Countering Theist Apologetics: The First Cause Argument

The most well-known arguments for the existence of a god are generally the same arguments that have been advanced for centuries. These arguments continue to be favored by theists today, in spite of the fact that they have been refuted many times over. The strategy employed by modern-day theists is to restate obsolete items in their apologetic toolbox in scientific-sounding language and arcane logic in the hopes of intimidating laypersons into belief.

One of the most tenacious of these old theistic arguments is commonly referred to under the umbrella term “first cause argument.” This argument assumes as an a priori starting point that every event must have a cause. Because the birth of our universe is an event that happened, that origin must have had a cause.

Theists, of course, call this ultimate cause “God.” When skeptics ask them what caused God to exist, their common answer is to say that God is the “Uncaused Cause.” But this is a non-answer, because it simply pushes further back the apparent conundrum it initially sets out to solve. They have created a larger mystery to explain a relatively lesser one. If everything must have a cause for its existence and/or action, then there is no logical justification for making an arbitrary exception for one thing. It is legitimate for us skeptics to ask who created this god whose existence theists postulate. And who or what created that creator? To say that this First Cause has always existed and was never created is to contradict the foundational assumption on which the argument was built in the first place. And if it’s reasonable to assume that some deity has always existed, why not save a step and assume that the universe itself has always existed? When theists postulate the necessity of a First Cause in order to affirm the existence of a god through the use of reason alone, they completely reject all logical procedure on which that reason is supposed to be based.

Aside from the logical problems with the argument, the idea of a “first” cause of anything is scientifically untenable. There is a cycle of virtually endless causes for any given physical phenomena; it is impossible to attribute a single ultimate cause for any one object or event that has obtained in the universe. The science of quantum mechanics, which has revealed a world in which subatomic particles randomly pop in and out of existence without cause, provides no justification for tracing causes and effects backward to one simple First Cause. As Chapman Cohen reminds us in his book Theism or Atheism: The Great Alternative, “Cause and effect are not two separate things; they are the same thing viewed under two different aspects . . . If cause and effect are the expressions of a relation, and if they are not two things, but only one, under two aspects, ‘cause’ being the name for the related powers of the factors, and ‘effect’ the name for their assemblage, to talk, as does the theist, of working back along the chain of causes until we reach God, is nonsense.” [1]

Two hundred years ago, the best argument for the necessity of a First Cause to jumpstart the universe was the observation that certain physical laws, especially conservation of energy, had to be violated in order for the universe to first come into being. Today we know for a fact that energy conservation was not violated by the intervention of a supernatural agent, because we know that the total energy content of the universe is exactly and precisely zero. This means that energy was not a necessary ingredient in the production of the universe. Today’s cosmologists and astrophysicists are also confident that no other laws of physics were violated or altered as a prerequisite for the universe to come into existence. This modern conclusion is devastating to the First Cause argument and shows just how outdated the argument is.

“Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From?”

“Okay, fine,” says the theist. “But where did the physical laws themselves come from?” Modern science, not theology, has given us some insight into how to resolve this question. A “law” of nature is not a fixed statute, as if set in stone by an external cosmic legislator. Rather, “laws of nature” represent pragmatically-functional human inventions. That is to say, they are simply summations of observed regularities, expressed as falsifiable models. These models in turn are based on established facts inferred from repeated observation and deduced from hypothesis-testing. The phenomena observed by scientists do not operate in a particular manner because they derive from a law. The “law” is declared to be so by human observers because they operate in the manner they do. The “laws of nature” are not the result of any lawmaker. There is no evidentiary basis from which to justify any claim that a supreme intelligence decreed natural things to act in certain ways from which they are not to deviate.

In his important book The Comprehensible Cosmos, the late particle physicist Victor Stenger undertakes to show how physicists have come to derive the so-called “laws” of physics. [2] Stenger’s explanatory account of physical laws treats them as nothing more than restrictions imposed by observers on themselves, and he shows that it makes little sense to conceive of physical laws as being designed by a cosmic lawgiver.

