also be true.

ragingloli's avatar

“but it seems rather strange to picture a universe where p and not p can both be true at the same time.”
One simply can not discount that possibility. One must always remember that the one thinking about this, is using a brain that operates according to the “laws” of physics of its universe and evolved in an evironment that operates according to the same “laws”, and has therefore hard limits.
Try imagining in your mind the mass of the sun warping spacetime without resorting to the popular “rubbersheet”-model, that means, try imagining it in full 3D. I guarantee you will have problems with that, and that is an event that is happening in this universe all the time.

gorillapaws's avatar

@ragingloli that smells like a non sequitor to me. Something like:

1. The law on non-contradiction is axiomatic
2. Axiomatic laws are a product of the human mind
3. The human mind has limits like not being able to mentally comprehend certain physical phenomena
4. Therefore P and not P.

ragingloli's avatar

@gorillapaws
“4. Therefore P and not P.”
Not what I am saying. It could very well be that the law of non-contradiction is absolute across all possible universes. What I am saying is that the human brain is not necessarily capable of determining that.

fundevogel's avatar

Excellent comments @ragingloli. It reminds me of an old xkcd. People applying more and more specialized extrapolation to the conditions of the world in an attempt to come up with a concept of it that we can fit into our brains.

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