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10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 3)
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Last time we spoke about the difference between the G-d of monotheism and the random fictitious characters no one believes in, such as the tooth fairy. Whereas the existence of the former is arrived at through deductive reason and is thus disproved through questioning the premises or logic of certain classic arguments, the existence of the latter rests on no such reasoning and is much more easily disbelieved.

This time, we will briefly examine the most famous argument for G-d’s existence as it has existed since the middle ages. We will examine it through the lens of the most common and by far the worst objection to the argument, which is:

3. “What caused G-d?”

At first glance, this argument is not an expression of ridiculous offhanded easy atheism, like the other things we are examining in this series. This argument appears in several books claiming to be serious atheist criticisms of theism. It is what people say when they hear one of the famous cosmological argument for the existence of G-d. When they hear, but not when they pay attention, because, as we shall see, this argument is not an argument at all a lazy bumper sticker dismissal of G-d, and is perfectly at home on this list.

Now, there’s a reason that the classical arguments for G-d’s existence, including the one I’m about to ridiculously briefly paraphrase, are found within the context of much broader works. An understanding of Aristotelean and scholastic metaphysics, of the way the world works according to those philosophical schools, is required to really understand the arguments they put forth. I do not claim to grasp that entire metaphysical picture, and I certainly am not getting into the bits I do know in this small space. Suffice it to say, the following paragraph is merely the tip of the iceberg of the proof for G-d in its entirety, with all caveats explored and all concepts mapped out.

In my own words, the cosmological argument, as laid out by medieval philosophers of all three major monotheistic religions, is:  Everything that is caused has an efficient cause outside of itself, because nothing can cause itself. Since the potential can only be made actual by something that is already actual, this efficient cause must itself be actual. But if this efficient cause is itself caused, then it itself needs a cause outside itself, to make it actual. This chain of efficient causes must therefore terminate in a cause that is uncaused, and that uncaused cause can be shown to have all the traits of G-d.

Now, this argument (which I hope I have done justice in my paraphrase) sometimes appears in other terms. The Rambam, for example, makes this argument not from causality but from motion (that is, anything which is in motion cannot move itself, etc.). A similar argument exists in terms of essence and existence (anything whose existence is not its essence must have its essence and existence conjoined by something outside itself, etc). But one thing this argument never, ever, ever, does, is start with, “everything has a cause,” which would then allow us to turn around, triumph writ upon our countenances, and say, “But what caused G-d?”

(That is not to say that there are no legitimate critiques of the cosmological argument, On the contrary, many great thinkers have challenged its premises, and it has been a debate among philosophers since the argument was made. I am simply pointing out that “What caused G-d” has absolutely nothing to do with what the Rambam, for example, was saying. No one ever said everything has to have a cause.)

Why, you may wonder, is this relevant to the average theist?

Because the real cosmological argument, as opposed to the caricature of “everything has a cause, nothing causes itself, so there must be a first cause which is G-d,” puts us on the right trail toward (at least a negative version of) an understanding of G-d.

You see, the false cosmological argument offered by no classical philosopher is what makes room for the deist understanding of the creator, of G-d as a divine watchmaker who at some point created or gave order to the universe but may today be totally uninvolved. After all, the place for G-d according to that argument is at the beginning of a causal change that stretches into the distant past, irrelevant except as the first step of a process that has been going on for thousands or millions of years, etc.

The true version of the cosmological argument, however, has a sense of the qualitative difference between G-d and everything else. In other words, the idea that anything which is comprised of act and potency must be caused by something other than itself, whereas pure act requires no cause, draws a sharp delineation between the causative powers of G-d and those of everything else. Ultimately, the cosmological argument is trying to say (and again, whether it succeeds is a matter of some controversy) that all causes other than the first are instrumental, that G-d is first not just in order but also in quality, that nothing can be unless G-d makes it so, at every moment.

(This, incidentally, is why, as pointed out by the Rambam, the existence of G-d has nothing to do with whether the world has always existed or was created at some point in the past. According to his cosmological deduction of G-d’s existence, even an eternal universe requires G-d to sustain it at every moment. Students of chassidus will note that this sounds similar to what the Alter Rebbe is saying at the beginning of the second part of Tanya. Indeed, that work takes the Rambam’s argument and takes it further, showing the qualitative gain in an appreciation of G-d when we do, in fact, accept that the world is not only sustained by G-d at every moment but also was created ex nihilo.)

Thus, if we study the actual arguments made by the great philosophers of the monotheistic religions, we begin to realize what they have in mind when they constantly praise this “G-d” character…

atheism causality G-d monotheism

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  1. A way to make your point is to distinguish between “cause” and “explanation”. Aquinas argues that it makes no sense to believe in an infinite chain of explanations, and concludes that there must be a first explanation that is itself unexplained, which he calls God. You are quite correct that he does not believe this proves there must have been a first moment in time. He thinks it is logically possible that there could have been an infinite series of moments in time, but believes that this whole infinite series must have a reason (or explanation) for existing.
    I wish though you would state what you think the atheist argument is, since “what caused God?” is not an argument, it is a question. What do you think the argument is?

  2. It seems to me that you’ve taken a glib argument, “what caused God?,” and somewhat arbitrarily assumed that it’s a response to a bit of medieval logicsmithing.

    You acknowledge an extant version of the argument which addresses that bit of medieval logic more seriously, but direct your response at the glib one.

    More realistically, a snarky “So what caused god?” is a response to an equally snarky “So first there was nothing, and then everything just exploded without cause? Checkmate, atheists!”

    1. I don’t disagree with any particular point. Just moving the conversation higher. I openly acknowledge, repeatedly, that these articles are NOT where the tire hits the road, where these issues really play out against each other in all their strength, etc. The point is we theists shouldn’t be so glib! “What caused God” is a *good* response to our glibness. It’s a better glibness!

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