Very simply, when a physicist writes a model, she is constrained to formulate it in such a way that it works independently of the reference frame, or “point-of-view,” of the particular observer doing the modeling. Stenger calls this self-imposed limitation point-of-view invariance: “The models of physics cannot depend on any particular point of view.” [3] When this invariance criterion is satisfied, many pieces of the cosmological puzzle under consideration fall consistently into place in the resulting equations, vindicating a wholly naturalistic framework for understanding the universe. “Thus,” writes Stenger, “the conservation principles follow from point-of-view invariance. If you wish to build a model using space and time as a framework, and you formulate that model so as to be space-time symmetric, then that model will automatically contain what are usually regarded as the three most important ‘laws’ of physics, the three conservation principles . . . further symmetries will require the introduction of other ‘laws,’ not to govern the behavior of matter, but to govern the behavior of physicists so that when they build their models, those models will be point-of-view invariant.” [4]

The provisionally-derived “laws” of physics, formulated on the basis of human observation and experimentation, are exactly what they should be expected to be if our universe came into being from nothing. Stenger shows in his book that,

[T]he laws of physics do not follow from very unique or very surprising physical properties of the Universe. Rather, they arise from the very simple notion that whatever mathematics you write down to describe measurements, your equations cannot depend on the origin or direction of the coordinate systems you define in the space of those measurements or the space of the functions used to describe those laws. That is, they cannot reflect any privileged point of view. Except for the complexities that result from spontaneously broken symmetries, the laws of physics may be the way they are because they cannot be any other way. Or, at least they may have come about the simplest way possible. [5]

“Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?”

When defending the First Cause argument for God, theists are fond of asking, “Why is there something rather than nothing in the first place?” This question assumes that nothingness should be a more natural state or condition than something. But why should this be the case?

It turns out that hard science has an answer to the theologians’ query. The physical systems that we find to be the most symmetric also overwhelmingly tend to be the least stable. For instance, a spherical raindrop is a highly symmetric system, but this symmetry is lost when it freezes into an ice crystal. That is, broken symmetry is responsible for the complex structure of the ice crystal. Likewise, a pencil standing perfectly balanced on a flat surface possesses rotational symmetry around its vertical axis. This rotational symmetry is highly unstable; the symmetry is broken the instant the pencil falls over. There are countless examples of broken symmetries in nature, which together conclusively demonstrate that the more symmetrical a physical system is, the less stable it will be. Thus, physical systems have a natural tendency to undergo spontaneous phase transitions from more symmetric (simple) to less symmetric (complex).

The most symmetric condition possible is nothingness. Therefore, the state or condition of nothingness is highly unstable. As Stenger explains in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis,

So where did the laws of physics come from? They came from nothing! Most are statements composed by humans that follow from the symmetries of the void out of which the universe spontaneously arose. Rather than being handed down from above, like the Ten Commandments, they look exactly as they should look if they were not handed down from anywhere. And this is why, for example, a violation of energy conservation at the beginning of the big bang would be evidence for some external creator. Even though they invented it, physicists could not simply change the “law.” It would imply a miracle or, more explicitly, some external agency that acted to break the time symmetry that leads to conservation of energy . . . no such miracle is required by the data . . .

[T]he natural state of affairs is something rather than nothing. An empty universe requires supernatural intervention – not a full one. Only by the constant action of an agent outside the universe, such as God, could a state of nothingness be maintained. The fact that we have something is just what we would expect if there is no God. [6]

In other words, the existence of the universe is the natural consequence of the spontaneous collapse of the inherently unstable symmetries of the void. In a Scientific American article written in 1980, Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek provides a plausible mechanism for how this symmetry-breaking may have occurred in the early universe: “One can speculate that the universe began in the most symmetrical state possible and that in such a state no matter existed; the universe was a vacuum. . . . The second state had slightly less symmetry, but it was also lower in energy. Eventually a patch of the less symmetrical phase appeared and grew rapidly. The energy released by the transition found form in the creation of particles. This event might be identified with the big bang. . . . The answer to the ancient question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ would then be that ‘nothing’ is unstable.” [7]

The cosmologist Lawrence Krauss expanded upon Wilczek’s statements in his 2012 book A Universe from Nothing, in which he applied quantum theory to general relativity to build a case for an uncaused origin of the universe. Krauss defines “nothing” as empty space devoid of structure, and draws upon modern findings of quantum physics to show how a universe with all the characteristics we observe in our own not only could have come from nothing, but must inevitably do so due to the instabilities of a maximally-symmetric quantum vacuum. [8]

