Monday, April 2, 2012

More for the Atheists: the First Cause Argument

I want to respond soon to some questions which have been raised in earlier posts, but for now here's a brief discussion on one of the famous arguments for the existence of Divinity, the "First Cause." In the West the most famous form of this argument comes from the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.
"I can't fap to this!"
 In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.
Note that the argument for a "first cause" does not prove that this cause is omniscient, omnipotent or omnibenevolent. It does not prove that this cause answers to the name YHVH, Allah, Zeus, Odin or Yog-Sothoth. It does not prove the superiority or inferiority of one set of myths over another. Neither does it provide us with any explanation as to why this first efficient cause is an uncaused cause, why it is not contingent on something else.  What it does do is raise a very interesting question, one which has long been pondered by philosophers and stoners alike: how did everything get here?

In his "refutation" of the First Cause argument, Lord Bertrand Russell said:
I may say that when I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause. 
What Russell does here is beg the question.  He admits that we cannot answer the question of the Uncaused Cause, claims the question is meaningless, then states that the Universe as a whole IS the Uncaused Cause. Following this tidy dismissal of the whole problem, he states "I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause." Russell provides no examples of matter, energy or anything else arising ex nihilo: he merely states that "There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause."  Which is rather like saying "There is no reason that God could not have created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh. If you were more intelligent, you'd be able to see the utter necessity of a Creator God. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time discussing the subject."

And, alas for Lord Russell, there is indeed evidence that the universe as we know it "should not have always existed." As physicist Paul Shestople puts it:
The steady state theory of cosmology claims that the Universe simply exists without changing with time. This theory presents many physical as well as philosophical difficulties. Evidence suggests that the Universe is expanding. While there are ways to explain expansion in a steady state universe, few astrophysicists believe this theory, because there is little evidence to support it. As the first widely held theory about the Universe it is included here for historical completeness. 

The big bang theory states that at some time in the distant past there was nothing. A process known as vacuum fluctuation created what astrophysicists call a singularity. From that singularity, which was about the size of a dime, our Universe was born.
"I say! I can fap to this!"
In other words, at some point billions and billions of years ago, there was nothing. Then out of nothing came a dime-sized Singularity which exploded.  Then there were stars, and then planets. Then life evolved  And then there was 4chan. And to date the best explanation as to how everything arose out of nothing comes from physicist Edward Tryon, who said in 1973 that the birth of the universe was "simply one of those things which happen from time to time."  Which is hardly an airtight refutation to St. Thomas Aquinas's argument: it's merely a more polite restatement of Russell's claim that the whole question is meaningless and can be ignored by sensible atheists.  Rather, one presumes, like those inconvenient fossils can safely be ignored by Young Earth Creationists.