May 29, 2012

The Universe: Caused, Self-Caused, or Uncaused?

The First-Cause Argument 

Why is there something rather than nothing? This is a big question. Everything that we see around us was caused by something else. The chair you are sitting on was built by someone. The screen you’re using to read this was built by someone. You yourself were caused by your parents, and they were caused by their parents. Like a chain of dominoes, everything we see was caused by something else.

This idea of cause and effect is at the heart of the first-cause argument for God. This family of arguments is also known as the cosmological argument because cosmos is the Greek word for world. There are different forms of the cosmological argument, but one that I find very persuasive goes like this:

·         Whatever began to exist has a cause.
·         The universe began to exist.
·         Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This argument is based on the law of cause and effect: whatever began to exist has a cause. However it is very important to state this law correctly. This law does not state that everything has a cause. Misstating the law like that results in the inevitable question, “Well, if everything has a cause, then what made God? Got ya!” I’ve heard university professors dismiss the first-cause argument in this way, demonstrating that they did’t really understand it in the first place. Instead, it is important to state that everything that began to exist must have a cause. If something never had a beginning—if it is eternal—then it didn’t need a cause. (In philosophy, this type of being would be referred to as a necessary being rather than a contingent being.) Therefore God doesn’t need a cause since God is eternal and never started to exist.

Further, if the universe has a cause, this cause must be outside of the universe. This is true since everything that has a beginning is caused by something outside of itself. Also, the chain of cause and effect cannot go back forever. There has to be a first-cause—a first domino that was pushed. Therefore, there has to be an eternal first-cause that exists outside of the universe and is powerful enough to bring the universe into existence. If this is true, it is a strong argument for the existence of God.

Caused, Self-caused, or Uncaused?

Let’s think about this another way. Was the universe created, self-created, or uncreated? There are only three options. Either (a) the universe was uncaused, or (b) it was self-caused, or it was (c) caused. If you’re having a discussion with someone, write these three options on a napkin and the other person to pick which one he or she things is correct. If you’re thinking through this for yourself, which one do you think is correct?

We can eliminate one of these three options right away. It is impossible for the universe to be self-caused.  That would violate the law of non-contradiction. The law of non-contradiction states that something cannot be both “A” and “Not-A” at the same time and in the same way. For example, something cannot be both “completely blue” and “not completely blue” at the same time and in the same way. But if the universe was self-created, it would need to exist and not-exist at the same time and in the same way. Unless the universe existed, it would have no ability to create anything—because it doesn’t exist. But if it already exists, it doesn’t need to be created! Therefore the universe cannot be self-caused. Being self-caused or self-created simply doesn’t make sense. We should eliminate it as an option.

If the universe is not self-caused it must be either caused or uncaused. If it is uncaused, there are two theoretical options: the universe could have came into existence with no reason, or it could be eternal and therefore does not need a cause. The first of these options—that the universe came into existence without a cause and for no reason—asks us to sacrifice a lot. That idea would sacrifice the law of cause and effect as well as the principle of sufficient reason. I do not think we should consider this a serious option. From nothing nothing comes. 

A more common response is to proposed that the universe itself is eternal. After all, it is asked, if something must be eternal, why can’t this thing be the universe rather than God? That is a valid question, however I believe there are two solid replies to this, one scientific and one philosophical.

1. The scientific reply is that eternal existence of the universe doesn't fit the current scientific understanding of cosmology. The eternal existence of the universe seemed possible when the dominant model for the universe was the steady state theory. However, the steady state theory has been supplanted by the Big Bang model, and one of the significant implications of the Big Bang theory is that is includes a beginning to time and space. In fact, some scientists resisted converting to the Big Bang theory because of this implication. If the universe began with the Big Bang, we need to ask what caused the Big Bang. The Big Bang is not something eternal and it did not cause itself. (Please note: This argument does not require anyone to believe in the Big Bang or an old universe. The point is that even if that model is true, it does not eliminate the need for a cause for the universe.)

(If the universe begins with a singularity approximately 14-16 billion years ago this is the temporal limit for the universe. Based on Einsteinian physics, time and space could not exist before this point. And even if we could conceive of a temporal eternity for this singularity before this point, there would still need to be an outside force to cause this singularity to move out of its equilibrium—which it must have been in if it was eternal. Although some physicists have speculated that there have been a series of oscillating universes, it is calculated that because of entropy these oscillations could not be eternal and must end in the hot or cold heat death of the universe. If the universe were eternal, this would have already occurred.)

2. The other reason that the universe cannot be eternal is because it is impossible for there to have been an infinite amount of time that has passed before now. This is a fascinating and brain bending argument that I find absolutely convincing. Imagine that there is a series of dominoes extending from inside the room you are in, out the door and out of view. For all you know, perhaps there are an infinite number of dominoes. But, now imagine that you see the dominoes falling, one knocking over the next, as this series of falling dominoes comes into your room. If you saw the dominoes fall, you could know with certainty that there was not an infinite number of falling dominoes. Why? It would take an infinite amount of time for an actual infinite amount of dominoes to fall. And just like a person can never finish counting to infinity, an actual infinite number of dominoes could never finish falling. Therefore, if an actual infinite number of dominoes had to fall before getting to your door, then the falling dominoes would never reach your door. In the same way, if an actual infinite number of minutes had to take place before yesterday, time would have never reached yesterday, much less today. Therefore, just as there had to be a finite number of falling dominoes, there also had to be a finite—not infinite—amount of time before today. An infinite past simply doesn’t make sense. Therefore time must have a beginning. And if time had a beginning it must have a cause.

If the universe is neither self-caused or uncaused, the only remaining option is that it was caused. Whatever this cause was, it must be something that transcends the universe and something with the level of power needed to bring a universe into existence. Added to this, there must be some sort of necessary and eternal first-cause that—itself not requiting a causeexists as the sufficient reason for contingent reality. With this in mind, it seems very reasonable to believe “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
Universe, Create Thyself
Why God But Not Thor?
Faith With Reasons


  1. Hearing this argument from someone is what made me consider that the existence of God might be possible.

  2. Hearing this same argument applied to creation myths is what made me realize that some people like to special plead A LOT.

  3. Many knowledgeable people would disagree with the statement that the universe cannot be self caused. This is one of the more sound explanations of the universe since logic can't even explain what a "transcendent cause" means. You use rules of logic to deny that the universe was self caused, but imply that God is exempt from them without a logical justification. Also, what do you mean by the "universe". If you mean all of reality, then the universe should be inclusive of God itself. Therefore, if God is the first cause, then God must be self-caused. God is a part of the universe therefore the universe is self caused. So ultimately you argued that the universe is self-caused. Thank you. Go to and read up on the CTMU if you want a more in depth philosophical lecture on this by people smarter than either of us.


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