“If everything requires a cause, what caused God? Ha! Gotcha!”
This is just one of many common objections to arguments that no one ever gave. The reason no respectable theist ever gave this particular argument (i.e. everything has a cause of its existence, therefore God) is that it is a bad argument. And yet, this particular strawman version of the Principle of Causality (PC) is the version that most commonly gets objected to.
This is part 4 (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 found here) in the series rebutting Sean Carroll’s paper titled Why is there Something, Rather Than Nothing?. In this post, we now will respond to the above objection and other common objections that were raised during the previous posts rebutting Sean Carroll’s paper.
Credit Where Credit is Due
Nowhere in Carroll’s paper does he make the elementary objection of “what caused God?” that was alluded to at the beginning. Giving credit where it is due, Carrol does demonstrate in his paper that he has an interest in and general understanding of philosophy and its relationship to science. This was demonstrated when Carroll pointed out that many scientists equivocate on the word “nothing” when they say that nothing is unstable and can spontaneously produce the universe via quantum fluctuations (post 3).
Carroll does make his own philosophical mistakes, though. One is failing to see the absurdity in denying the PC and the PSR, as was demonstrated in the previous two posts. Another is that he equivocates a contingent brute fact universe with the idea of God being a brute fact. This is a category error of the highest magnitude. Responding to this latter objection, along with the others that were raised in our previous discussions of Carroll’s paper is to what we now turn.
As discussed at length in the previous posts, Carroll’s main argument is that he thinks the universe can exist as a contingent brute fact. This was stated as such in his opening paragraph:
It seems natural to ask why the universe exists at all. Modern physics suggests that the universe can exist all by itself as a self-contained system, without anything external to create or sustain it. But there might not be an absolute answer to why it exists. I argue that any attempt to account for the existence of something rather than nothing must ultimately bottom out in a set of brute facts; the universe simply is, without ultimate cause or explanation. 
Since the next couple sections will deal with the idea of brute facts, let’s first define exactly what we mean by brute facts.
In contemporary philosophy, a brute fact is a fact that has no explanation. More narrowly, brute facts may instead be defined as those facts which cannot be explained (as opposed to simply having no explanation). To reject the existence of brute facts is to think that everything can be explained. (“Everything can be explained” is sometimes called the principle of sufficient reason). Wikipedia.
Why Can’t the Universe be a Brute Fact?
Why can’t the Universe be a brute fact? We covered this in detail in post 2 and 3, so we will just give a brief summary here, then.
According to the Aristotelian proof, any actualization of a potential requires a cause, whereas what is pure actuality, and only what is pure actuality, does not. But the universe is a mixture of actuality and potentiality, and the Big Bang involved the actualization of a potential, as would each stage in the evolution of a multiverse and each quantum event (indeterminism being irrelevant). The laws of physics are also by themselves merely potential insofar as they could have been other than they are. Hence, none of these could be self-explanatory, necessary, or “uncaused” in the relevant sense of being the sort of thing that need not and could not have a cause. 
We have also pointed out in previous posts that everything has an explanation of its existence. This explanation can only be in either of two ways. One is an extrinsic explanation (it is caused by another) because it is a contingent entity. The other is an intrinsic explanation because something exists by necessity of its own nature. This is the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). 
We cannot have an infinite series of explanations of contingent objects, as there would be nothing that explains the series itself. Leibniz gave the analogy of an infinite set of geometry books, each one copied from a previous copy. An infinite series may provide an immediate cause for each book, but it provides no explanation for why this particular series of books exist in the first place. The series itself is contingent as it could have been a different series of books.
To posit a brute fact series is to deny the PSR. As we saw in post 3, this leads to a denial of reason itself. If even one thing has no reason for its existence, there is no reason to expect that anything should have reasons for its existence. Likewise, simply positing the universe itself as a contingent brute fact is like building a shelf and trying to hang it in mid-air. It violates the PSR.
