Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The argument from First Cause

When I first started to read about atheism, in Dawkins' great work, The God Delusion, I found one of the arguments against god as a creator to be a little unconvincing.  I thought about it again and again, read it in different forms gradually seeing the power of the argument, and now I fully 'buy into' the idea.

The argument goes that invoking god as the creator of the universe does not actually solve the problem of creation, because in order to create a universe as complex as the one we observe, this deity would have to be at least as complex as our universe.  Thus he would have had to have been created too, and the problem becomes recursive, with no solution in sight.

This is not a lame argument backed 'only by scientists' who are sometimes accused of not thinking deeply enough on the important subjects.  (I feel a post on that topic to be imminent!)  This argument of the creator god being recursive is supported by some of our greatest philosophers too.  See the end of this post for more detail.

The question arose again recently when my friend and regular commenter, Hilary posed the question in a slightly different way.

"How come scientists often harp on about it being illogical for there to be a God because He Himself would have to have been created, yet are quite happy with the origins of life and of the Universe to have come from nowhere?"

This adds a slightly different spin, and it actually touches on two different topics.

First the creation of the universe might be explained by the multiverse theory.  Quantum mechanics would allow this type of creation - especially of a universe like ours that appears to have exactly zero energy.  I'm strangely uninterested in this although I know that many people have strong views.  For me - suffice to say that is is perfectly possible that the universe came about this way.  Call me a deist if you like, but that would be mis-representing the situation.

As for the origins of life - that is an entirely different and more interesting topic (for me, personally).  I'm not sure why someone with a physical sciences degree should latterly find the biological sciences so exciting.  I think it probably comes down to the genomics revolution that we are experiencing in our own lifetimes.  This is the biological equivalent of the periodic table being developed, with the search for all the elements.  The last two decades have converted the biological sciences from what appeared (to me as a school-boy) to be a systematical cataloguing process into a brand new exciting science.  New discoveries every week make the biological sciences such a fertile ground for learning, whereas in physics and chemistry we wait for a long time to hear really exciting snippets of news.

To attempt to answer Hilary's question, it all comes down to complexity.  The earliest life forms must have been very very simple self-replicating forms - hardly beings that were able to create a whole universe from nothing.

The process of evolution has turned those simple forms into much more complex creatures that we see around us today.

So there really is not a dilemma here.

Finally, to prove that it is not just scientists and other shallow thinkers who have considered the problem of 'First Cause', I can do no better than to quote one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, Bertrand Russell.  In his essay - "Why I am not a Christian" he wrote:

The First Cause Argument

Perhaps the simplest and easiest to understand is the argument of the First Cause. It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God. That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality that it used to have; but apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. 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.


Hilary said... just a cotton-picking minute there...
let me see if I've read this say
"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"

so you're saying that there is no reason why the Universe cannot always have existed, and therefore not have had a first cause, yet you also say that God must have been created...ummm can anyone else see the flaw in this argument? ...well funnily enough, I actually believe that GOD has always been there, always has existed, and was most certainly not created... the sort of logic you are using here is of a very particular kind which is rather flawed...I may well send you a wonderful little book I have called 'logic' (well unless you already have it) and it goes through all the different types and your logic is rather like the logic that we are none of us actually moving as we cannot get anywhere whithout first going half way and then half way of the half way is the same logic that can argue that 1 = 2 mathematically how about some good ol' common sense that rather than invent multiverses of which there is no evidence whatsoever, or keep reinventing the big bang which is totally based on no evidence either simply assumption, how about the plain fact of the matter that the most sensible and by far the most reasonable thing is that in fact God did create life, the Universe, and everything...including the number 42 ...also God is the potter we are the clay so how can the clay say to the potter "excuse me you don't exist" lol... :)

Derby Sceptic said...

Speaking of cotton picking minutes -
The text you are attributing to Plasma Engineer is actually what PE quoted from Bertrand Russell.

I too struggled in my early years with the question of how god was created and in what environment, or if there is no god (my view) then the same question arises. My conclusion is that I personally do not have the understanding to answer this question but such an inability on my part to answer the question should not lead me to blind faith in god.

You state that we should not rely on multiverses or the big bang because there is no evidence but should instead believe in god - for which there is NO evidence. How does your logic book explain that?

