God and the Law of Causality
“God and the Law of Causality”
Bryan Smith (Thoughtful Christianity)
One of the most foundational laws in the universe, more foundational than any of the laws of physics, chemistry, or biology, is the law of causality. A law that, although relatively intuitive and common sensical by nature, seems often misunderstood by many, especially when it comes to the existence of God.
Now, before we begin, I think it’s important to point out that this misunderstanding is by no means a trait for the ignorant and uneducated. In fact, I think it can be safely said that such a misunderstanding is not uncommon amongst what some may deem as even the most intelligent of people. One particular example can be found in the thought of Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), the eminent British philosopher of the 20th century. Russel himself once claimed that if everything needed a cause, then so would God. And that if everything did not need a cause, then neither would the universe. In conclusion, Russell argued that there really is no need for God. If he existed and needed a cause, then he really wouldn’t be God (after all, what kind of a God would be dependent on some external factor for His own existence). A God like that would be no God at all, to be sure. Now, if Russell’s argument is correct, then it would seem as if there really is no need for God. The universe could just exist as a brute fact without any need for a cause, as many atheists and agnostics have believed in the past.
But is this sort of reasoning actually valid? Does the law of causality really demand that God must have a cause? Well, although this might seem to be a powerful objection to the existence of God on the surface, I think a brief understanding of what the law of causality actually means will help shed some light on why such reasoning isn’t as valid as one might think.
As you may have gathered at this point, the key point where I think this line of reasoning seems to go astray lies in its faulty understanding of the law of causality, which does not state that “everything needs a cause” but only that “every finite (or contingent) thing needs a cause.” Another way of saying it is that everything does not need a cause, but only every effect needs a cause. This can be explained further in that a being or entity that is not finite does not need a cause, as it is infinite, and by definition nothing can precede an infinite. It would make no sense to posit a cause for an eternal universe, for example, as there would never be a time “before” the universe existed in which something could cause it to exist. It would have simply existed since eternity past. Similarly, a being or entity which is not contingent wouldn’t need a cause either, as that which is not contingent is by definition necessary and thus would never have had the potential to not exist, let alone the potential to begin to exist due to some external cause. For example, it would make no sense to posit a cause of the universe if it always “had” to exist. Indeed, it seems that something which is necessary must also be eternal, for if something is necessary it can never begin to exist but must have always existed.
Now, to clarify, since we know that the physical universe is both finite and contingent (it hasn’t always existed and it didn’t have to exist), it therefore requires a cause. It makes little sense to say that there was once a state in which the universe did not exist and then another state in which it did exist, that it simply moved from one state to the other (or popped into being) for no reason whatsoever and without a cause. Alternatively, since God is usually defined as not being finite or contingent, He would be infinite and necessary, and therefore not in need of a cause. As such, it really makes no sense to ask what caused God. It is essentially a category error and therefore a meaningless question, on par with asking how many married bachelors smell like blue.
In the end, I think it’s safe to say that since since the physical universe had a beginning, it must have had a cause; whereas since God is necessary and eternal by His very nature, He must not have had a cause. Thus, the claim that God is not needed or does not exist since he would have to have a cause (which ultimately yields to an infinite regress and logical absurdity), is a claim that is based on a faulty understanding of the law of causality, and therefore a claim that ultimately falls short. I also think it’s worth noting here that we are not simply begging the question by defining God as necessary and eternal in order to escape from his needing a cause. These attributes seem to be necessary for anything “ultimate” as dictated by the laws of logic. Ultimately, “something” has to be uncaused, otherwise you end up with an infinite regress of causes which cannot be started. But here we are. So the real question is “what’s the something“? What is it that is ultimately uncaused? Something within the universe, the universe itself, or something beyond the universe? Since we know both philosophically and scientifically that the universe and everything in it is finite and therefore must have had a cause, that leaves us with something beyond the universe – an infinite, eternally existent, necessary being or entity that is responsible for both creating and sustaining the universe as we know it. How about God?
Bryan Smith is the creator of Thoughtful Christianity and Christianity on Tap. Follower of Christ, loving goofball of a husband, self-confessed bookworm, textbook over-thinker, and unabashed Christmas addict, Bryan is just a typical old soul who lives to know God and fellowship with others, a common layman with an insatiable appetite for Christian theology, philosophy, and apologetics.