Why God is Not a Brute Fact
What about God then? Isn’t God just a brute fact too? This is the very idea that Carroll expresses in his paper when he states:
While a creator could explain the existence of our universe, we are left to explain the existence of a creator. In order to avoid explanatory regression, it is tempting to say that the creator explains its own existence, but then we can ask why the universe can’t do the same thing. 
Is it special pleading to demand that God is a necessary being? Absolutely not.
God is the conclusion of the PSR, not an exception to the rule.
There are many lines of argumentation from classical theism that reach this conclusion. One such is from the argument from contingency.
(1) Every contingent fact has an explanation.
(2) There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts.
(3) Therefore, there is an explanation of this fact.
(4) This explanation must involve a necessary being.
(5) This necessary being is God. 
Since there need be a necessary thing that explains all contingent things, it logically follows that this necessary thing cannot contain any potentials. If it did, it would contain things within itself that is also contingent upon something else over and above it. These potentials would also require an explanation and an actualizer, then. As such, a necessary being must be pure actuality; that is to say pure being itself, containing no potentials or parts. As Thomas Aquinas says at the end of each of his arguments in the Five Ways, “and this is what we call God”. 
What Caused God?
A much weaker form of the God is special pleading objection is the “what caused God?” objection. Neither Carroll nor any of the traditional classical theistic arguments for God make the case that everything needs a cause. This is because it is a very bad argument.
Classical theism does not believe that God caused Himself. This would entail a contradiction.
No thing can be the efficient cause of itself. This is because if it caused itself, then it would be both prior and not prior to itself, which is a contradiction and thus impossible. Therefore, if we observe an effect from an essentially ordered series of efficient causes, there must be a first cause that is uncaused. 
Classical theism believes that God does not have a cause, though. Remember from post 2 that this does not mean that God does not have a reason for His existence. He does. As was discussed above and in the previous posts, God’s explanation is that He is the necessary being that imparts existence to everything. Without Him, nothing would exist.
Accidental vs. Essential Causal Series
There is one key point that usually leads to this elementary confusion on the PC. This is the distinction between an accidentally ordered causal series and an essentially ordered causal series.
An accidentally ordered series is one in which the effect does not continuously depend on its cause for its existence.  This is a linear series of causes going back in time. For example, you are part of an accidentally ordered series of causes stretching back through your parents to your ancestors. This means that once your parents caused you to exist, you can continue to exist whether or not your parents or previous generations concurrently exist.
An essential ordered series is one in which all the causes have to be immediately present for the effect to continue to exist. This is a vertical (or hierarchical) system that is functional in the present. An example would be a system of gears. If you remove just one of the gears, the entire system loses its ability to function.
We can certainly think of the universe through the lens of an accidentally ordered causal series. Our current scientific understanding is if we traveled backward in time we would eventually end up in a singularity, the source of the “big bang” of the universe. Some speculate that there could have been something before the big bang, and also speculate that the universe may even be eternal (maybe going through cycles of big bangs and contractions or a myriad of other theories).
Aquinas agreed that it is possible that the universe is eternal. He doesn’t think there is any valid philosophical objection to the idea of an infinitely long accidentally ordered causal series. Currently, I disagree with Aquinas on this point, but that is a topic for another post. It should also be noted that this is a purely philosophical statement by Aquinas and he did, in fact, believe in biblical creation and that the universe had a beginning.
Aquinas doesn’t think, however, that you can have an infinite essentially ordered causal series for the universe. There needs to be a terminus to this kind of causal series. At each point in this series, each thing derives its causal power from another. If you remove one of the elements in the series (one of the gears), the whole system loses its causal powers. There must be a prime mover, then, that imparts causal powers to the entire system.
Edward Feser gives the example of the coffee in your cup being held by the cup. The cup, in turn, is held up by the desk, the desk by the ground, the ground by the entire earth, the earth by the gravity from the sun, and so on. This essentially ordered causal series continues until you hit the fundamental laws of nature. These laws of nature, too, derive their causal powers from something.
An essentially ordered causal system cannot go on infinitely. There needs to be a necessary being, without a cause, for there to be any motion or for anything to exist at any moment in time; right here, and right now.
