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.