What is the Cause of the Universe?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

See if you can follow this argument, which is one form of the cosmological argument.

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause.

The first premise should be uncontroversial.  If something begins to exist, it needs a cause of its existence.

The second premise draws upon the findings of science in the last century.  We have Einstein’s theory of relativity dictating a beginning to space, time, and matter.  We have enormous evidence for the Big Bang, which is the moment the universe exploded into existence about 13. 7 billion years ago.  We also have the second law of thermodynamics, which says that the amount of energy available for work is decreasing in the universe – a universe that is decaying cannot be infinitely old because it would have run out of usable energy by now.

To sum up the last paragraph, science seems to have shown that the universe did indeed have a beginning.  All of time, space, and matter came into existence 13.7 billion years ago.  If that is the case, then the universe needs a cause, and that cause cannot be a part of the universe, because nothing can cause itself to exist.

So what kind of cause are we talking about?  Based on the cosmological argument, we can deduce that this cause of the universe has the following properties: self-existence, timelessness, nonspatiality, immateriality, unimaginable power, and personhood.

Self-existence because whatever is the cause of the universe must ultimately be uncaused.  If it is not, then the argument just moves back one step.  There has to be a first uncaused cause.

This cause cannot exist in the time/space/material universe because then it would exist within the very universe it created.  That is impossible.

The cause must be incredibly powerful to have created the entire universe and all of its physical laws.

The cause must be personal because an impersonal force would be deterministic and mechanistic, not possessing free will.  A mechanistic being only operates according to the programming it received from something else.  But if the cause of the universe received programming from something else, then we have again not provided the answer to the cause of the universe.  We have just found a middle-man.  The cause had to make a choice to create and only beings who are personal can make choices.

All of these are attributes of the God of Christianity.  That is not to say we have proven the exact God of Christianity exists, but we have certainly made a persuasive argument that a being with some of his qualities exists.

Now that’s something to think about.

  • I think that the argument of a “First Cause” breaks down outside the realm of space/time.

    The idea of a cause implies a chronological order, that something must happen in order to cause something else, which must happen after it.

    This is how we understand it. But before the Big Bang, there was no time and space. While we can speculate about an uncaused cause, the question is how can there be a cause if reality as we know it didn’t exist?

    Therefore my view is that it is pointless to speculate about the idea of a first cause. This I think is the weakness of Aquinas argument.

  • Bill Pratt

    Terence,
    I don’t think you can dismiss this argument so easily. You still need to answer the question: “What caused the universe?” Something had to cause it. Something has to have brought it into being. We know that it isn’t eternal. If not God, then what? Just saying “we don’t know and it’s not worth speculating” is not an answer, but an avoidance of the question. What is your answer to this question?

  • World of Science

    A group of American researchers have recently discovered that Einstein’s theory did not work in some cases. Einstein’s theory was not always right, as evidenced by the Brownian motion..

  • We must recognise the limits of human reasoning. The idea of a “cause” is in fact our observation of the universe, that everything is caused by something else. However, we must realise that human reasoning is trapped within time/space and there is just no way we can go beyond it.

    Therefore, try as we might, it is inaccurate to say that there is a “cause” for the universe. We simply need to acknowledge that some things are unknowable by human knowledge alone and we must appeal to faith.

    The argument of First Cause has in fact been widely debated in philosophy and while such debate is necessary, it is beyond us to know absolutely where the answer lies.

  • Bill Pratt

    Terence, would you say that everything in the universe has a cause?

  • Generally, we can agree that every natural phenomena in the universe has a cause.

  • Bill Pratt

    OK, so you know where this is going, I’m sure. If everything in the universe has a cause, and the universe is the sum of all its parts, then it follows that the universe has a cause. All I’m saying is that we must deal with this instead of ignoring it. It must have a cause. Theistic philosophers have posited a compelling cause for the universe, God. Until somebody comes up with something better, I think their argument is pretty good.

  • “Based on the cosmological argument, we can deduce that this cause of the universe has the following properties: self-existence, timelessness, nonspatiality, immateriality, unimaginable power, and personhood.”

    Where did you get this? I see no rational evidence for prescribing these traits to your supposed “cause”. You are arguing for a “god of the gaps” here. You already have an idea of your god, so now you will insert him wherever you can squeeze him into. Please demonstrate to me that the “cause” had those characteristics, and then we can proceed.

    “Self-existence because whatever is the cause of the universe must ultimately be uncaused. If it is not, then the argument just moves back one step. There has to be a first uncaused cause.”

    Thank you! You have answered your own question. So there is at least one thing that can be uncaused, but it can’t be the universe? Very thin ice here.

    “This cause cannot exist in the time/space/material universe because then it would exist within the very universe it created. That is impossible.”