God Does Not Need a Cause.
We can also look to Aristotle’s argument from motion/change for a bit more clarification on why there needs to be a necessary being for anything to exist. Remeber in post 2 we discussed that change is really the actualization of potentials. Since nothing can cause itself, any potential needs to be actualized by something else that is already actual. This is true not just in the accidental causal series sense (going back in time) but in the immediate essential causal series sense (hierarchical). There must be something purely actual to impart any change to the series or change (motion) would be impossible.
This, again, is why the universe cannot be a necessary being. It has potentials. If it just existed as a brute fact, it would literally be deriving its causal powers from nothing. This doesn’t make any sense. God, on the other hand, is a purely actual being. He contains no potentials and thus is a necessary being.
This conception of God helps us make sense of why God says his name is “I am who I am” in Exodus 3:14. God is being itself.
God is not special pleading, then. Far from it. The claim has always been that God doesn’t need a cause because he is the primary cause that is necessary for there to be any causation at all. This is why the objection “what caused God?” is a strawman directed at an argument for God that no one gave. And yet, it is probably one of the most frequently cited objections against the idea of God. 
Fallacy of Composition
It is sometimes objected that just because you say the universe’s parts are comprised of contingent parts, doesn’t mean that the whole universe is contingent.
This is termed the fallacy of composition, the error of assuming that what is true of a member of a group is true for the group as a whole. One stock example is the property of weight. If I have a pile of stones, each of which is less than a pound, it would be an error for me to conclude that the entire pile weighs less than a pound.
The problem is that this is not a universal principle that applies to all properties. Here is Edward Feser’s explanation:
Not every inference from part to whole commits a fallacy of composition. Whether such a fallacy is committed depends on what sort of feature of the parts we are reasoning about. Where weight is concerned, we can’t validly reason from what is true of the parts to what is true of the whole. But where color (for example) is concerned, we can validly reason from the parts to the whole. If each Lego block in a pile of Lego blocks is red, then any object we make out of those blocks will also be red.
Now, contingency is, in the sense that is relevant to the present issue, more like color then it is like weight. Take any contingent thing—a stone, a Lego block, a tree, a human being, whatever. A collection of three stones is obviously no less contingent than a single stone is, and a collection of three hundred or three million stones is obviously no less contingent than the collection of three stones. Indeed, the collections are if anything more obviously contingent than the individual stone is. The individual stone is contingent on things like the laws of physics continuing to operate in such a way that the atoms making up the stone don’t dissipate, for example. But the collection is dependent both on all of its component stones being gathered together in just the way they are, and on each individual stone in the collection existing insofar as the laws of physics continue to operate in such a way that the atoms making up the stone don’t dissipate, for example. The collection is thus doubly contingent. It is quite silly to pretend, then, that when we get to the collection of all the stones there are, or all the contingent things there are, we might somehow suddenly have something that is not contingent. 
Quantum Physics Does Not Refute PSR
What about quantum physics? Doesn’t it show that there are things that exist without causes and thus, without reasons?
Other common objections to PSR are variations on those directed against the principle of causality (e.g., Humean objections to the effect that it is conceivable that something might come into being without any explanation), and they fail for the reasons already considered in chapter 1. Objections that appeal to quantum mechanics are even less plausible when directed against PSR than when directed against the principle of causality. For whether or not we want to say that eccentric quantum phenomena have a cause, they certainly have an explanation, since they presuppose and are made intelligible by the laws of quantum mechanics. 
– Edward Feser
The main problem with the quantum physics objection is that it again confuses PC with PSR. Just because something may, in fact, not have an immediate cause, it doesn’t follow that it doesn’t have an explanation for why it exists.
