Categories
Philosophy Theology

The First Cause

Science finds explanations for how things work in the world. In other words, it finds causes. Each cause that is found leads to more questions because of the nature of the discovered cause is not self-explanatory. Let me illustrate with some examples.

The first example has to do with levels of explanation, which are represented by various scientific disciplines. If I want to understand how my body works, that is explained in terms of modern medicine and biology. If I want to understand why biology works the way it does, that is explained in terms of chemistry. If I want to understand the reason for the laws of chemistry, that is explained in terms of the laws of physics. So physics explains or causes the laws of chemistry, which causes the functions of biology, which explains the workings of the human body.

What is the cause of the laws of physics? While we may find more laws of physics that are more fundamental than what we currently understand, those laws will provoke more questions about why they are the way they are.

Another set of causes has to do with events. Why do I exist? The reason is because my parents conceived me. Why did they exist? The reason is their parents. We can theoretically trace a chain of causes back to the origin of life. Why and how did life begin? We don’t know right now, but we might figure that out someday, but any causes that science discovers for the origin of life would be some set of events that themselves require a cause. We can keep tracing these causes all the way back to the Big Bang. Why was there a Big Bang? Science might be able to someday determine a cause for the Big Bang, but where did that thing come from?

What do we do now? Do we say that there is an infinite regression of causes? Is it turtles all the way down? An infinite regression of causes is impossible because without a starting point, none of the causes can happen. To understand this, think about a hanging chandelier. What is holding up the chandelier? A link of chain. What is holding up the link of chain? It is a second link of chain. We can keep adding links of chain, but the chandelier will fall unless the chain is attached to something besides another chain link. We can add an infinite number of chain links, but eventually the chain must be attached to a different kind of thing that is capable of supporting the chandelier.

The causes that we can discover in our universe are like those links of chain. They are what philosophers call “contingent causes,” which mean that they are causes that come to be because of other causes. The existence of the cause is contingent on something causing its existence. To anchor this chain of causes, we need a first cause that is completely different in nature than all of the contingent causes. We need a being that is not contingent, and the term that philosophers use for this being is that it is a “necessary being.” By necessary, we mean that the nature of this being is such that it must exist. Since it must exist by nature, it does not require a cause, so that means it can be the first cause.

Such a necessary being is strange to think about because nothing in the universe is like it. It is radically different from everything else we know about, but we can reason some things about it.

First of all, this necessary being must be eternal. Since it is required to exist by its nature, it must have always existed and must continue to exist forever. There is no possibility for it not to exist. If it ever did not exist, then we would have to find a cause for how it came to exist, so it is no longer the first cause.

The second thing about this necessary being is that it cannot be made up of parts. If it was, then some other thing would be required to put it together, and now we are back to looking for more causes. Therefore, the necessary being must be simple, not composite.

The third thing about this necessary being is that it must be unchanging. It cannot develop over time because such development would require a cause, so it must be eternally perfect.

Another thing about this being is that it must be infinite in power and in scope since it is the cause of everything else.

Finally, the universe that we study is amazingly intricate and beautiful, with ordered behavior that can be described through sophisticated mathematics that can only be understood by the greatest minds of our race. It is reasonable to conclude that the cause of this universe is an even greater mind.

This reasoning is not new. The Greek philosopher Aristotle came up with similar reasoning to an unchanging first cause of everything. The medieval philosopher and theologian, Thomas Aquinas, applied Aristotle’s reasoning in a Christian context. Aquinas said that God was pure existence, and the source of all existence, but Aquinas was not the first in the Christian tradition to think of God that way. In a story that is at least 2500 year old of Moses encountering God in the burning bush, God gives Moses a mission to free the Israelite peole from slavery in Egypt. Moses is reluctant and keeps coming up with excuses why he can’t do it.

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the sons of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.'”

Exodus 3:13-14

The name that God gives for himself to Moses does not describe God as some kind of thing but as existence itself. The fundamental thing revealed about God in this passage is that he exists. This name of God gets repeated in an abbreviated form throughout the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, and the Jewish people so revered this name that they refused to pronounce it. In traditional English Bibles, this name is replaced with the Lord, but some modern translations try to render the name into English as Jehovah or Yahweh, leading some people to treat it as any kind of name like Zeus or Thor. I submit that such an understanding of God’s name misses the point of the passage.

I like to refer to this passage in Exodus because it shows that the idea of God as the foundation of existence is not some new idea invented to argue against modern atheism, but goes back to the foundations of Judaism and Christianity.

