Why There Was No ‘First Cause’

All three of the ‘great’ monotheistic religions---Judaism, Christianity, and Islam---postulate the existence of, and the supposed need for, a so-called ‘first cause,’ God being that ‘first cause.’ God---who supposedly ‘is because He is’ (cf Ex 3:14)---is said to be the ultimate ‘necessary’ Being on whom or on which everything else depends for its existence. After all, the theist exclaims, is it not the case that whatever cannot account for its own existence must depend on something which can? That ‘something’ is said to be God.

One of the many problems with the assertion that God was the first cause is the problem of infinite regress. If God made everything, who ‘made’ God? (There is a problem as well with that word ‘made,’ which presupposes a ‘maker.’ Ditto words such as 'creator' and 'designer.') The theist will reply, ‘No, I am not saying that everything which exists must have been made by someone. I am saying that there must be something which is not made.’ Why 'must' there be? There are no ‘musts’ when deling with things of this kind. I repeat---there are no 'musts.' In any event, with a word like ‘made,’ it is simply impossible to conceive of something ‘unmade.’ It is unintelligible. It is unspeakable. It is contrary to the order and rules of sensible discourse. True, it is the case that everything in the world is limited and dependent. However, it does not necessarily follow---indeed, it does not logically follow at all---from the fact that everything in the world is limited and dependent that everything is ‘made,’ nor that there must be someone or something who is 'not made' or is 'unmade,' whatever that means.

Now, one fairly common argument for the supposed need for a creator (the so-called 'cosmological argument') goes along these lines:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The use in the first premise of the words ‘whatever begins to exist’ (as opposed to ‘whatever exists’) is a self-serving and preemptive attempt on the part of the theist to avoid infinite regress and also provide supposed support for the assertion (actually, an assumption) that the supposed first cause was either self-caused or uncaused.

In any event, the argument commits the fallacy of equivocation. What that means is that the word ‘cause’ is used in a different sense in the first premise, ‘Whatever begins to exist has a cause,’ than it is in the conclusion, ‘The universe has a cause.’ In the case of the first premise, the word 'cause' is used in the sense of scientific cause and effect (that is, whatever is the reason for something else existing), whereas in the conclusion the word 'cause' is used in a metaphysical sense (a proposition of supernatural theology). In any event the argument fails to support the thesis that God exists or is the cause of the universe's beginning to exist.

Additionally, the argument fails to support the thesis that the God of traditional theism exists or that that God is the cause of the so-called universe's beginning to exist. Even if the universe (assuming for the moment there is such a ‘thing’) had a cause---and the preponderance of scientific evidence is to the contrary---we have no reason to believe that the cause is the God of traditional theism, or the God of the Bible or the Qur’an. We have no reason to conclude that this ‘creator thing’ has any of the properties that the God of traditional theism supposedly has. All we have reason to assert is that the supposed cause is slightly more powerful than its effects. We have no reason to assert that this supposed cause is omniscient, and no reason to believe that it is omnibenevolent, and no reason to believe that it is omnipotent.

Here’s another problem. Both premises in the theist's argument set out above are based on assumptions that there had to be a beginning, that is, that the universe itself is not eternal. This makes both premises probabilistic at best. That means that the conclusion, that the universe had a cause, is also probablistic--at best. The truth is the proposition that whatever has a beginning to its existence must have a cause is not a self-evident truth nor can it be deduced from any other self-evident truth. (A principle is self-evident if and only if everyone who properly understands the principle is justified in believing it.) All of our observations of causation relate to pre-existing things changing from one state to another; we have no consciousness or experience at all of things coming into existence. In any event, the whole reasoning process in the argument is inductive as opposed to deductive. I am not finished. The argument is further flawed in that it assumes--yes, assumes--that God is an uncaused cause. An uncaused cause? That's an oxymoron if ever there was one.

Now, there are certainly states of interdependence throughout the universe. That much is clear simply from observation or perception alone. The Vietnamese monk and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh uses the expression ‘InterBeing’ to refer to this state and process of interdependence, that is, the interdependent relational nature of things. Hanh, in his book Zen Keys, gives the example of a table. We recognise its existence ‘only when the interdependent conditions, upon which its presence is grounded, converge.’ Certain interdependent conditions or factors---for example, the wood, the saw, the nails, the carpenter, and so forth---come together, that is, converge, to produce the table. Some of those factors are more directly connected with the existence of the table than others, the latter being more indirectly connected. Nevertheless, all are ‘necessary’ to bring the table into ‘concrete’ existence. In a sense, the table existed ‘before being there’---at least in potentiality. Of course, we are unable to recognise its existence before all the above mentioned conditions are brought together.

However, let’s get some things perfectly clear. First, everything is not present to everything else in ‘one vast instantaneous co-implicated completeness’ (to use words penned by William James). There are interrelationships throughout nature, but there are also innumerable cross-currents and conflicting forces. What we find are partial unities but there is no one, vast, overarching total unity of all things. Not at all. There is no one system, completely unified, that unites all the subsystems. Secondly, a single ‘logic’ applies to all things, for all things exist in the same ‘level’ or plane of existence and observability. Thirdly, everything has some relations with some other things; that is to say, there is no entity which is independent of all other entities. Each 'thing' is a cause of at least one other 'thing' as well as being the effect of some other 'thing,' so every thing is explainable by reference to one or more other things.

