God, the unmovable first mover.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 October

When Christian apologists try to argue in favor of God’s existence, one of the more popular arguments is the “first cause” idea. If you’re not familiar with that name, it’s because all sorts of people refer to it by all sorts of terms. “Prime mover,” “unmoved mover,” “unmovable mover,” or “first mover”; “first cause,” “final cause,” “uncaused cause,” “universal cause,” or “universal causation”; “causal argument,” “argument from motion,” or “cosmological argument”; or simply “nothing comes from nothing.” Formally it’s the cosmological argument.

Sometimes it’s called “the Kalam,” which is short for “the kalam cosmological argument.” Which is a lousy abbreviation for the idea: Kalam is short for عِلْم الكَلام/‘ilm al-kalām, “the science of words,” i.e. Muslim apologetics. The kalam cosmological argument is simply the way Muslims phrase the first cause idea. It’s grown popular because apologist William Lane Craig likes to use it. Hey, truth is truth, whether we get it from Muslims or ancient Greek pagans. But properly, kalam refers to any Muslim apologetics… and you do realize they defend very different ideas about who Jesus is.

As for ancient Greek pagans, they had very different ideas about who God is too. They believed in gods many and lords many. While they did allow it was possible to argue the existence of a One God above all their other gods, local patriotism kinda required you to worship the city’s god, and if you worshiped that god it was expected you’d worship Zeus, the king of gods; so you weren’t really allowed to be a monotheist. Whenever Christians rejected all gods but the One, they’d call us atheist, and sometimes kill us in nasty ways.

But you could still talk about the One God, and many of the ancient Greek philosophers did. Socrates of Athens (ca. 470BC–399BC), Plato of Athens (428BC–347BC), and Aristotle of Athens (384BC–322BC) all did. Aristotle was the guy who posited, in his Metaphysics, the idea there’s a first cause in the universe; a force which started all movement in the cosmos, while it itself does not move, for movement would imply something else moved it. It’s the one fixed point in the universe, an eternal substance which can’t be material, for material things decay. It is, functionally, the One God.

I tend to describe it like yea: Everything in the universe was invented or started or changed by something else. Someone invented and built the computer you’re reading. Some power plant generated the electricity running through it. (And workers built the plant, someone designed the plant, Michael Faraday invented the dynamo, Benjamin Franklin figured out how electricity works, yada yada.) Everything can be traced to a cause. This cause can be traced to a previous cause. And so on.

All the way back, that is, to a point. At some point in the remote past, all these chains of cause and effect work back to one thing. One event which started the process. One event which started everything. Aristotle of Athens called it the “unmoved mover.” Scientists call it the Big Bang—but even that doesn’t take us far enough, ’cause why’d the Big Bang go bang? Did something cause that?

Yes, Christians say; and that’d be God.

St. Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225–1274) wrote a summary in his Summa Theologica which sums it up better than most.

The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.

The second way is from the nature of the efficient cause. In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God. Summa Theologica 1.2.3

The kalam cosmological argument.

Muslim theologians phrased the first cause idea differently, and William Lane Craig restated it like so in his 1991 article, “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe.”

1 Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
2 The universe began to exist.
2.1 Argument based on the impossibility of an actual infinite.
2.1.1 An actual infinite cannot exist.
2.1.2 An infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite.
2.1.3 Therefore, an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist.
2.2 Argument based on the impossibility of the formation of an actual infinite by successive addition.
2.2.1 A collection formed by successive addition cannot be actually infinite.
2.2.2 The temporal series of past events is a collection formed by successive addition.
2.2.3 Therefore, the temporal series of past events cannot be actually infinite.
3 Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.

The argument starts by already presuming there are strings of causes and effects—which is a pretty easy thing to assume. I’ve started a few of these strings! So have you. And both of us are the endpoint of a string of ancestors; and if we have kids, now we’re another one of the ancestors.

But these strings can’t extend back forever; that’s what “an infinite temporal regress of events” means. The reason scientists believe in a Big Bang is because the universe is expanding outward from a single point in space, and it clearly has to have started from that point—with a bang, we’re guessing. Further, many of these strings are cumulative strings: They began as something small and simple, and grew more and more complex over time—and if you follow them backward through time, they get simpler and simpler till they reach what obviously appears to be an original form, a starting point.

Yeah, there are those who insist these strings actually go on forever. Fewer such people all the time, but there are some. But the more you try to describe infinity—heck, the more you try to describe what the causes and effects looked like a really long time ago—the farther back you go, the less logical and reasonable these descriptions get. Eventually you sound ridiculous. Because you’re trying to describe the impossible.

So since every string of cause and effect has a beginning, the universe likewise has a beginning. And someone caused it. That’d be God.

The eternal universe. Which now, few believe in.