I do not claim that this post is a proof that the Christian God exists and is the creator of the universe, but I do claim that it is reasonable to conclude that there must be something that is completely different from all of the contingent things in the universe that is the first cause of everything else.

Categories
Philosophy Science

The Limits of Science

A popular saying today is “follow the science,” which implies that it is science that will show us the correct path in life, and a person is wise who follows its guidance. I believe that science is a very powerful tool that helps us understand many of the mechanisms of our universe, but I also maintain that there are many mysteries of life that science alone will never penetrate, and science alone is insufficient to provide the wisdom we need to live a good life.

The scope of science

Science is limited in its scope. It restricts itself to studying things that can be observed and measured. I am teaching some 6th grade boys how to program a computer and make a video game. I told them they could calculate the distance between two coordinates using the Pythagorean Theorem, and one of them said something about the power of math. I told them that math is very powerful and can tell you a lot of things, but there are some things it can’t tell you, such as if you like a particular girl. (You can imagine the reaction that got.)

Sure, science can do a study to measure various bodily reactions in subjects as they look at different pictures of women, but that is not the same thing as a particular young man deciding he likes a particular young woman. An amazing thing about the human person is that he can choose to not follow the physical impulses that can be measured in a lab, but to follow some higher motivation that is beyond the ability of science to detect.

Because science has made so many gains in the narrow scope in which it does work, many people have come to believe that it is only that scope that matters. The questions that science cannot answer are now judged as unimportant or even nonsensical. This is scientism, an ideology that science is the only means of knowledge, and anything science can’t tell us is not worth knowing. Scientism is not scientific, but is a philosophical assumption based on an ideological preference. Since philosophy is not science, scientism judges itself to be unimportant or nonsensical.

Love, beauty, truth, goodness, and justice are all very important ideas, and they are central to who we are as humans. Disciplines such as philosophy, art, literature, history, and theology are all important for a deep understanding of these ideas. Science alone cannot cut it, so those who only want to follow the science end up being shallow and foolish when it comes to what makes us human.

Science is done by humans

The scientific method is a rational process, but it is performed by humans who are not always rational. As unbiased as we try to be, we are affected by our assumptions and and beliefs. This is especially true when it comes to topics that are heavily political, such as climate change and the coronavirus. Even when the process is followed perfectly, humans decide what questions to study, how to set up the studies and experiments, which data is valid and which data is erroneous, and how to interpret the data. These decisions all involve human judgment that is not always impartial.

Today, the situation is worsened by the fact that more and more topics are being judged to be off-limits. Certain questions are considered to be too dangerous to even ask, and if someone gets the “wrong” answer, it could mean the end of his career. How can we trust that the professionals are “following the science” in such an intellectual atmosphere?

Science is generally inaccessible

It is possible for many people to replicate the experiments of the early days of science so that we can see for ourselves that these early scientific ideas are true. These experiments are done in science classrooms throughout the world. However, most of the cutting edge science that goes on today is conducted by highly-trained specialists using expensive equipment. There may be only one or two places in the world where the experiments can be conducted with only a handful of people with the expertise to really understand what they mean. The rest of the world must trust what these people do and say.

If someone tells me that I need to “follow the science”, it is very unlikely that he means that he himself has done the science, nor does he expect me to replicate the experiment. What he means is that I must believe what a particular scientific authority is saying. Often times there are other authorities that disagree with them. If I am to follow the science, which science must I choose? Usually it is more a matter of institutional power that is behind a particular idea rather than the science being indisputable. Such an appeal to authority has always been considered a weak argument because it is really not much of an argument at all. It just points to someone else and tells us to believe.

Even though scientific verification is not available to most of us, we all have access to logic and common sense. Although it is true that such common sense is not infallible, we don’t have to completely throw it out just because someone cites a study that says the contrary.

Conclusion

I am not advocating that we be “anti-science”, but I am advocating a healthy skepticism when someone quotes a scientific authority to make people believe something that they don’t think is right. This is especially true for Christians because we do have another, very important source of knowledge and wisdom, which is the Word of God that has been revealed to us. I believe that revelation from God, rightly understood, will never contradict good science because God created the universe that science studies. He knows how it works better than any of us ever will. The conflicts only come about from either bad theology, such as a simplistic view of creation, or from people abusing science to make it say something outside the discipline, such as the claim that belief in God is irrational. Learn from science, but learn more from God.