As to the objection from indeterminism, it is sometimes pointed out in response that the de Broglie-Bohm hidden variable interpretation provides a way of seeing quantum systems as deterministic (see e.g.Bunge 2007, pp. 346–51). But from a Scholastic point of view it is a mistake to suppose in the first place that causality entails determinism, though this may seem to follow from Leibnizian rationalist versions of PSR. As W. Norris Clarke points out (2001, p. 181), PSR in its rationalist version seems to regard an effect as something that can be deduced from its cause. It looks forward from causes to their effects.The Thomist, however, looks backward from effects to causes. On a Thomistic construal of PSR, for a cause to be sufficient to explain its effect it is not necessary that it cause it. It need only make the effect intelligible. (Cf. Smart and Haldane 2003, pp. 125–26) And that condition is satisfied on a non-deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics. As Robert Koons writes:
According to the Copenhagen version of quantum mechanics, every transition of a system has causal antecedents: the preceding quantum wave state, in the case of Schrödinger evolution, or the preceding quantum wave state plus the observation, in the case of wave packet collapse. (2000, p. 114) 
– Edward Feser
Even if some aspects of quantum mechanics are truly indeterminate (i.e there are no hidden variables), all we would have established is that there are entities (particles) that have certain quantum properties. They still would be following the quantum laws of nature, which themselves are contingent and in need of an explanation.
We do know enough from logic to say if quantum mechanics truly violates the PSR, it is to admit that the world is unintelligible and make the scientific project itself impossible. It seems far more likely that these laws, even if truly containing stochastic (chance) events without immediate causes, still have explanations of their existence. We just don’t have complete enough knowledge to know what they are. Quantum physics does not provide any strong defeater for the arguments for God or against the PSR.
…(As Della Rocca points out, someone who tries to use quantum mechanics against PSR still owes us an answer to Della Rocca’s question about where we are supposed to draw the line between legitimate “explicability arguments” and illegitimate ones, and why we should draw it precisely where the critic says we should.) Hence, the burden of proof is not on the proponent of PSR to show that it is true (though this is, as I have suggested, a burden which can be met), but rather on the critic of PSR to show how it can coherently be rejected. 
– Edward Feser
In reality, there are many competing interpretations of quantum mechanics. No one understands what the equations of quantum mechanics are really describing. As Richard Feynman once said in a lecture: “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” It is very presumptuous to throw out a first principle of knowledge based on our very limited understanding of quantum mechanics.
What the World Needs Now…
For a variety of reasons, classical theism has fallen out of favor in the modern milieu. Because of this, most people don’t know about the strongest arguments for the existence of God.
Most people don’t know that classical theist arguments for God circumvent the entire science vs. philosophy of religion debate. Where a lot of the common arguments for God (Kalam Cosmological, Intelligent Design, etc.) seem to trade blows with science over which way empirical evidence points, classical theistic arguments use metaphysical principles that must undergird all knowledge (including science) to explain why God is necessary. Classical theism’s conclusions are not contingent upon the findings of modern science, then.
Given this, it is hard to outright blame Sean Carroll for his conclusions. His line of thought is the product of centuries of work by many prominent thinkers obscuring the ideas of classical theism. We have made many advances in our understanding of the world along the way, but we have also lost some very basic understanding of our first principles of all knowledge. This is what leads to the extreme positions that Carroll holds to in his paper. A classical theism perspective is what is sorely missing from the modern discourse.
This concludes my series of posts rebutting Sean Carroll’s paper Why is there Something, Rather Than Nothing?. As I have demonstrated throughout these posts, there are many reasons why Carroll’s conclusions just do not describe the world we live in. The idea of brute facts is absurd. Denying the PSR is absurd. Denying the PC is absurd. We have also seen how many of the common objections to classical theism are directed at strawmen. Especially the idea that God is special pleading. Once again, God is not an exception to the PSR, He is the conclusion.
A Few Final Points
There is a big difference between science and scientism. There is a difference between studying the world and saying that we can only obtain knowledge through empirical methods.
I truly enjoy learning about science and think it is a God-given vocation. It is simply studying God’s creation after all. It has its limits, though (as does even our ability to reason). In looking at the PSR and the PC, we have seen that there certainly is a place for philosophical inquiry in the sciences. Its exclusion can only lead to grave errors, such as the denial of first principles reason.
