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Published: 14 July 2018 (GMT+10)

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

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

Readers’ comments

Michael S.
"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?"

That's poor logic. It's no different from asking, "if you establish the possibility intelligence is the cause of vehicles you pave the way for a non-intelligent cause." It's nothing more than semantics, and a play on words for there is no reason to accept his cause to begin with (begging the question). Quite frankly your atheist friends views tend to come across as gibberish. It seems atheists will create any farcical cause nobody has any good reason to believe in but won't accept the only one that makes any sense.
Tommy S.
@Shaun Doyle, you said "I think the traditional 'omniperfect' God does explain things. Why? Well, what is an explanation? It's a reason that clarifies why something is the way it is."

That's not what I said and I don't deny that it is an explanation for why things are the way they are. You missed my point entirely. That there is an all-powerful, all-knowing sentient God does not explain "why" there is an all-knowing, all-powerful sentient God. The explanation that is lacking is the why. We must be honest and admit that we can't explain the why. Yes, there is an eternity, but why is there an all-powerful, all-knowing sentient being in that eternity? Absolutely impossible to explain because it is beyond our human comprehension and there is no basis whatsoever in science or philosophy to draw a conclusion from.

In fact, the very fact that there is anything at all is beyond our comprehension.

"That doesn't entail that we can know everything about God; but it does mean that we can give enough meaningful content to the term 'God' to distinguish Him from anything else."
Yes, I would certainly agree. I wasn't trying to say that God was not a better explanation versus the non-sentient alternative. I am simply pointing out that we cannot explain "why" such a sentient being exists or even why anything exists at all. To claim otherwise would be dishonest.
Shaun Doyle
You said this: “We have to be honest and admit that our explanation of an eternal, sentient, all-knowing, and all-powerful God does not, in fact, explain anything.” I read “our explanation of an eternal …” like this: “our explanation—i.e. an eternal …”. That makes it sound like God doesn't explain anything, and since you kept saying that many things pertaining to God were "beyond human comprehension", I interpreted that as an essential capitulation to the old atheistic canard that 'God' is a meaningless (or at least explanatorily vacuous) concept. That’s why my first response took the shape it did. I'm sorry, though, for the misunderstanding.

But now, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that we can’t explain why God exists (or why anything at all exists) because that’s beyond human comprehension. But I think we can offer some clarification for why God exists. God cannot fail to exist, and He doesn’t depend on anything else for His existence. Thus, God is a necessary being by nature; He doesn’t even receive His necessary existence from another. If there are other necessary beings, they all depend entirely on God for their existence (see Process theism, Does God depend on logic?, and Did God create time?).

We can even formulate an argument for God from the question ‘why does anything exist?’. It’s called the contingency argument. Certain versions (such as the one I expound here: Contingency argument: Why is there something rather than nothing?) conclude that God is a naturally necessary being.
Tommy S.
Sentience is beyond our human comprehension. Eternity, although irrefutably true, is even further beyond our human comprehension. And an eternal sentient God that is all-powerful and all-knowing is even further beyond our human comprehension. We know there is an eternity because we know it's impossible for there to have ever been literally nothing in all of reality. But the very idea that something in that eternity is sentient as well as all-powerful, and all-knowing is impossible to comprehend or explain. There's just no basis from human reasoning that we can draw upon to begin to understand these concepts. The bottom line is that all we have is God's word, his prophecy and revelation, his son, eye-witness testimony, and scientific evidence to determine that it is true. That is more than enough for me, but I have to be honest and admit that it isn't going to be enough for an atheist. We have to be honest and admit that our explanation of an eternal, sentient, all-knowing, and all-powerful God does not, in fact, explain anything. We know it must be true, but human reasoning cannot comprehend it. For example, we can prove there's an eternity as I stated, but to prove that this logically follows that something in that eternity is sentient when we cannot even comprehend what sentience is or where it comes from? Can't do it. And then to say that that sentient being must be all-knowing and all-powerful? Can't do it. Why not? Because those concepts are beyond human comprehension. And thus it is not an explanation that is going to be accepted by those who do not take God's Word as truth. Only by humbling ourselves before almighty God and admitting our sin and repenting and putting trust in Jesus can we accept the truth even though that truth is beyond our understanding.
Shaun Doyle
I think the traditional 'omniperfect' God does explain things. Why? Well, what is an explanation? It's a reason that clarifies why something is the way it is. God is a potential clarifying reason for why the universe had a beginning. A non-sentient cause is another. Both could be an 'explanation' according to the definition of 'explanation I just gave. We can even argue about which one does a better job clarifying why the universe began. That's exactly what this article does, arguing for a personal explanation like God over an impersonal one.

