Feedback archiveFeedback 2018

A personal cause for the universe?

Is God the only reasonable cause for the universe’s beginning? Could a non-sentient entity do it? Reed C. from the United States writes:


I recently engaged an atheist in a discussion that revolved around the cosmological argument. In short, he proposed an entity who had all the requirements needed to act as the cause of the universe except, instead of being sentient he claimed it would be a non-sentient. This non-sentient cause would not choose to create but simply perpetually create new universes. He claims that this cause is just as good an explanation as God and can function as a substitute. He claims that the theist has no way of arguing against this without the argument equally applying to God. In his words “How do you dismiss the possibility of a non-sentient catalyst without paving the way for any critic to dismiss your “god did it” hypothesis? How do you substantiate the possibility that your god did it? How do you establish the possibility that your god exists without paving the way for any critic to establish the possibility of a non-sentient catalyst?”

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, and thank you.

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Accepting the Kalam argument without God?

First, point out that their objection already accepts the Kalam argument (the argument for God from the beginning of the universe). In positing a cause of the universe’s beginning other than God, they’ve accepted that things that began to exist have causes, that the universe began, and that therefore the universe had a cause. This already means that they’re committed to the existence of something outside of this universe’s physics. That’s a pretty big concession for your typical skeptic to make! It’s important to drive this point home, because that can help reveal if the objection is a real one, or if it’s just a smokescreen they have no vested interest in.

Is God the simpler explanation?

Second, this is no argument against God being able to cause the beginning of the universe (Could God cause the beginning of the universe?). Even if something else could have, it doesn’t mean God didn’t. Indeed, in what you’ve given, their objection is that a non-sentient cause is as good as God as a cause for the universe’s beginning. So, even if their objection held, it would still be reasonable to think this argument supports God as the cause for the universe’s beginning. And if we have other reasons to think God is responsible beyond mere capability—e.g. biblical testimony (Did God create time?), or other arguments for God, such as the contingency argument and design arguments like the applicability of maths in science and cosmic fine-tuning—then God is still the better candidate cause for the universe’s beginning.

But let’s push further and, for the sake of the argument, assume that the standard arguments for God have equally good alternative explanations (considered in isolation). For instance, let’s say that God and a non-sentient cause are equally good explanations for the beginning of the universe. Then let’s say that Plato’s Form of the Good is as good an explanation as God for the grounding of objective morals. Then, let’s say an impersonal necessary being is as good an explanation as God for why there’s something rather than nothing. And let’s also say that a special computer-like entity is as good an explanation for the design of the cosmos as God. But when we consider them all together, we have four different entities competing with God as the best explanation for these different things. Thus, when we consider all these arguments together, God is clearly the better explanation since He does something none of the other entities do: He explains all the factors together. Occam’s razor favours God.

A multiverse?

But, is a non-sentient cause really as good an explanation of the universe’s beginning as a personal cause like God? Say the skeptic appeals to a multiverse. That won’t help, since the skeptic has accepted the argument. See, the two crucial philosophical reasons for thinking the universe had a beginning usually offered (i.e. the impossibility of actual infinites, and the impossibility of forming an actual infinite series by successive addition) establish that even time itself began to exist. This applies as much to any supposed multiverse as it does to the universe. The beginning of time needs to transcend time; i.e. be timelessly eternal (at least, apart from the existence of anything temporal). See Multiverse theory—unknown science or illogical raison d’être?, On the origin of universes by means of natural selection—or, blinded by big bang blackness and Exploring the God Question 1. The Cosmos, Part 2 (Multiverses)

A temporal effect from an eternal cause?

But how does one get a temporal effect out of an eternal cause? Now we face a problem: if a cause suffices to produce its effect, then if the cause is there, the effect must also be there. For instance, a ball causing a depression in a cushion. If the ball is sitting on the cushion, and that suffices to cause a depression in the cushion, then if the ball is on the cushion, the depression in the cushion will also be there. This would be true even if the ball had been sitting on the cushion forever, or if they began to exist simultaneously (see Simultaneous causation and the beginning of time). So, since the cause is timelessly eternal, why isn’t the universe also timelessly eternal?

To avoid this problem, the cause of the universe had to be able to act without any prior determining conditions. That’s a common definition of ‘free will’. (The concern here is if God has this sort of free will, not creatures. Even if creatures can’t, surely God can act without outside conditions determining Him to act.) Question: what is a non-sentient cause that can act freely? It sounds like a married bachelor, to me. The ball on the cushion seems like a paradigmatic example of a non-sentient cause: if it’s there and it suffices for the effect to occur, the effect must occur. A non-sentient cause is the opposite of a free cause.

A random act to begin the universe?

I can see one attempt to escape this: maybe a random act of the non-sentient cause began the universe. (On a quantum mechanical take on this, see In the beginning God created—or was it a quantum fluctuation?) The problem with that, however, is that it’s no different from saying the universe began by dumb luck. Why would a random act of a non-sentient being begin a universe and not, say, Sherlock Holmes, or a duck, or an angel, or a string of meaningless nonsense? Indeed, if it acted randomly once, it could do so again. So, it could randomly create anything at any time! So much for any attempt to explain things by cause and effect …

But let’s bootstrap this attempt a bit. Let’s say that the non-sentient cause was uncaused, eternal, naturally necessary, only had potential for one random act, and that act would inevitably create this universe. That avoids the ‘anything goes’ problem above. We've also avoided the need to explain this contraption's existence by anything outside itself. Plus, in this case the randomness is in whether the act occurs, not in what it would produce. Thus, the sufficient cause of the universe is the existence of this uncaused being plus its one random act. The existence of this non-sentient being alone without the random act would not suffice to start the cosmos. Is this as good an explanation as God for the universe’s beginning? No. It’s completely contrived solely to avoid a personal cause for the universe. Indeed, it's essentially just God minus personhood. And what independent evidence is there for such a strange (immaterial and timeless!) contraption? Absolutely none.

What sort of immaterial beings could there really be?

Second, the cause of the universe must be immaterial, since we’re talking about the origin of matter. Clearly, if matter had a cause, the cause could not be material. So, what can be immaterial? Abstract objects and unembodied minds, and that’s about it. We know of nothing like the sort of contrived entities imagined just above. But, abstract objects (like the number 1), if they exist, can’t cause anything. Unembodied minds, however, can cause things. And unembodied minds (especially if they can create the universe) are sentient. Thus, an unembodied mind is the only feasible thing that could begin the universe.


The point here is that a personal explanation, and especially God, is better than an impersonal explanation for the cosmos’ beginning (see David Hume and divine design on arguments to the best explanation). God is a live option, and any impersonal options we can come up with either get us nowhere or are hopelessly contrived. Indeed, once we grant the Kalam argument, God is the only reasonable option.1

Published: 14 July 2018

References and notes

  1. Two of these arguments (the argument from free will, and the argument from immaterial beings) come from expert on the Kalam argument William Lane Craig. See: Craig, W.L., The Kalam Cosmological Argument, reasonablefaith.org, 2015; and Craig, W.L., #315 The Mind behind the Universe, reasonablefaith.org, 29 April 2013 for his expositions of them. Bear in mind that Craig is an old-earther, but his philosophical arguments supporting the Kalam argument are generally helpful. Return to text.

Helpful Resources