The origin of the universe is one of the greatest unanswered questions in the history of mankind. Humans have been debating it for thousands of years, and every religion attempts to posit a different explanation. Questions about the origin of the universe – or, indeed, the origin of reality in general – are challenging for science to tackle head-on. The simple answer is: we don’t know. We may never know exactly how the universe was formed or what, if anything, came before it, although science does have a few ideas to explore. However, not knowing the answer does not give us free range to make something up.
It’s human nature to be uncomfortable with the unknown. Historically, humans have filled these uncertain areas with a deity or other supernatural claims to explain what they have yet to discover. This creates a “god of the gaps,” wherein God is invoked as an explanation in events that humans don’t yet understand. The problem with this, of course, is that scientific knowledge is always expanding, and the gaps continue to grow smaller. We have identified many of the natural causes behind these gaps throughout our history and have yet to come across God in any of them. It’s possible that this pattern will continue in the future, leaving little room for God as a weak explanation, and the current monotheistic ideas of God will become as outdated for future generations as the Greek pantheon is today.
The Prime Mover
The cosmological argument for God is an attempt to infer God’s existence from the known facts of the universe. Essentially, this argument states that because everything is derived by cause and effect, something must have caused the universe to be created. However, although many physical laws of the universe do generally work in a cause-and-effect way, that does not necessarily mean that God is the cause.
If you follow events backwards through time, you will always find a preceding event that led to it, but theists reason that this chain of events could not go on forever. Something must have started all of it into motion. Since events cannot cause themselves, something else must have existed first to cause all of these things.
This might seem like a reasonable argument, but it falls victim to the same problem as the hypothetical God behind the argument from design: if everything has a cause or a creator, then who created God? And who, then, created the entity that created God? Rather than solving the problem of infinite causality, the cosmological argument simply recreates the problem using different terms. God is used as an answer, but in reality, the issue of God simply raises new questions. You cannot solve a mystery by using a bigger mystery as the answer.
This issue falls prey to the “special pleading” fallacy, a specific type of hypocrisy that arises when someone realizes that the solution he’s offering fails to live up to the rules he’s already established (1). In this type of fallacy, the rules apply to everything but the arguer’s solution, which gets a special exception for the rule despite there being no clear reason why that exception should exist in the first place. If everything requires a creator, why doesn’t God? And if God does not require a creator, why must everything else?
Indeed, if we can accept the idea that something could exist without being created – as theists claim for their god(s) – why could this same logic not apply to the universe itself? This would cut out the middleman and make just as much sense as a deity without the other complications that belief in God can create.
Many theists who pose the cosmological argument do so from a place of misunderstanding physics. Most specifically, they will cite the First Law of Thermodynamics, stating that “matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed (2).” Note that mass is a form of energy. From this, they postulate that something cannot come out of nothing in the natural world, which necessarily means that a supernatural explanation is required.
While the theistic argument claims that the First Law of Thermodynamics proves that there needs to be a source for all matter and energy in the universe, in fact, there are other ways that this could be true. For example, the universe, or multiple universes, could have existed forever with the same amount of matter and energy. Or the universe’s, or multiple universes’, positive and negative energy could add up to zero. We simply don’t yet know the complete workings and laws of the universe at this point in time, but that doesn’t mean that we can fill in the gaps of our knowledge with God. In fact, if God can create matter and energy, why couldn’t a natural process that we do not understand yet do the same as well?
Additionally, the very idea of invoking natural laws as a defense of the supernatural is inherently absurd. If a deity truly existed who could break all natural laws and exist outside of reality, there would be no need for him to conform to the laws of physics. Requiring science to support your opinion about some things, like thermodynamics, while ignoring it when it disagrees with your other beliefs, like evolution, is a flagrant misappropriation of scientific principles.
The Cosmological Argument Says Nothing about God
Even if we were to accept that the universe required some sort of “prime mover,” or originating force, there is no evidence to suggest that this force must conform to any of the traits generally attributed to a god. If indeed there were a creator, there’s no reason why that creator should necessarily be intelligent or have any sort of consciousness at all. There is certainly no reason why that creator should in any way resemble the god(s) described by any of the world’s religions. Note that there is also no evidence to suggest that this originating force must be supernatural or spiritual in nature to begin with. After all, an originating force may just as well be an event involving physical laws.
Even if the cosmological argument were to be true in the sense of a prime mover, that claim does nothing whatsoever to prove the existence of a deity unless the definition of “deity” is confined purely to mean “forces that created the universe.” If that were the case, you could just as easily call electricity, gravity or the strong nuclear force a god. The general definition of a god among religious people demands consciousness and intelligence in that god, and there is absolutely no evidence that such consciousness exists in any natural forces currently known to man.
- Bennett, Bo. "Special Pleading." Logically Fallacious: The Ultimate Collection of over 300 Logical Fallacies. EBookIt.com, 2012.
- Atkins, Peter. The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.