    So this cause doesn’t exist within the T/S material, yet it can create it? How can it exist completely separate from something, yet actively act upon the same thing?

    “The cause must be incredibly powerful to have created the entire universe and all of its physical laws.”

    I would agree, and the Big Bang was incredibly powerful, yet you don’t accept that as the only explanation.

    “The cause must be personal because an impersonal force would be deterministic and mechanistic, not possessing free will. A mechanistic being only operates according to the programming it received from something else. But if the cause of the universe received programming from something else, then we have again not provided the answer to the cause of the universe. We have just found a middle-man. The cause had to make a choice to create and only beings who are personal can make choices.”

    What makes you think there was any choice involved in the creation of the universe? I see no evidence that suggests that any choice was involved, only evidence that the universe was indeed created. In regards to free will, would you say a tree possesses free will? It has the ability to create. In fact, it has the potential to create thousands of other trees, a seemingly powerful ability, yet a tree never makes an active choice to create something.

    “All of these are attributes of the God of Christianity. That is not to say we have proven the exact God of Christianity exists, but we have certainly made a persuasive argument that a being with some of his qualities exists.”

    I agree, you have not proven the exact God of Christianity exists, but I would go one step farther and (respectfully) say that you haven’t proven that any god exists!

    Additionally, in one of your comments to Terence, you stated

    “You still need to answer the question: “What caused the universe?” Something had to cause it. Something has to have brought it into being. We know that it isn’t eternal. If not God, then what?”

    This committing a fallacy of a positive assertion. You are attempting to turn the burden of proof onto Terence. You are the one making the assertions, and therefore the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that your claims are true. “Something had to cause it.” Please show me that this is true. Saying something does not make it so.

    “Just saying “we don’t know and it’s not worth speculating” is not an answer, but an avoidance of the question.”

    I agree that it is something worth speculating, and I have spent much of my adult life doing so. However, I am going to say something that, in my experience, every Christian has trouble with: “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer, and it sure is a lot better than making something up.

    Please tell me, Bill, what I ate for breakfast this morning? If you tell me “I don’t know”, are you avoiding the question? Absolutely not, you logically don’t have enough evidence to say what I ate, so “I don’t know” is the ONLY appropriate answer. You could guess, and you could potentially be right. However, you could also guess, and you could NEVER be right, because there could be a breakfast food that you’ve never heard of. Guessing only gets you so far, and while I agree that the pursuit is worthwhile (one of the most important pursuits of all), I will not settle for claims and assertions with demonstrable evidence and the use of reason and rational thought.

    People have always been afraid to admit that they don’t know, and that’s part of the appeal of religions: they provide answers that people like to hear. Death is a scary thought, but it’s a lot easier to cope with if you believe there is something better waiting after you die. Religion plays upon our fear of ignorance, and in turn gives us answers that we want to hear, at the sacrifice of truth.

    One quick last point:

    “Theistic philosophers have posited a compelling cause for the universe, God. Until somebody comes up with something better, I think their argument is pretty good.”

    I apologize for sounding condescending, but Bill, come on buddy. “Until somebody comes up with something better”? If I tell you that unicorns are the cause of cancer, will you believe me until someone can come up with a better explanation of the cause of cancer? All sorts of people have made compelling claims for all sorts of things: UFOs, magic, reading other people’s minds, yet I assume (and hope) that you don’t believe all of those explanations. You have to learn to be ok with not knowing, because that is part of being human. We won’t always know everything that we want to, and it makes no sense to make up answers to satisfy our curiosity, at the cost of truth.

    P.S. Sorry for the caps, I use them in place of bold or italics for emphasis, I am not yelling at you, and I hope you are finding this discussion as important and meaningful as I am.

  • Bill Pratt

    Thanks for your comments, but it would literally take me hours to deal with all the points you raised. Can you zero in on something specific you would like to discuss?

  • I could call that a cop out, but I won’t 🙂
    I know these are major issues and I’m glad we are united in the pursuit of truth. I’ll list a few specifics things I’d like you to respond to below. Thanks for your time.

    1. Can you demonstrate why it is that the universe requires a cause/creator, yet your god does not? How can it be true that “Everything that begins to exist has a cause.”, yet you claim that your god exists, but without a cause?

    2. “The cause had to make a choice to create and only beings who are personal can make choices.” Please that there was any choice involved. I admit that science hasn’t proven (and may never) what happened at the beginning of time and everything (if there even was a beginning). It is possible that the matter and energy that exists in the entire space (infinite or finite) has always existed. It’s mind boggling when we attempt to contemplate these things, but nonetheless we may not be able to come up with a good answer to the question.

