Monday, March 20, 2006


While I was away on my trip, I spent a lot of time sitting in a meeting room waiting for an appropriate time to put in my two cents worth. I always feel a little embarrassed to admit such things, but often when I'm wasting time in a meeting, important or not, I pretend to take notes on the meeting, but in reality am taking notes on whatever random thought happens to be crossing my mind at the moment.

After using up several note pages analyzing the behavior of the chaotic iterations of a rather simple function I had thought up a few days before when reading an old math textbook (which caused me to discover a delightfully odd connection between Pascal's Triangle, Fibonacci numbers, and the powers of two--don't worry about it, it was interesting, but essentially trivial), I turned my thoughts to ponder a fundamental issue of theology.

There's an argument for the existence of God that's often known as the "first cause" argument. Pretty much it goes like this. Everything that has a beginning has a cause. As it makes no sense for there to be a chain of causes stretching back ad infinitum, there must be at the beginning of the causal chain a cause that has no beginning and is itself uncaused. This "first cause" is God.

Now, if you're a theist, you might like this argument, and you almost certainly accept each part of it as being true, whether or not you accept the validity of the logic contained in it. Most Christians at least tend to believe that the Bible teaches this to be so. As for me, though, I hate to see someone purporting to have definitively answered the question of the existence of God when I see no such thing.

In preparing to write this entry, I came across this page which seems to feel it has dealt with the objections sufficiently. I think it misses the boat just a tad.

The first objection listed is actually meant to be a thought-provoking question: "Who created God?" Children love to ask this question, as well as atheists both trying to be difficult and genuinely questioning. The author of the page dismisses this question by merely pointing out that the argument applies to things which have a beginning, and God is not a thing with a beginning. Okay, fair enough, but now we are faced with another problem I think, at least if we're trying to use this argument to pursuade the atheist that God (and in particular our God) must exist. That problem is, how do you know that God had no beginning?

There's a difficult bit of circular reasoning that always threatens to creep into our arguments for the existence of God. Atheists will accuse a Christian of making this argument: Everyone should believe in God. Why? Because the Bible says so. Why believe the Bible? Because God wrote it. Hmmm... Sorry, but if you're going to be convincing to a non-believer, you're going to have to get out of this loop. While in my experience, some atheists love to accuse people of making this argument when they are not in fact doing so, in the case of the "first cause" argument, and the response to this objection/question in particular, the circular reasoning is contained hidden within it in a way that most atheists and some children immediately see. I ask again, how do you know that God had no beginning? Only because the Bible tells you that is the case. If you think you're going to use the "first cause" argument to show that God has no beginning, I don't think it will really work, both because the answer to the question "Who created God?" becomes unanswerable in an unbiased way, and for other reasons that I hope to include in this post below.

The second objection, as stated on the site, is that not everything that has a beginning has a cause. It's interesting to me that this goes into some specifics that I hadn't even considered before today. Generally, I'd always considered a major objection to be "How do you know that everything that has a beginning has a cause?" Apparently, the author of the page happens to think science has shown this not to be true. (As I said, it's the first I've heard of it.)

It's very strange to me the way he responds. "Randomness, if randomness there be, is confined to the microscopic." I ask, "So?" First of all, if there are exceptions to a rule, then there are exceptions. I don't think logically you can say, "There are no exceptions, because what exceptions there are happen to be very small ones." Maybe I'm wrong, but this is the way I'm reading the response, and it comes across as nonsense. Secondly, if we concede that exceptions exist on the microscopic level, then let us not forget the fact that the Big Bang theory essentially says that the universe started out as a microscopic particle! Really, this argument is hopeless.

But in a more general sense, I do wonder how it can be said that all things with a beginning have a cause. Perhaps with those microscopic particles, their action is indeed caused, but not in a manner we can easily understand. Even if we eventually come to explain their behavior, and this exception to the rule disappears, how do we really know that there is a rule at all? I've yet to see any proof for the claim that all things with a beginning have a cause; it seems to be stated as an obvious fact, but it somehow escapes me.

Getting back to my paper with random thoughts in the background of my meeting, I started to think of alternate hypotheses. What if it is possible for causes to stretch out to infinity? Could the universe have been created by something outside of this universe, which was in turn created by something outside of itself, etc.? Or what if cause is something that, outside of the confines of the space-time continuum can loop on itself? If you're going to suppose the existence of a being outside of space and time (God), that is separate from many of the rules that govern us, then why couldn't the universe somehow have created itself in a causal loop? What if a sentient being within the universe created God, and God, being outside of time, was able to create us in turn?

What if God was created? Does that imply we would need to worship this arch-deity that was/is the cause of God? Or maybe such a being doesn't care, and we are in the hands of God only, despite the fact that He was created. Or perhaps the God of the Bible, claiming to not be created, when in fact He was, is a liar. I don't think so, but in an abstract sense, one must consider the possibility, right?

Then again, if we suppose the existence of one non-created being, then why not multiple created beings? I remember I once suggested the possibility to someone that perhaps the "angels" are not created beings, but also are self-existent from eternity, despite being less powerful than God. "But God created everything that was created!" I was told. "Yes, but I'm not claiming that angels were created." Sure, this goes against mainstream theology, but when you talk abstractly about uncaused beings, isn't this a distinct possibility? And since we are told that angels interact with the universe, this makes multiple uncaused causes. (Sounds like a pantheon, and once again, in theory, why not?)

The universe is filled with philosophical questions that have no easy answer. Plugging in God as the one and only answer to each of these questions may be satisfying for the theist (I know it is for me!), but is it really conclusive on a logical level? Sometimes I fear that theistic philosophers miss that we're only proving to ourselves the one thing we already believe.


Liadan said...

In the spirit of random responses, I might note that on my browser, the content column sits under the left-hand navigation column instead of beside it.

marauder said...

Also in the spirit of random responses, although I must note that my response clearly is inspired at least in its initial phraseology by Liadan's and therefore cannot be said to be wholly random, the English word "fish" is rendered "poisson" in French, which in spelling is most like the English word "poison."

Does this indicate that the longstanding animosity between the franco- and anglophonic peoples of the world is due to a bad meal of seafood?

Brucker said...


Brucker said...

Liadan, I just figured out who you are, and smacked myself in the forehead. Could I link to your blog, or would you prefer I not? (Oops, never mind, I found a post where you ask people not to.)

Oh, and about the formatting, for some readon I've noticed it does that at a few very specific window widths.

And tell Marauder I said, "poo."

marauder said...

I give my children the oddest nicknames. In addition to Munchie and Muffin, their own personal nicknames, I call them both "Cheese" or even "Fromagino," which is Esperanto for "Girl-Cheese."