I find myself scratching my head when someone asks, “What caused the universe to exist?” What confuses me is that – often people will lead with a scientific answer to that question. Why is this an odd thing to do? Science is about using natural law to explain effects in nature. Yet before the universe, there were no natural laws…they started at the beginning of the universe. Surely science isn’t the appropriate tool to answer this origin question?
Perhaps philosophy is a safer starting point when exploring these issues. And using philosophical argument, you can mount a case for a personal First Cause…
First – the First Cause is wholly other than the Universe.
We’ve got to try to understand what CAUSED the universe in terms that are unbound BY the universe. Why? Because a cause is always greater than an effect. For example, we may love the characters and the plot of a novel or a movie. But that first cause of that “world” is of another order than that fictional world. The story is fictional – but its cause is real and has thoughts, abilities and a history that goes far beyond the bounds of the fictional world they wrote about.
The First Cause of the universe has caused space and time to exist. So, it transcends both. What does this mean?
Changeless – if it is timeless, then it does not react to the passage of time. We change over time. Things change over time. The First Cause is outside of time, and so does not change.
Immaterial – the universe is composed of matter. The First Cause is of another order to that and is not bound by the constraints of matter. It is therefore immaterial. This might sound tricky to accept…but those story characters I mentioned earlier are also immaterial. So are the thoughts about the thoughts that led to the story! So is truth, beauty and Justice. We are quite used to dealing with immaterial realities in our lives.
Uncaused – everything in the universe is caused. The First Cause is other than the universe and so is uncaused. What does this mean? It means that, unlike our experience of nature, there is no antecedent cause for the First Cause. The buck stops with the First Cause. Otherwise, we find ourselves asking…so who caused the First Cause? And that question can go on back and back for ever. No – the First Cause is uncaused. Again – this is very reasonable. Ocam’s razor isn’t a shaving implement – it’s a problem-solving principle that states something like, “Among competing hypotheses, the simplest one is best.” There’s only one First Cause. Simples.
Powerful – the First Cause is pretty powerful to create a universe that looks beautifully infinite out of nothing…right?
Second – the First Cause is a person.
This is where things get tricky for many people. Perhaps we don’t like the thought of natural laws being the result of some super intelligence like God. Certainly, if we are opposed to the idea of God, then I get why we wouldn’t like that. But, I think the proposition that the First Cause is a person…makes a lot of sense quite apart from religious views. Why? Here are two reasons why.
First – the Personal explanation type gives a fuller explanation.
William Lane Craig points out that there are typically two types of explanation of an event. A scientific explanation, talking about the laws and initial conditions for the event, and a personal explanation, dealing with agents and their wills and choices. Both of these are good explanations.
He asks us to imagine a boiling kettle on the stove in the kitchen. And he asks, why’s the kettle on the boil?
The scientific explanation would say, “The heat…increases the kinetic energy of the water molecules…and are thrown off…[as] steam.”
The personal explanation would be something like, “My wife’s making a cup of tea. Would you like some?”
Which explanation do we turn to when explaining the origin of the universe? We cannot use the scientific explanation because the laws and initial conditions that science deals with were caused when the universe began. There was nothing before the universe. That only leaves the personal explanation – an agent willed it. And only persons have wills. So, the First Cause of the universe is a Person.
Second – the Personal explanation solves the Temporal Effect and Timeless Cause Dilemma.
This one was tricky for me to grasp. But the dilemma is this. If a timeless cause has caused the effect of the Universe, then why isn’t the universe timeless…or eternal as well as the cause?
Again, Craig invites you to consider two different ways that events are caused:
1 – a brick shattering a window – in this case, one event (a kid throwing a brick) causes another event (the shattering of a window). You can call this EVENT / EVENT causation because it involves related events.
2 – a log floating on the water – this case is different. Here, one state of affairs causes another. Because the water has a certain surface tension, the log floats on it. This could be called STATE / STATE causation. In this causal relation, the effect need not have a cause. The log could have been floating there eternally. If someone threw it into the lake…then that’s EVENT / EVENT causation instead.
So – what about the causation of the universe? Here we seem to have a confusing situation – STATE / EVENT causation. The cause of the universe is timeless, but the effect isn’t timeless because it occurred at a specific point in time (around 14 billion years ago). Usually, the state has the same type of effect. But not in this situation.
This is a philosophical dilemma. And the way out proposed by Craig is a personal First Cause who “freely chooses to create a universe in time.” This isn’t EVENT / EVENT causation. And it’s not STATE/STATE causation. Philosophers call it agent causation. And we are very familiar with this concept. Whenever I raise my hand in class to ask a question, my hand goes up as the result of agent causation.
So – where does this leave me?
The First Cause of the universe cannot be described using scientific means (the laws of physics). And the First Cause isn’t bound by the same constraints we ourselves experience within the universe. The First Cause is an eternal, immaterial, powerful Person. And that…sounds a lot like most people’s description of GOD. And if He’s really there…maybe the Bible’s been right all along. We can get to know who He really is?
Image courtesy of Pexels.
 William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith Christian Truth and Apologetics 3rd ed, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), 152.