Plasma Engineer said...

Well - I was about to address those points but DS has kindly intervened. Bertrand Russell was not known as a paragon of sloppy thinking.

". . . nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed" doesn't actually say anything about whether it was or was not always there. It is just that, in principal, philosophically, it might have been.

Since Russell's time the march of science has given ample evidence to make it perfectly clear that the world most certainly was not always there.

As for god always having existed - and aside from the question about which god we are talking about -one has to consider that time only had a meaning starting at the moment of creation. 'Time before creation' is no better a concept than 'North of the North Pole'.

Hilary said...

Y'know my main argument with the type of atheism that you endorse/promote is that it professes to be scientific. Yet it is based on assumption, extrapolation, and therefore - belief. This is NOT science it is faith!

We all have the same observations, the same evidence but we all begin with different assumptions, different beliefs, which, for the Christian Faith is rooted in a historical event. However, christian faith is ultimately - faith.

There are, as you know those who have different opinions from me, and who hold with evolution and the Big Bang theory etc and are professing christians.

There are those for whom the science of it all is not and never has been and prob never will be an issue, and their faith is lived out without ever needing to look into all the aspects which we have and no doubt will continue to discuss on these and other pages.

The point I am making is whilst for me, I believe it is a far more reasonable thing to believe in God who created all things, and believe in Christ who was and is the Image of God, and the Holy Spirit Who is the Person of the Trinity who dwells within each true believer, than to believe in made up comic book myths about people evolving from fish and all the matter in the Universe suddenly popping into existence for no seeming purpose and no reasonable explanation etc etc...and according to Stephen Hawking the gravity had to be present in any case so he contradicts himself (several times actually) - but in all of this, I choose to believe, and freely admit to choosing to believe whereas there is a dishonesty in secular scientists declaring evolution and all that relates to it and the Big Bang and all that relates to is as 1) Fact, 2) science and 3) having undisputable evidence.

It is one thing, to declare that because for example of observed homologuous similarities between species you take the view that therefore one possibility is common ancestry, it is quite another to declare that this is the only possibility and that this is fact when clearly it is neither of those two things. It is as valid to take the view that actually homologous similarities are a mark of God's creativity, why would He not create homologous similarities? Why would He not create a genetic code which is universal. You see you believe what you do because you have chosen to do so, because you have chosen to interpret the facts in a particular way.
We do not yet have all the knowledge concerning genetics, concerning fossils, concerning the 8.7 million species (or however many it is now said there are and of course this very much depends on definition of species)and my belief is, that eventually, the more we will discover, the more such discoveries will point more and more to the Hand of God as having created all :)

Hilary said...

...and apologies if I have made spelling errors in the above midnight brain cant cope with thinking as well as spelling and grammar...clearly that part of my brain needs to evolve a little more :D oh and also I meant to add that I am not saying that you personally are dishonest in what you believe, but that secualar science in general, in for example, in education, declaring evolution to be fact and creationism myth is in fact a bias towards the belief of evolution, and a denial that it is simply one interpretation of it which evolutionists (some christian and atheists alike)choose to believe. My view is that all beliefs should be taught, either within the science curriculum or within the religious studies curriculum or in some other place, but what should be recognised is that both positions, ultimate come down to each position being different interpretations of the same observations and the same studies :)

Plasma Engineer said...

I think it is not a question of science vs faith, or one belief against another.

It is more a desire for a natural explanation of the universe on the one hand vs the desire (or is it 'hope') for a supernatural explanation on the other. With the lack of evidence for the supernatural I choose to look for the natural approach and find it compellingly self-consistent.

On the topic of evolution I believe that there is ample complementary evidence and that it is there for you to read if you so desire. As someone once said - the problem with evolution is that everyone thinks they understand it.

On the question of evidence pointing to the existence of god, the post on 2nd September will coincidentally elaborate on this.

Just one question though - which god will the evidence point to? There are several thousand to chose from. Why choose the one who claims to be three?

Hilary said...

...but you've missed my point - there is no natural explanation of how life, the universe came into being. There is speculation, there is belief, there is no viable natural explanation that can remotely even hint at resembling scientific.

Also, with respect, by your saying this last comment you are contradicting yourself in saying it is not about one belief against another when you then go on to say what you do.

We all begin with a set of assumptions.