What flows from the above is this---there is no such thing as the 'universe.' The word 'universe' is just that - a word. It simply means the sum 'total' of all there is. Now, there is no such thing as a ‘totality.’ The word ‘totality’ is just that---a word we use to refer to ‘thing’ A + ‘thing’ B + ‘thing’ C + ‘thing’ D + … ad infinitum. Thing A is real. It exists. So do all the other things. But the so-called totality---it is not a thing in itself at all. It’s just a word. It follows logically from all that I have said thus far that there is no such thing in itself as the universe. Again, it’s just a word we use to describe the purported totality of all things, that is, the sum 'total' of all there is. However, what we refer to as the totality of all things is that is known as a 'closed system.' Each 'thing' is a cause of at least one other 'thing' as well as being the effect of some other 'thing,' so everything is explainable by reference to everything else. In any event, the universe is not a thing. It is the set of all things, and a set cannot be a member of itself, so a conclusion about things in the universe is not necessarily valid for the universe itself. The bottom line is this---if there be no one ‘thing’ as such as the universe, then the statement that the universe must have had a cause is meaningless and ontologically redundant.

At any rate, the theist's argument that everything had a cause and that God, who did not have a cause, was the ‘first cause’ (itself an unjustified special pleading) is self-contradictory. The major premise of the argument, ‘everything has a cause’, is contradicted by the conclusion that ‘God did not have a cause’. You cannot have it both ways. If everything has a cause, then there could not be a first cause. In addition, if it is possible to think of God as uncaused, then it is possible---indeed, much more logical--- to think the same of the universe itself. You see, if one is willing to think that God is uncaused or self-caused--that is the assumption (yes, assumption) in the theist's argument set out above--why not, as Charles Darwin pointed out, think of the universe itself in such terms, that is, as an uncaused cause? It makes a lot more sense. It is not self-evident or intuitively obvious that the universe was ‘caused.’ However, there are many eminent philosophers and cosmologists who hold the view that it was not only possible but actual that our universe began to exist without a cause, that is, that the universe was self-created ex nihilo ('out of nothing').

Here's another problem. In order for some occurrence to take place there must be a cause, and the cause itself must be existent. That cause will also be an effect of a preceding cause. Why? Well, if the cause is not itself an effect of some preceding cause it will lack the potential or capacity to be efficacious. So, every cause is the effect of one or more other causes. The bottom line is that it is impossible for there to be an uncaused cause. Now, if there was a first cause that cause would be unique in purportedly being the only efficacious cause that does not itself require a preceding cause. In short, the idea of a ‘first cause,’ itself being uncaused, and which supposedly does not itself need a cause, is illogical. The theist's assertion that there must--note that word 'must' (for there are no such 'musts')--have been an original 'uncaused [first] cause' as the supposed source of existence, and of the universe, for otherwise there would be an infinite regress, is both fallacious and redundant. To assert that there ‘must’ have been such a cause, and a single cause in the form of a being other than some existing thing--for to speak of God as an 'existing being' inevitably raises the question, 'Who created God?'--is just another example of theistic special pleading.

The notion of God as a 'necessary being [Being]', the supposed first efficient uncaused cause--all other things being said to be contingent--is also unacceptable in logic. The word 'necessary' when used in logic can only properly apply to analytic propositions, that is, propositions such as are self-contradictory to deny (because they are true by either reciprocity or inclusion), and not to things. The theist's assertion--actually, the so-called argument from contingency--that God is a or the, necessary Being because God is a being that must--there's that word 'must' again--and cannot not exist is again nothing but a priori special pleading. The Bible itself falls into this trap when in the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) it refers to God as the One who 'is because He is' (cf Ex 3:14). It is simply not the case that God's supposed existence needs no further explanation, nor is it a case that God cannot be conceived of as not existing.

Another problem with the theist's argument set out above is that it assumes--there's that word 'assumes' again--that the universe (that is, the totality of all things) could not have emerged by naturalistic, as opposed to supernaturalistic, means.

In short, all theological talk of the supposed need for some 'first cause' is ... well, nonsense! As the Scottish-born Australian philosopher John Anderson pointed out, 'there can be no contrivance of a "universe" or totality of things, because the contriver would have to be included in the totality of things.' In any event, the entire notion of a supposed 'Being' - the 'contriver' - whose essential attributes [eg omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience] are non-empirical is unintelligible. Further, why would a supposedly supernatural and absolute 'contriver' bother to 'create' a natural universe, assuming for the moment it was created? Then there's the difficulty of coming to the grips with the notion of a God who supposedly existed before space-time and also exists in time. Then there's the notion of the supposedly Absolute (whatever that means, if anything) being a cause. Just exactly how could the Absolute be a cause? Did the Absolute feel or otherwise evince a lack of something? If so, the supposed Absolute couldn't be absolute. The two ideas are simply antithetical.

There was no first cause---and absolutely no need for one. This is just one of the many areas where Buddhism has the philosophical edge over the monotheistic religions. Buddhism does not postulate the existence of, or need for, a ‘first cause.’ Instead, it teaches what is known as 'dependent origination' (or 'dependent arising'), the idea being that each 'thing' is a cause of at least one other 'thing' as well as being the effect of some other 'thing,' so every thing is explainable by reference to one or more other things. For the various reasons discussed, the Buddhist teaching on this matter makes much more sense that the Judeo-Christian-Islamic view of creation with its fallacious assertion that there is no sufficient reason for anything to exist unless there is something that exists of itself and is not otherwise dependent on anything else.