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Finally, all arguments aside, the truly sufficient reason for why we are here is because God wants to share existence with us. We can continue to study the world around us to look for God’s handiwork. We can think up many complex philosophical arguments to believe why there must be a necessary creator of everything. But the only way we can know who God is, though, is if He reveals Himself to us.
At the end of the day, this is why Christianity exists. Christianity is true not because we reasoned to the necessary existence of God, but because, about 2000 years ago, God entered history in the person Jesus.
In one great initial act of love, God created everything to share existence with us. In another equally great act of love, God sacrificed Himself on the cross to give us eternal life.
Why is there something rather than nothing? Because of God’s infinite love.
Christ is the Principle of Sufficient Reason for everything.
No wisdom, no understanding, and no counsel
will prevail against the Lord.
All things were created through Him,
and apart from Him not one thing was created
that has been created.
1 Timothy 2:3–6
3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people.
11 In him we were also chosen,[a] having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
- Sean M. Carroll. Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing? February 8, 2018. p. 1 ↩
- Edward Feser. Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Ignatius Press. loc. 554 ↩
- “So, we have the best of reasons to affirm the principle of sufficient reason. Now, the explanation of anything is going to be found either in the thing’s own nature, or in something outside it. In the latter case, we can say that the thing is contingent—that it depends on circumstances outside itself, and thus will not exist if those circumstances do not hold. In the former case, we can say that the thing is necessary—that there is something in its own nature that entails that it cannot fail to exist, so that it depends on nothing outside itself. There is no third possibility. If a thing is explained neither by its own nature nor by anything outside itself, then it would be explained by nothing at all. But something’s having no explanation at all is ruled out by PSR.” Edward Feser. Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Ignatius Press. loc. 322 ↩
- “Leibniz asks us to imagine that a series of geometry books has been copied from eternity; such an infinite regress would still not explain why such books exist at all.” Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith (3rd edition): Christian Truth and Apologetics (p. 99). Crossway. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Sean M. Carroll. Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing? February 8, 2018. p. 13–14 ↩
- Pruss, Alexander R. Leibnizian Cosmological Arguments. W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland (eds.), Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2009. http://alexanderpruss.com/papers/LCA.html href=”#fnref-6″ ↩
- Feser, Edward. Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Ignatius Press. loc. 338 ↩
- Matt Fradd & Robert A. Delfino. Does God Exist? A Socratic Dialogue on the Five Ways of Thomas Aquinas loc. 191 ↩
- The term “accident” shouldn’t be confused with our modern word accident which usually means an event that happens by chance or an unintended event that results in negative consequences. The scholastic term means something that is not essential. So for instance, your height is accidental. It is not essential to who you are to exist (you could have your legs amputated and you would still exist). ↩
- “On my own blog, I’ve given many examples of philosophers who attack the straw man First Cause argument. They include Bertrand Russell, Steven Hales, Nigel Warburton, and (as I showed in a post discussing several examples at once) Daniel Dennett, Robin Le Poidevin, Graham Priest, Michael Martin, Simon Blackburn, Jenny Teichman and Katherine Evans. Clarke offers several further examples from philosophy textbooks of the mid twentieth century, including John Hospers’ widely used An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis. As Clarke indicates, Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian may be the source from which many subsequent writers learned this caricature and the stock reply to it. Clarke also notes that Russell in turn seems to have gotten the idea from John Stuart Mill, who in turn got it from his father James Mill. Clarke thinks that David Hume, who in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion attacks something like the stock straw man First Cause argument, may be the first well-known writer to do so.” Feser, Edward. https://strangenotions.com/if-everything-requires-a-cause-what-caused-god/ ↩
- Feser, Edward. Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Ignatius Press. loc. 327 ↩
- ibid., loc. 350 ↩
- Feser, E. (2014). Scholastic Metaphysics: a contemporary introduction. p.135 ↩
- Feser, Edward. Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Ignatius Press. loc. 350 ↩