These arguments used to be a much bigger deal than they are today. Primarily because most ancient cultures, and most ancient mythologies, didn’t believe in the beginning God created the heavens and earth. Ge 1.1 They believed in the beginning, something was already there. In their creation myths, the gods sprang out of pre-existing, primordial material, and shaped it into the heavens and earth. Or the heavens and earth mated and had babies—which you can take as an allegory or literally, depending on the religion—and these babies were the ancestors of the gods.

Until quite recently, scientists also believed the universe had always existed; it’s called the “steady state theory” of the universe. Wasn’t until Georges Lemaître and Edwin Hubble, in the 1920s, noted the universe was expanding… and one could work this expanse backwards in time to a single point, a “primeval atom” at the beginning of our universe. This Big Bang theory was heavily debated until cosmic background noise was discovered in 1964, which confirmed the idea to most cosmologists’ satisfaction. But before the Big Bang theory became near-universally accepted, the whole first cause idea was dismissed as a farfetched Christian idea, an Aristotelean idea debunked by “modern science.” Turns out it wasn’t.

I noted the Big Bang theory is near-universally accepted; there are of course some holdouts. Some scientists had invested a lot of time and reputation in the idea of a steady state universe. Others absolutely hated the fact the first cause idea might appear to have some scientific backing.

And some religions still figure the universe has always existed, in one form or another. Hindus figure the cycle of birth and death and rebirth (and redeath) goes back forever, and the Big Bang creates a problem they have to work around. Same with Mormons, who believe God became God after he was born and had lived a good Mormon life on his homeworld, and after he died he merited godhood. They believe they have the potential to do likewise. Thing is, this means God, back when he was human, had a heavenly Father. And God’s Father, back when he was human, had a heavenly Father. And so on. Which creates a whole different discussion about the first cause… one which Mormons don’t care to discuss, and can’t really explain, ’cause they don’t believe the details have been revealed to them. (Not officially, anyway.)

Okay. Of those religions which require an infinite universe, or at least a much older one than 13.8 billion years ago, what do they do with the Big Bang? Meh; they figure some sort of universe must’ve existed before the Big Bang. Then it passed away before the Big Bang happened. The Big Bang itself is part of a cycle of rebirth, which goes on forever. See, it doesn’t have to interfere with their worldview any.

Yet there are people—including Christians!—who insist the Big Bang didn’t happen at all, because it interferes with their worldviews way too much. There are young-earth creationists who insist God created the cosmos way more recently than 13.8 billion years ago… and I guess he must’ve created a universe where it appears a Big Bang happened, but it didn’t really. As for non-Christian Big Bang deniers, they likewise insist upon their belief systems. Priorities, y’know: A universe without beginning, or with their preferred beginning, is more important to them than observable reality.

Refuting our first cause idea.

Since the majority of scientists accept the Big Bang theory as fact, next to none of them are going to refute the first cause idea. ’Cause that’s what the Big Bang was: The first cause. So if you wanna pitch the first cause idea to them, they’re fine with it. Yep, there’s totally a first cause. They believe in a first cause. No argument from them.

Thing is, they don’t believe the first cause is God. It’s the Big Bang. That’s not God. You could call it God, and some of ’em actually will… but we’re obviously not talking about the same God. We mean a personal intelligent being; they mean a natural, unintelligent event.

So when we get into debates about the first cause, it’s not really a debate about whether there was one. (Unless you’re one of those Big Bang deniers.) It’s a debate about what the first cause is: God, or the Big Bang. Theists are gonna insist God caused the Big Bang. Nontheists are gonna insist no it’s not; the Big Bang happened without any divine intervention.

“Could’ve happened on its own” doesn’t sound like a reasonable statement whatsoever. Things don’t happen on their own. The whole premise of science itself is there are consistent causes to the effects in our universe—and we seek out the causes, and better understand the universe by them. The Big Bang can’t be an unmovable first mover—it moved! Something else moved it, and that’s who we’re talking about, and calling God.

And skeptics will accept that yeah, something else triggered the Big Bang; something else is the first cause, the first mover, the unmoved mover, or whatever you wanna call it. But they’re still gonna insist we’re talking about an it, not a he. We’re talking about an impersonal trigger, not a Creator. And they figure—and some of ’em claim to have the math to back them up—it’s entirely plausible that the Big Bang happened on its own. Without a Creator setting it off.

Really it all comes down to what you prefer to believe. Would you rather believe the Big Bang is when God declared, “Let there be light”? Ge 1.3 Or would you rather believe God wasn’t part of it at all, and it was purely a natural consequence of the existence of an impossible-to-contain cosmic singularity? Because pre-existing beliefs are pretty much gonna determine whether you adopt the theist or nontheist view. Neither of us base our beliefs on the first cause idea—’cause both of us believe in a first cause! We just disagree about the first cause’s nature. We say it’s a personal God; they say it’s an impersonal force.

And if we can’t really convince the other we’re right, we’re not gonna win any debate. We got a stalemate.

Which is why I keep saying we gotta share testimonies, not logical arguments, to prove God’s existence.