    3. “Based on the cosmological argument, we can deduce that this cause of the universe has the following properties: self-existence, timelessness, nonspatiality, immateriality, unimaginable power, and personhood”. What evidence is there that personhood has anything to do with the creation of the universe? You mentioned choice, but as I pointed out, tree’s create other trees, volcanoes create new rocks, yet there is no choice involved in these creations. If choice was not part of the picture, would personhood still be?

    I hope these are quicker and easier to respond to, and thanks for your response. This has been and will continue to be an important discussion.

    -TST

  • Bill Pratt

    I have a little time right now, so let me answer the first question. You asked, “How can it be true that “Everything that begins to exist has a cause.”, yet you claim that your god exists, but without a cause?”

    Because God is timeless and never began. The cause of the time-space universe cannot itself exist in time, therefore it must be timeless, or eternal. What is eternal never began to exist, therefore does not require a cause. Something must exist eternally, or we find ourselves making the nonsensical claim that nothing could cause something. We know the universe has not always existed, so it is ruled out as the eternal something that has always existed. Theists look at their holy books and say, “Aha, these books tell us that our God has always existed and is eternal. That makes him an excellent candidate for the cause of the Big Bang, especially since science has ruled out the universe as eternally existing!” You see, those two (God or the universe) have always been the two primary solutions to the problem, and one of them has been knocked out.

    It is fascinating that theistic theologians have been talking about a timeless being who caused the universe (God) for hundreds of years and that suddenly, in the 20th century, scientists discover that the universe needs a cause. They all used to think it was eternal, but now we know that is not true.

    I love this quote from renowned agnostic astronomer Robert Jastrow, speaking of the cosmological evidence for the Big Bang: “For the scientist who has lived by faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance: He is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

  • Thanks for the response, and I promise to keep it brief.

    “We know the universe has not always existed”

    I would agree that it has been demonstrated that the universe has not always existed. However, it has not been demonstrated that, for lack of a better word, everything has not always existed. It is possible that the energy and matter required for the eventual creation of our universe have always existed, at some point in space or time, or even externally from them.
    I admit this is a tricky subject, and my knowledge of cosmology is limited.

    “It is fascinating that theistic theologians have been talking about a timeless being who caused the universe (God) for hundreds of years ”

    While this is true, I would argue that even non-theists have posited that the universe requires a cause. Humans are by nature curious, and are hungry for answers. Hundreds of years ago, I’d be surprised if nobody had asked and wondered about why they were there. That being said, the various gods that they posited to explain the cause are often contradictory and exclusive, thereof it is not possible that they all were correct. I know this is a big question and you may not get to it, but what makes you certain that your concept of God is the correct one? In your First Cause Argument you listed a few characteristics of the cause which you felt the argument proved, but none them was specifically Christian. If you have time, I’d be interested in hearing why you think your specific image of God is the correct one. Thanks in advance.

    -TST

  • Bill Pratt

    “It is possible that the energy and matter required for the eventual creation of our universe have always existed, at some point in space or time, or even externally from them.”

    I need to clarify this issue. Big Bang cosmology asserts that all energy, matter, space, and time came into existence 13.8 billion years ago in the Big Bang. There is no empirical evidence to support any claims that these things could have existed externally or eternally. Any statement like that is purely speculative and based on a position of blind faith.

    “but what makes you certain that your concept of God is the correct one?”

    That is a big question that I can only quickly outline here. The cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments for God knock out atheism (includes secular humanism, many forms of Buddhism, etc.) and pantheism (includes Hinduism, News Age, Christian Science, etc.) as contenders. This leaves the theistic religions (personal creator God) still standing. The three major theistic religions are Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In order to narrow down from these three, we look at the claims of their holy books and use historical evidence to determine which is best supported. In the end, the claims for Jesus as the Son of God are the best attested historically, which means that Christianity most likely has it right.

  • “The cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments for God knock out atheism”

    We’ve already touched upon the cosmological argument, but could you perhaps link me to your teleological and moral arguments, either if you posted about them or if you use one from somewhere else online, thanks.

    “In order to narrow down from these three, we look at the claims of their holy books and use historical evidence to determine which is best supported. In the end, the claims for Jesus as the Son of God are the best attested historically, which means that Christianity most likely has it right.”

    Are there not some things in Islam or Judaism that are historically attested to? Even though, in your mind, Christianity gets it right the most, how can you discount the “truths” in the other holy books, even if they are few in number. Additionally, I’m curious as to what evidence, besides the Bible, you have used to determine that Jesus is the son of a god. I’d be interested in examining whatever sources you have used for this conclusion. Thanks.

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  • Manu

    Although i m just 16 years old but i think about this topic a lot…
    And after all these thinking a do have some points.

    I feel that there is a energy in this space time which governs other things

    i dont know whether it is god or what but certain energy is there which is present every where. For example GRAVITY it is also present everywhere.

