Friday, January 27, 2012

Unhelpful Answers: "Everything Must Have a Cause"

One of the arguments that I have occasionally heard Christians use to defend their belief in a creator God is that “everything must have a cause”.  I have sometimes heard parents use this line of reasoning with their children and also in general conversation with one another. I suppose that it is not reasonable to expect everyone to be altogether precise in their everyday speech but when engaging in this kind of conversation slight variations in the use of the terms can completely change the conclusions that are drawn. Although we are burdened with many theologians and philosophers who seem to enjoy being virtually incoherent, good theological arguments are built upon clearly defined and consistently used terminology. Clear and consistent terms can often be the difference between a valid and fallacious argument. That is exactly the case when people make the statement that “everything must have a cause” in order to argue for God as the ultimate cause. If you take the time to think about it carefully you will quickly realize that there is a significant problem with this argument. It is an unhelpful answer.

The argument that God exists based upon the premise that everything must have a cause is a form of an argument known as the cosmological argument. Cosmological arguments are an attempt to prove the existence of God (or some other primary cause) by reasoning from the existence of the world back to its origin. The specific form of cosmological argument that is being attempted in this case is known as the Kalām argument which is an old argument that has been given new attention in recent years due to its use by the apologist William Lane Craig. The problem is that the proper form of the actual argument does not start with the premise that everything must have a cause. Rather, it begins with the premise that all effects must have a cause or anything that begins to exist must have a cause.

This may sound like a minor distinction but it is very important because if everything requires a cause then so does God. Clearly Christians do not believe that everything requires a cause. Only effects (caused things) require a cause. If the distinction is not made when using this kind of argument the logical conclusion will not be one that is supportive of the existence of God. In fact, those who argue against Christianity will often attribute to us this misstated version of the argument because it is easily defeated. For example, in his famous 1927 speech Why I am Not a Christian Bertrand Russell said the following:

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.

Bertrand Russell was an intelligent man so I find it difficult to believe that he lacked basic understanding of the argument. Whether he truly misunderstood the argument or was simply knocking down a straw man I do not know (although Dr. Coppleston did call him on it). What I do know is that the cosmological argument is not the same as elephants and tortoises but only if the argument is stated properly. When stated properly the question then becomes whether the world is an effect. Russell claims that there is no reason to believe that the world is an effect or that it had to have a beginning. Modern science disagrees with him. The evidence for the big bang suggests that there was a point at which the world began (just as Christians had always claimed). If, however, the world is an effect then it follows that there was a cause and so the argument proceeds. Since the consensus is now that the world had a definite beginning most modern atheists have shifted to claiming that energy, matter, or potential matter rather than the world itself are eternal. The debate continues.

We can therefore see that in order for this kind of argument to be useful to the Christian it is important that it be stated properly. Even when stated properly, however, there is a sense in which the argument is unhelpful depending upon what it is being used for. For a number of reasons that would require a separate discussion I am convinced that the argument fails as a logical proof for God’s existence. But even if I am incorrect and it does in fact demonstrate the existence of God, it cannot demonstrate the existence of the Christian God. Even if the argument “works” all it shows is that there is some force beyond the creation and there is nothing in this argument that would demonstrate that this “First Cause” is anything like the Judeo-Christian God.

Though it falls short as a “proof” it does show us some things and may be useful as a supplement to other (better) arguments for Christianity. It is important, however, that when using this argument that the premises are carefully stated. The often stated assertion that “everything must have a cause” actually argues against the Christian God rather than for Him.

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