One of the most long-lived and stubbornly persistent arguments for God’s existence is the argument of the first-cause. Put simply, this thesis states that everything exists as a contingent causal series of events, the members of which are dependent on previous causes for their existence. Since this is a contingent series, there must be a sufficient cause that finally explains the existence of all members of the series by being the true first-cause of the series. This cause is God. Since an infinite regress of contingent causes would be absurd, it is logical to conclude that there must be some sufficient first-cause to which the universe as it exists refers.
If I am correct in my understanding of this argument, its true strength (without here assuming it to be conclusive) lies in the fact that the universe is in motion rather than simply that the universe exists. Existence appears to be a primary concept for which no explanation can be given or required but rather itself forms the framework within which explanations are possible. The universe no more needs an explanation for its existence than would God, if he exists. God simply is if he is at all. If there is not a creator then the universe simply is. Thus existence itself poses no problem to a purely naturalistic understanding of reality and I do not think that the existence of the universe is that for which the first-cause argument can be an explanation.
Motion Versus Existence
Rather it is the motion of the universe that the first-cause argument may demonstrate requires an explanation that only God can provide. This argument draws on the fact that every effect has a cause and that the entire universe is a series of effects of motion requiring regress to previous causes as an explanation for their existence. The thing being moved needs no explanation for its actual existence but the fact that it is in motion does require explanation. If this is to be finally explained then some cause must be given which is sufficient to cause its own motion without requiring reference to a cause behind it.
There are two approaches that have been taken to deal with the issue of the motion of the universe. The atheistic approach has been to accept an infinite regress of causes with no ultimate first-cause. This position holds that not only is existence a primary concept but so also is “change.” The universe has always existed in motion, in a state of change. Since something has to have always existed, it is concluded that it is not irrational to suggest that change has also always been occurring.
In order to examine this explanation we must distinguish carefully between existence on the one hand, and the state of existence within which we find that which exists on the other hand. Although it is true that existence is a necessary concept for which there can be no explanation, the same is not true of motion. Motion is the result of something being done to something that exists by something else that exists. It is not a necessary part of the idea of a thing existing. The fact that a ball is rolling down a hill speaks of the fact that something pushed the ball over the edge. But we can just as well conceive of the ball sitting in a stationary position at the top of the hill without in any way losing the idea of the ball’s existence.
Therefore motion is not a primary concept of existence per se. It simply is the result of some cause external to this particular thing being brought to bear upon it so that it has begun to move. The same must hold true of the universe. Although it is in motion, we can conceive of the elements that make up the universe being stationary, although no doubt this would greatly affect the particular composition of things. The next question we must ask then is, although motion is not itself a necessary part of the concept of existence, could it still as a matter of fact be a primary aspect of existence? In other words, even though things could very well exist without being in motion, is it possible nonetheless that the universe simply has always existed in a state of change, rather than requiring the recourse to God in order to explain the motion of existence? It is this view of motion to which the atheist would pledge allegiance and which must be demonstrated to be untenable if the existence of God is to be shown as required by the motion in the universe.
The Question Of Infinity
A true answer to the question addresses the whole idea of the infinite both as it relates to time and also to space. The idea of the infinite is always a mind boggling concept and one which we find difficult to fathom but if we are to address the possibility of an infinite series of contingent causes we must make the attempt. Essentially spatial infinity is the idea that there are no real boundaries to the environment within which things exist. If we went as far as we could in all six directions from our personal location in space we could travel forever and reach no end. Space is infinite.
Similarly, existence not only presupposes infinite space within which things exist but also an infinite expanse of time through which the things that exist continue to exist. The ideas of no beginning and no end appear to be intrinsic aspects of the concept of existence. But despite this ever-present aspect of the infinite many characteristics of the objects of existence are exactly the opposite. While space is infinite, things that exist are finite. There could not be an infinite number of things because if something exists it can be counted and if it can be counted then one can reach the end after each thing has been counted. To exist, things must have specific limits. A spatially infinite thing is inconceivable. Space is infinite precisely because it is not anything. It is the nothing within which things can exist. Therefore the idea of the infinite is not applicable when considering the spatial extension or enumeration of existing things.