Why choose Jesus? Well because through the Cross my sins were and are and will continue to be forgiven, through the Resurrection I am able to call God my Father, and through the Ascension of Jesus Christ, I have the Person of the Holy Spirit dwelling within me. I was convinced of the truth of Jesus Christ well over 20 years ago, had a dramatic conversion, and I've never been the same since :) well you did ask :)

Derby Sceptic said...

If we look back in time people would have considered there was no scientific evidence for the horseless carriage or heavier than air flight. Scientists worked on this, may well have been derided for their ideas, but thanks to their persistence we now have a whole host of road vehicles (travelling safely at speeds far in excess of those first thought safe when the car was first invented), aircraft and even space flight.
Just because science doesn't presently understand everything does not mean it cannot be explained scientifically.
You may travel in airliners - I doubt you understand all their systems but you don't therefore decide it is a matter of faith, you know it is all based on science.
My view is that religion is based on one or more texts, but nothing has progressed since they were written - later works simply reiterate the earlier texts and likely as not corrupt them.
So we have to balance developing scientific understanding with static religious faith. As PE stated there are several thousand gods - your was chosen for you by your upbringing. I too was programmed in this way but have thought my way past it (see

Hilary said...

...and just because science has decided from the outset that the possibility of there being God is not something which science sees itself as being able to investigate doesn't mean that there is no God.

...and just for the record, my upbringing did not actually choose my religion as you put it, as for many many years I was an atheist...who argued just as you and P.E do today... :)

Derby Sceptic said...


I am sure that if you were to offer a way in which science could investigate the existence of god then someone would take you up on it. Scientific investigations and archeological digs have however in some cases disproved bible stories and in others failed to find the evidence that should be there.

Are you telling me that as a child you didn't attend church, Sunday school or the like? I was certainly unaware of atheism as a child.

If you weren't religious as a child, then what led you to being a christian, did you study all the different religions, both current and those now considered obsolete?

Which leads to a separate point, how can a religion become obsolete if it has a god (or more than one) at it's head?

Plasma Engineer said...

Hilary - I didn't miss your point as you suggest. I just have a different opinion.

I rest my case on this topic by clarifying that my preference is to seek a natural explanation for the universe rather than a supernatural one.

Of course there isn't (yet) an answer to everything, but we live in exciting times when we nearly understand enough to be sure that the super-natural is unnecessary. My money is on science and that we will never find out which of us is right - no life after death.

Hilary said...

Hi D.S, no I never attended Sunday School and as a 4 year old child I began my being hooked on astronomy, and used to ponder about life, and would worry all the time about whether I really existed or not(was glad to discover Descarte), and if I'd wake up somewhere else or would suddenly be transported to another dimension, or if I would suddenly see things from other dimensions that I wouldn 't know what to do with or the time I was 10 years old I knew I wanted to study astrophysics at Uni...(brief thoughts of being a vet till I watched All Creatures Great and Small on tv and realised I might have to put my arm down a cow's backside...)saw the Moon for the 1st time thorugh a neighbour's telescope and had my first scope within months...second scope a few years this time I was reading every astronomy book I could get hold of...I was the complete geek hahaha...couldn't fathom why anyone could believe in any God at all, would argue with anyone and everyone at school at home etc...very very articulately and passionately...yes looked into many religions...quite into Yoga and all the mysticism that went with that at one time...studied it...most interesting but not convincing...I've been in synagogues, mosques and Sikh services...(college days)...I also went through a Yuri Geller spoon bending phase haha and spent some time studying all of that..UFOs etc etc...none of it and no religions provided any real answers - they were all interesting ideas but clearly not based on anything real...and then...I had an encounter with the risen Jesus, many years ago...and knew, without any doubt that Jesus was real, risen, and not simply an interesting's quite a long story, which I can email you with if you're interested, as am not sure taking up P.Es comment space is the place for it...

Hilary said...

...and Hi P.E - just curious, how do you define supernatural? and 'natural'? :)

Hilary said...

...oh soz never answered your last question DS...well in my opinion, the only true religion is the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and He's not obsolete...and anyway obviously from my understanding and faith, other religions' gods are not real anyway...

RosaRubicondior said...

Hilary. How do you define 'life', please?

Steve said...

There is no debate...its nonsense