Of course, the typical skeptical objection to God as an explanation is that 'God' is just an 'I-don't-know-what' place-holder for an explanation, since 'God' is such a malleable concept that we can't give meaningful content to it. To this, I disagree. Scripture provides a lot of information about what God is like; more than enough to give meaningful content to the term 'God', some of that in terms of what he is like, and some of it in terms of what He has done. In fact, most people have some idea what terms like 'all-powerful', 'all-knowing', 'morally perfect', and 'necessarily existing' mean, and we can fill those concept out in a religiously meaningful way, if called to do so (see Questioning God’s many attributes and Reverse ontological argument?). Even more basically, we can see that concepts like 'worthy of worship' entail someone uniquely majestic/glorious/great to whom the worship should be directed. And when we consider traits like knowledge, power, and goodness, a being worthy of worship would clearly have such attributes in a uniquely perfect way. Otherwise, they wouldn't be worthy of worship. None of this should surprise us, since according to the Bible we're all without excuse for not acknowledging God's goodness and greatness as we should (Romans 1:19-20).

This is not to say that we can fully comprehend God in all His glory. Of course we can't! Rather, it's just to say that God is knowable as an explanation of certain states of affairs (e.g. Romans 1:20 and creation, and Romans 10:9 and Jesus' resurrection). That doesn't entail that we can know everything about God; but it does mean that we can give enough meaningful content to the term 'God' to distinguish Him from anything else.
Aiden B.
Great response! But my thoughts - even evolutionists don't keep to their own standard, excluding divine intervention as a cause for the creation with a material explanation is displaying a miracle because they're giving a “non-sentient" entity an ability which it logically doesn't have. So don't tell me (as other Biblical creationists) that our explanation is religious and yours is science because the fact is, supernatural creation is a better explanation and fits with the observations in astronomy, and the absence of scientific evidence for the support of cosmic evolution should be an indicator that their “theory" (quote because there is no scientific evidence) is incorrect and supernatural creation makes the best sense of the evidence.
Alfred F.
The nature of existence proves the nature of the source. That we are sentient is enough proof to begin with, but there is much more proof than just that. Nevertheless, it is quite unnecessary to find proofs to refute every new theory of Godlessness. The atheistic theory itself will always be self-refuting. This is because mankind cannot think outside of the box of current existence, there is nothing new that has not been before: we who know the truth also know that this is truth because we know the Bible is truth.
Therefore it is impossible to prove false that which is true. To do so would be to bring into existence something from without, something which never existed before. We as Christians can relax, this is never going to happen. Our task is to dismantle the falsehoods by clearly presenting a refutation using the unimpeachable truth. We show the self-refuting nature of their argument against God. This we can always do, because the atheist is reasoning against God with a mind which God Himself has provided. It is not provided for anywhere in the physical or spiritual universe that there is provable information refuting God's existence. We see that the atheist is blind to so much of reality that we have a decided advantage at all times, as long as we do two things: (1) know the word of God and (2) know that we have authority in the Spirit to tear down strongholds of the enemy.
The atheist, unless he is involved in the occult, does not even know about point 2. It is God who prepares the hearts of men to receive the truth.
He uses us to deliver it to them. It is important that we pray for that breakthrough without which the atheist's logic will remain an incomplete.
Norman P.
Such a discussion typifies the philosophers of ancient Athens (Acts 17:16ff). Whether Jerusalem or Athens, the same ignorance of the Unknown God continues today. But the heavenly command to all men everywhere stands: REPENT: FOR A DAY IS APPOINTED BY GOD, FOR THE WORLD TO BE JUDGED IN RIGHTEOUSNESS BY THAT MAN (JESUS) WHOM HE HAS ORDAINED; the assurance having been given to all mankind, in that GOD HAS RAISED HIM FROM THE DEAD!
"For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God." (1 Corinthians 1:22-24)
Thank you for the apologetics, which unhooks our carnal minds in this idolatrous world; thank God for the Gospel, which frees our hearts, minds, spirits - and one day - our bodies too! Hallelujah!
Philippus S.
The entire Creation shows it could not be a non-sentient as everywhere feeling and sense is displayed and a non-sentient cannot create such if it does not have it, or know what it is. A non-sentient would have destroyed it all at the great fall which was caused by a non-sentient interfering with a sentient's creation who showed the world what feeling and sense are by sacrificing His own Son to correct what the non-sentient with the help of a wavering human being who have a body full of sentient ,infested with non-sentient actions. There is no other "LIVING BEING" that will sacrifice itself to save its creation, definitely not a non-sentient.

The entire word of the SENTIENT called the CREATOR is reflected in 1 Corinthians 1-13 and no non-sentient could ever CREATE any part of that.
I have a great concern and that is by arguing with professed non-sentient's we slap God in the face and I take heed with this words from John see 2John 1-13 but I give great emphasis to this part of it;
2Jn 1:9  Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. 
2Jn 1:10  If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: 
2Jn 1:11  For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds. 
Why are we arguing with Satan, if Jesus has already destroyed him, we Humans ARE giving Satan a place to live here, we the managers of the Almighty, Loving, Caring, Creator are giving Satan place to live here on earth not the LORD. Let every Human being tell Satan of the way Jesus did it and the War is won. THE WORD OF GOD SAYS!!! Luke 4:1-13

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