Many theists have strongly objected to this approach, saying that the term “state of nothingness” is a contradiction in terms and that  to even attempt to describe nothing leads to logical absurdity. This is not true. It is important to note that when physicists talk about and describe “nothingness,” they are not using the term in the popular vernacular sense. The scientific use of the word “nothing” refers to an absolute absence of matter, energy, and space curvature. This void is described every time physicists measure a photon radiation field. Using a harmonic oscillator, physicists can describe an empty state quantum mechanically in terms of a series of energy levels. The physicist applies a violation operator, or a wave function corresponding to each energy level specified by the oscillator. When the measurement is at its lowest level and all photons in the sample set have been removed, a wave function still remains. “Nothingness” is described by this wave function. It is therefore possible to mathematically describe the “property” of nothing without entangling oneself in philosophical difficulty. And it is also possible to derive a number of plausible scenarios and mechanisms by which something can emerge from nothing, randomly and without cause.

The world-famous physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking presented one such scenario in his March 2007 address for the J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecture series at the University of California-Berkeley. Hawking likened the spontaneous quantum emergence of the universe to “the formation of bubbles of steam in boiling water.” [9] The naturalistic scenario proposed by Hawking became the subject of his ironically-titled 2010 book The Grand Design, co-written with Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow. They conclude, “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. . . . Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” [10] The analogy to the expanding surface of a bubble is brought up in the book to describe the universe coming into existence via random quantum fluctuations through which the current universe tunneled from a previous one:

Our picture of the spontaneous quantum creation of the universe is then a bit like the formation of bubbles of steam in boiling water. Many tiny bubbles appear, and then disappear again. These represent mini-universes that expand but collapse again while still of microscopic size. They represent possible alternative universes, but they are not of much interest since they do not last long enough to develop galaxies and stars, let alone intelligent life. A few of the little bubbles, however, will grow large enough so that they will be safe from recollapse. They will continue to expand at an ever-increasing rate and will form the bubbles of steam we are able to see. These correspond to universes that start off expanding at an ever-increasing rate – in other words, universes in a state of inflation. [11]

When all is told, we still do not know for certain exactly how the universe came into existence. The scenarios described above are provisional models only. But unlike the theists’ god claim and First Cause scenario, they are decidedly not based on faith, nor are they “just-so” stories concocted out of thin air by scientists desperate to keep supernaturalism out of their work. They are instead derived from the best evidence so far accumulated by physicists and cosmologists, data acquired from observation. Lack of knowledge does not justify the opportunistic but ultimately premature insertion of an even greater and infinitely more complicated unknown – a personal supernatural creator in the case before us – to account for current gaps in cosmological knowledge. Hewing as closely as possible to Occam’s razor, the best physical scenarios for the natural origin of the universe are those that start from a minimal set of a priori assumptions. This simplicity of explanation is a strength that gives such naturalistic models an edge over theistic conceptions of origins that are burdened by an overload of ad hoc assumptions that not only lack evidence, but are also completely unnecessary in order to account for the universe.

The First Cause argument for the existence of God betrays a complete lack of curiosity and explorative drive on the part of the theist making the argument, because the argument gives up on finding a real answer to the question of the origin of the universe before even starting to look for natural explanations. The naturalistic scientist, on the other hand, is not content to settle for a defeatist approach to understanding the universe.

[1] Chapman Cohen, Theism or Atheism: The Great Alternative (London: Pioneer Press, 1921), pp. 62, 64

[2] Victor J. Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006).

[3] Ibid, p. 57.

[4] Ibid, p. 58, emphasis mine.

[5] Ibid, pp. 112-13, emphasis mine.

[6] Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), pp. 131, 133.

[7] Frank Wilczek, “The Cosmic Asymmetry between Matter and Antimatter,” Scientific American 243, no. 6 (1980): 82-90.

[8] Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012), pp. 153-70.

[9] “Origins of the Universe: Stephen Hawking’s J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecture,” UC Berkeley News Center, March 16, 2007, (accessed June 27, 2015).

[10] Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), p. 180.

[11] Ibid, pp. 136-37.


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