Evil Bender has been infested by the unintentionally hilarious creationist troll Sirius Knot. It’s entertaining reading, but if you visit don’t post because EB has forbidden feeding the troll. You’ll notice that the “first cause” argument comes up a lot, and apparently creationists think still this has some rhetorical weight despite having fallen out of favor with Sophisticated Theologians ™.
“First Cause” is an argument for the existence of god, and in a nutshell it goes like this:
everything has a cause,
the universe exists,
thus god created the universe
You can get a little fancier, but the basic premise is that since everything we see around us has some cause for why it happens to be there, the universe itself needs a cause as well. God, being supernatural, is the only possible cause for the existence of the universe, so god exists.
This argument is extremely weak and offers numerous lines of attack. The most common is to attack the conclusion. First we can note that the argument is circular. Having posited the need for X, the argument simply asserts that X is god, without making any effort to demonstrate that god has any of the necessary attributes to fulfill X, nor paring away any attributes associated with god that are not implied by X. The theist essentially starts by stipulating that his god has the power to create the universe and then makes the first cause argument to give him a job to do.
The second problem is that the argument only works if we also assume that god doesn’t need a cause. Otherwise, since everything needs a cause then god too needs a cause and we get an infinite regress. By why should god have this special self-causing property? If god can be self-causing, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why we can’t assume the universe itself has this property. Then we simply say that the universe exists because it exists, which makes just as much sense as dragging god into it.
But I want to take a different approach and attack the premise: the claim that everything has a cause. It’s true that for most everyday things we can identify some other thing as proximate cause. Clouds cause rain; rain and sun cause clover to grow; clover causes cows to make milk; milk and cold causes ice cream; milkshakes cause you to get fat, etc. But all of these are transformations of one type of thing into another – phase transitions, metabolism, or chemical reactions. All of them are subject to conservation of energy.
But the universe itself is of an entire different order. The universe is everything that exists, and no matter how much it or what’s in it changes it’s still the universe. If the universe was created from something else with equal energy that earlier thing would simply have been the universe in a different form. The only way that the existence of the universe can have a cause is by violation of conservation of energy – the universe must be created from nothing. Since this is totally unlike anything in our normal experience, the premise that “everything has a cause” cannot be assumed.
In fact, there are many things in the world of quantum mechanics that don’t have causes in the conventional sense. Atomic decay isn’t caused by anything – there’s simply a probability that it might happen, and then at some point it does. You could argue that the field equations caused the decay to be probable, but this doesn’t give us another thing to point to as cause. The decay was not caused by anything, it just happened. Likewise if an excited atom spontaneously emits a photon it’s not completely the case that the atom caused the photon. In fact the photon comes from interactions with virtual particles, which are particle-antiparticle pairs that are created all over the universe all the time, for no reason. They have no cause but quantum chaos.
These so-called vacuum fluctuations give us a much better grasp on the types of events that could create the universe. Rather than basing our intuition on our experience of reshaping huge masses of atoms into different forms and looking for a prime sculptor, we should look at real noncausal physics and see if that can be made to do the work. It may be that the entire universe is something like a giant vacuum fluctuation, in which case it would be reasonable to say that the universe was not caused by anything.