    But the most important difference between gravity and THE GOD FORCE is that the later has conciassnes.

    Secondly that definately doesnt have a human form…

    Although i m a propogator of science but i dont like one thing about science….that because it only considers humans most intelligent and secondly that is only gives the answer to HOW WHERE AND WHEN but never of WHY……………

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  • You can assert any attribute to a god to the universe and it still is the same argument for both. Matter and energy always existed, or a powerful entity always existed. The universe came from zero, or the entity came from zero. The universe needs a to be put into motion, this god needs to be put into motion.

    This article is basically saying what we do not know = God. Which means every year god gets smaller and smaller. Progression eradicating intellectual dishonesty. The actual answer to this question is ‘we do not know’. Which means ‘we do not know’. Not I have have no answer, but here’s an answer anyway that isn’t actually an answer at all.

    And to the last part about the Christian God. The Christian God actually has a lot of contradictions such as: an omniscient being that is capable of choice, a perfect being that deviates change, an all loving, omnipotent being that gives infinite torture. As well as the Christian god not being the only god with all of these details.

  • Heimdall

    Since both space and time had it’s origin in the Big Bang, to ask the question ‘what was before the universe?’ makes no more sense than to ask ‘What is north of the North Pole?’.

  • Jason

    “A mechanistic being only operates according to the programming it received from something else.”

    Not necessarily. One can easily conceive of an independently operating mechanism not contingent upon programming.

    “The cause had to make a choice to create and only beings who are personal can make choices.”

    There is no reason to believe the cause had to make a choice to create. The cause could have been a mechanical necessary condition (lacking mechanical sufficient conditioning), containing an unactivated “transition” function with an inherit nature restricted to the actualization of symmetry breaking; from atemporal being to temporal being.

    So, even if there was a cause we have no good reason to believe it is personal.

  • sean

    The cause argument is an interesting one to think about. My opinion on the subject is that, despite what you may think most people believe, I disagree with premise one. Not everything that begins to exist needs a cause. What science is learning from quantum physics is that things come into and out of existence all the time without cause. It just happens. Premise two is maybe not so right either, but that doesn’t matter for the purposes of debunking this syllogism, since premise three is predicated on both premise one and premise two. Ergo, premise three falls.

    Just another take on things that I didn’t see represented in the comments yet.

    The
    first premise should be uncontroversial. If something begins to exist,
    it needs a cause of its existence. – See more at:
    http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/2009/07/26/what-is-the-cause-of-the-universe/#sthash.LDLyIVFk.dpuf
    The first premise should be uncontroversial.

    The first premise should be uncontroversial. “”

  • Baz

    If we break down the word ‘Uni-verse’ this tells us that there was a coming together of many things into one verse or one ‘happening’.

    ‘Ideas’ or ‘thoughts’ are the most common thing to coalesce into something for the eventual outcome of something else. Thoughts are said to be progenital energy forms so could this be the precursor to the physical universe?

    As there is always a form of energy present, is this same source still fueling that of the physical, hence life and subsequent death as a payment method to perpetuate the cycle of living?

    What would this be and where did that originate? Can thought forms exist in the void and by their own energy, coalesce to form atoms and physicality?

    Under what circumstances would such an event occur and for what reason? My assumption is that boredom feeds creativity and where thoughts occur, fruits prevail.

  • emarkjones .

    I would like to ask a question. Everything that begins to exist has a cause, seems on the face of it to be reasonable. The evidence for this is that we do not see things beginning to exist. But if we think more about it, this proves is that things do not begin to exist (in the sense of popping into existence) at all. Not with a cause nor without one. So the first premise ought to be, nothing begins to exist.

  • Jim Wahl

    This is an easy question to answer, but also, it is not. The problem occurs because we have no way to measure non-existence.
    The logical order of things puts a cause and effect scenario upon existence; but then what governs non-existence?
    Simply put only what exists can act upon what exists, and therefore, existence caused existence to exist. Non-existence can not create existence, so far as we understand. However, the theory many hold, which is loosely based on Quantum Theory, is that between both existence and non-existence, there lies probability. For those of you unfamiliar with the Double Slit Experiment, I advise looking into it, as it is a large part of the base for this belief. The belief, is that the only true thing which exists is possibility, and that also does not exist, because there is no way to truly measure it, save for probability, which is not accurate, as probability works on the presumption that there is matter being effected. Though, because possibility is only a concept, there is no matter, and there is no absence of matter.
    Within possibility, there is no time, and there is no space, but time is constantly happening all at once, as everything occupies every space, infinitely, in every way. All existence and non-existence is occurring simultaneously and never.
    Read this Stephen Hawking lecture – (http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-origin-of-the-universe.html) My concept here, fits decently into his lessons.