Chapter 3: Cause and Effect
We naturally assume that every effect has a cause. That's the way things work in our universe. It seems a natural question, then, to ask: What caused the universe? It turns out, however, that this is a question which makes no sense.
Cause and effect exist within the "confines" of the universe. There is no cause of the universe itself. It would be like asking a child, busy at her coloring-book: "Who colored your crayons?" It would be like asking a child, happily swimming in his kiddy pool: "Who swam your pool into your back yard?"
Theologians use the idea of cause-and-effect in an attempt to prove that there must be a "first cause" which they call God. The idea is: if every effect has a cause, we either have an infinite regress (A was caused by B which was caused by C which was caused by D... and so on forever), or there was an uncaused cause, and this first cause caused everything else.
Let's consider what this argument would actually prove if it were true. Even if there were a "first cause" it would not need to be conscious, or even alive. If it had been alive at some point, there is no reason to assume that it would still be alive. There is no reason to assume that it ever possessed any of the attributes of the god of the Bible.
That said, let us now consider whether this "first cause" argument is valid.
Right away we notice that there is a major contradiction inherent in this argument. We can plainly see it if we express it as a syllogism:
It is plain to see that the conclusion contradicts the first premise, rendering the argument logically invalid. To make the contradiction even more obvious, here it is in skeletal form:
If the conclusion is true, then the first premise is false, but if the first premise is false, then it cannot lead to the conclusion. On the other hand, if the first premise is true, then the conclusion is false. It is a classic case of a logically invalid argument.
There is only one suitable place for logically invalid arguments: the garbage can.
Not only is the argument invalid, I believe that the conclusion is false, the first premise is false, and the second premise is false!
False Premise One: "Everything must have a Cause"
This premise is denied by the argument's own conclusion.
Theists deny this premise by believing that God does not have a cause.
I deny this premise by believing that the universe does not have a cause.
If "everything must have a cause," then God must have a cause. If God does not have a cause, then everything does not have a cause. If everything does not have a cause, then theists have no grounds for objecting to a universe which does not have a cause.
We have reached a stalemate: both sides believe that there is something which was not caused. We just give this something different names and attributes.
False Premise Two: "An infinite chain of causes is impossible"
There is no evidence to back up this premise. As far as we know, an infinite chain of causes is perfectly possible in an infinite universe. The theory of Relativity has shown (and many experiments have verified) that time is the fourth dimension of space. If space is infinite, then time may be infinite as well.
Newton's laws of inertia state that a body at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. But Newton's laws also state that a body in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. If the universe has always existed, it is just as likely that it has always been in motion than that it was at rest for an eternity before something caused it to move. Therefore, we have no need of a "first cause".
Theologians sometimes insist that there must've been a first cause in order for there to be a second cause, a third cause, and so on. Extending the series, they claim there would no causes today if there hadn't been a first cause. But all this means is that we cannot assign a numerical order to the causes in the universe. We cannot look at a tennis racket hitting a tennis ball and say, "Oh, the effect of the ball now rocketing towards the net was caused by cause number 997,469,898,723,142 in the universe." But, who cares? All we need to know is: for objects in the universe an effect is preceded by a cause.
We face the same limitation when we consider space. Every spatially existing thing in the universe must have a center. But where is the center of the universe itself? This is a nonsensical question because there is no center to a spatially infinite universe. So too, there is no cause to a temporally infinite universe.
False Conclusion: "There must exist a first cause which had no cause."
The argument's first premise contradicts this conclusion.
As explained above, the universe itself requires no cause: it could have always existed. Matter could have always been in motion, in which case there was no "first" cause anymore than there is a physical place where the infinite universe starts.
There are things which our finite brains cannot fathom. Our brains evolved to assist us in surviving the day-to-day ordeals of life on earth. They are attuned to things which (like ourselves) have beginnings and endings (both spatial and temporal). When we turn these brains to the contemplation of the universe itself (rather than the things in the universe) it "boggles our minds".
When we think about space, we cannot conceive of a place in the universe where space ends. Can you picture yourself floating out among the stars, billions of light-years from earth, and seeing an end to space? So what can you picture: a wall? But look on the other side of that wall and what must your mind picture? More space. So, we cannot conceive of an end to space. But neither can we conceive of infinite space. We can only picture ourselves as being at some point in space, and then imagining ourselves at a further point in space, and so on. We can never fathom the full picture because we have finite minds.
So too, we cannot comprehend a start to time, or conversely: an eternity of time stretching into the past.
In the face of these difficulties, it doesn't solve a thing to claim that they somehow prove that there was a conscious being in eternal existence prior to the universe who created the universe out of nothing. None of the facts require such a creature, and postulating such a creature only raises more unanswerable questions.
Saying that "God caused the universe" is no sort of answer to its "riddle." It merely moves the questions back from the universe to this new hypothetical being called God, and adds numerous new questions to which we can never know the answer: "What then, caused God?" we must ask. If God was an intelligent being, then what did he think about for all eternity before he decided to create the universe? If God were perfect, why would he ever act to create the universe? A perfect being would be perfectly content as it was. It would have no need or desire to create anything.
We know that matter cannot be created or destroyed. To postulate a creator, then, is not only a mental excursion into fantasy, it is a fantasy which -- far from explaining the known universe -- contradicts one of the surest facts we know about the universe!
In primitive times, before humankind had built upon thousands of years of accumulated knowledge, we tended to attribute every unknown cause to a god. Winds blew. Why? There was a wind god blowing on us. Rain fell. Why? There was a god of rain watering the land for us. A volcano erupted. Why? There was a god of the mountain we had displeased. In time, we learned the real causes of all of these effects. We found out that natural, understandable forces caused them. We gave up using "god" to explain everything. As knowledge has grown, "God's" role in the universe has shrunk. The hypothesis of God as the ultimate cause of anything has been replaced with knowledge of the real causes.
Looked at historically, we can now see that using "God" as an explanation for the cause of anything was really just saying, "we don't know." As knowledge has grown, we have replaced the "God" hypothesis with explanations which better fit the reality around us.
There are still some things we don't know, but it would seem more honest to admit that we don't know than to say "God did it" (which really means: something we can't understand somehow caused it in a way we can't understand for no known reason or possible motivation -- but we'll pretend it makes sense and we'll call it a conscious act of creation by Jehovah, the tribal god of the barbaric ancient Israelites).
Our human brains learn by explaining the unknown in terms of the known. If a child doesn't know how to read, but has learned the alphabet it makes sense to take the alphabet (the "known") and help her to see how the sounds of the letters combine to make syllables, and the syllables combine to make words and the words combine to make sentences (which is a way of explaining the previously unknown skill of reading step by step from the known sounds of the letters of the alphabet).
But religion turns this process on its head and attempts to explain the known via the unknown! We know why tornados form. We know why earthquakes, volcanoes, and famines occur. Sociologists even have some pretty good ideas about why some people turn to lives of crime. Political scientists can explain how wars come about. Geneticists are uncovering the very fundamentals of life itself...
Yet, theists will still attempt to "explain" these known things by means of that unknowable something they call God. "God," they tell us, "is the cause of everything. He brings on the earthquakes, tornados, and famines to teach us some sort of lesson about good and evil. Criminals are people who have abandoned God, or whom God hated and declared to be evil from the womb. God is on one particular side of every war [he is on both sides if you ask theists on both sides.]. Geneticists are evil in trying to discover God's secrets. Life is not determined by one's DNA anyhow: God somehow breathes life into the zygote at the moment of conception."
In assigning "God" as the cause of the universe, they have committed the same fallacy of explaining the known by means of the unknown: replacing knowledge with fantasy.
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