But what of temporal extension? Obviously, infinite temporal extension both back into the past and on into the future is easily conceivable as a characteristic of existent things since infinite progression from an infinite past is an integral part of the concept of existence itself. Existence could never have “begun to be” and thus something must have always existed. What this thing was and is forms the question of metaphysics. But it is not clear that the application of this same temporal concept is so readily acceptable when considering the idea of an infinite series of contingent causes.
As we have seen, motion is not a necessary aspect of existence. Rather it is a contingent state brought about by causes external to the object in motion. And these causes in turn look back to other causes external to them of which they are the effects. Do our understanding of infinite temporality and the spatially finite nature of existing objects, both for their spatial extension and also their number, allow us to accept the possibility of an infinite regress of contingent causes?
Infinite Causal Series?
For a clue to the answer to this question let us consider again spatial infinity. We said that infinite extension could not be a characteristic of any existent thing because it must have definite boundaries if it is anything at all. Only nothing could have no boundaries. Things must have definite definable characteristics and boundaries. In addition we said that there must be a definite number of existing things since anything which exists must be countable and one must be able to reach the end of countable things. But an infinite regress of causes of motion must be subject to the same restrictions since motion refers to the interaction of existent things with one another. Motion is not a characteristic of an existing thing, it is the result of one thing acting upon another.
For instance, in a billiard game the motion of the balls starts when the pool cue hits the white ball into motion, which in turn hits the other balls, which begin another series of motions, and so forth. In each case, the cause of the new motion is the action of a previous object upon the new object. Following the series of effects back through their causes we encounter other existing objects that were in motion due to other objects that caused their motion. And so it goes on back through all the causes, encountering previous objects as we go. The only way this motion could be an infinite regress of causes is if there were an infinite number of objects to act as causes. This we have seen is impossible. There must be a limit to the number of things that exist. This being the case we must eventually come to the first object in the series of causes and their effects and this object must be the first-cause.
In a naturalistic explanation this first object would be unable to initiate its own motion. Consequently, the naturalistic explanation is impossible. The only possible explanation would be a being that could initiate motion by being its own cause of action, an uncaused cause. Note that we are not speaking here of a being which is the cause of its own existence, but of a being that exists which has the characteristics of being able to initiate motion without its own action being caused from without.
Libertarian Freedom And Causality
This brings us to the second approach in explaining the motion of the universe. This is the idea of personality and libertarian freedom of the will. A phenomenon which we experience every day is that persons initiate action by choice in a free and uncaused way. We each perform such actions, initiating motion without in any way being caused necessarily so to act. Much motion that we observe can be explained simply by reference to such free action. But in the case of the universe no persons are powerful enough to be the initiators of the awesome series of events we perceive to be in play. In this case we can only explain such motion by appeal to natural causes which are contingent upon previous natural causes equally contingent. But as we have seen an infinite regress of contingent causes would require an infinite number of existent objects if we were to explain this astounding series of events naturalistically. An infinite number of things cannot exist.
The only possible explanation therefore is a personal being who like ourselves is able to initiate motion without in any way being caused necessarily so to act and who has the power required to be the source of the motion we perceive in the universe. This personal being would be the sufficient first-cause of the universe and would be known as God. Although this proof of God’s existence does not prove that God created the universe “out of nothing” it certainly does prove that the universe in its present form is dependant upon God’s initial intervention since much of the “structure” of the universe is maintained through the motion of its elements. At any rate, as soon as the existence of such an all-powerful being is perceived to be a fact, it is a small step from this acknowledgement to the conclusion that he created all things other than himself.
Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (www.whatibelievethisweek.com)