Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Encountering God's Existence: The Uncaused Cause

Anyone who has spent time around young children is aware of their tendency to ask the question, "Why?" Often times, this tendency can shift from comical to slightly irritating, especially when every answer you provide is immediately followed by yet another, "But why?" This curiosity, while it may seem silly at times to us older humans, is actually an innocent and productive example of the human desire to know. As soon as we become aware of cause and effect relationships, we develop a strong desire to know the cause behind every given effect. Unlike other animals, we do not simply react to our environment, but seek to understand it. We are not content with knowing that something happens in nature, we want to know why it happens. This desire to know the causes of things is the basis for all scientific and philosophical inquiry, and in fact, all rational inquiry. Moreover, the predictive ability of scientific theories, which is a key element in assessing their validity, takes for granted that an effect proper to a cause will happen necessarily. As human beings, our desire to know things on a deeper, metaphysical level (e.g., the causes behind events) is what separates us from other, non-rational, animals. Consider that when an animal has all of its biological needs met, it almost invariably goes into an inactive state or sleeps. By contrast, when a human being has all of its biological needs met, it begins to ask questions, questions whose answers do not pertain to any strictly biological need, such as:  Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What is the purpose of my life? What is the purpose of life altogether? And, the most sublime question of all: Why is there something rather than nothing?

I Demand an Explanation!

Whether in the simple events of our daily lives or in the most complex experiments in the laboratory, our experience of the natural world tells us that reality is completely intelligible, that is, that every coherent question about reality has an answer. Stated more simply, for every effect, there is a cause. Given adequate observation, we see (and indeed, even predict) that every observable phenomenon has a sufficient explanation for its occurrence. Reality is not absurd. Even when the cause of something is extremely difficult to assess, we never give up and assume that the event in question is simply a brute fact of nature that we must accept, something that "just happens". No, even if conclude that we may never know how or why a particular event occurs, we consign this to our human or technological limitations, because we know that there must be a cause, an explanation. This demand that every event have a sufficient explanation, that every effect have a cause, is an unavoidable fact of rational thought. In philosophy, it is known as the principle of sufficient reason. Rather than simply guiding our search for answers to our practical and scientific questions, we can quite easily apply this principle to questions of metaphysics (i.e., the study of fundamental reality beyond mere matter). "Does God exist?" is one such question, and it is to this that we now turn.

Someone Should Have Bought a Kindle...

The following is a simple thought experiment about the nature of cause and effect relationships. Suppose that you want to check out a book from your local library. Excited, you go there to do so, but you soon learn from the librarian that they don't have the book in stock, and will have to borrow it from another library through an inter-library loan. "Okay," you say to the librarian, "so I assume the book will be here in a few days then?" "Actually no," he responds, "because the library we're ordering the book from has to order it from another library first." Slightly disappointed, you ask, "Oh, so it will be more like a week or so before it arrives?" Checking the computer again with a confused glance, he apologizes, "I'm sorry but no, the book won't be here in a week either because apparently that second library has to first order it from another library." At this point, you're starting to get annoyed and to doubt that you will ever see the book that you're anxious to read. Then the librarian tells you something very strange, in fact, it's so strange that it makes no sense to you at all and you assume that he must be playing a prank on you. He says, "I'm so sorry, but it turns out that the number of libraries that need to first borrow the book before lending it to us is actually infinite." If we excuse for now the impossibility of a literally infinite number of libraries existing on the planet for the sake of our thought experiment, what can we still say about the possibility of you ever receiving your (apparently extremely rare) book? It's not a trick question. The answer is: zero, zilch, none.

Job Opening: Cause of All Reality

This might seem intuitively obvious, but let's examine this answer a little closer. Why would you never receive the book? The answer is, because an infinite number of libraries that all need to borrow a book before being able to lend can never provide the book. So, what do books and libraries have to do with God's existence? Well, in our scenario above, what would be required in order for you to check out the book? Of course, there would have to be a library that actually has the book in stock, one that doesn't have to borrow the book from another library. No matter how many libraries you add to the scenario, if they all have to borrow the book before lending it, then the book will never reach you. Now, switch gears and imagine that "existence" is the book in the scenario. What do we know about you? You exist (you have the book). Did you always exist? No, you were born number of years ago. Why do you exist then? Because your parents conceived you, gave birth to you, and cared for you. But why do they exist? Because their parents did the same for them. But why do their parents exist? Because their parents . . . You can probably guess where this is going. If we could keep going back far enough with our questions and answers, we would eventually reach the first human beings as the explanation for why you exist, and beyond them, whatever creatures might have preceded them, and beyond those creatures, whatever environmental causes were needed to bring about their existence, and beyond those causes, whatever causes were needed to bring the Earth into existence, and so on and so on, all the way back to the Big Bang (assuming for now that the Big Bang marks the beginning of the universe as most physicists and cosmologists believe). Well then, where does God fit into this (condensed) narrative of the history of physical reality? Remember what we said about the libraries––there must exist a library that actually has the book in order for you to receive it. But you do have the book, you exist right now. That means that something must exist in reality that caused you to exist (through an extremely long and complicated series of other causes), without needing to be caused itself. This means that there must exist an "uncaused cause" in reality.

Wait, This Sounds Familiar...

Okay, what's the big deal? So there has to be an uncaused cause, but that could be anything, right? It doesn't have to be something like God, does it? Actually, when we think about what it means for something to be "uncaused", some interesting implications quickly surface. For one thing, in order for something to be uncaused, it would have to be eternal, that is, outside of time. This is because something that is uncaused could not have begun to exist at some past point in time, since the beginning of its existence (i.e., its creation) would require a cause. Also, as the only uncaused cause, it would have to be the cause, explanation, or creator of everything else that exists (i.e., all the "caused causes). Finally, an uncaused cause would have to be immaterial (i.e., not made of matter), because things that are made of matter are composed in a certain form, which requires a cause, and subject to change (which is a measured by time). So, in order for you and your iPhone and your dog and the Statue of Liberty and penguins and black holes and everything and everyone else to exist, there must be an immaterial (a.k.a. spiritual), eternal, and uncaused cause. What (or Who) does that sound like? In the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, "And this everyone calls God."

Under the Mercy,

Chris Trummer