Note: this is the sixth post in a series on the existence of God. Since it builds on the previous posts, please carefully read them before you read this one:
Before I get started with this post, I want to thank those of you who have been patiently following this series. As I have said several times already, most of us who believe in God do so for very instinctive reasons. We don’t need a lot of complex argumentation for faith to make sense. Indeed, faith is what enables us to make sense of the world. But there are many people who do not share this same intuitive grasp of faith, and the purpose of these posts is to offer an intellectually rigorous argument for the existence of God.
Further, many of the terms I have introduced in this series are probably new to most of you, like contingent vs necessary being, or actuality vs potentiality, or essence vs existence. While the concepts conveyed by these terms are not that complicated, sometimes this sort of technical sounding jargon can create the appearance of needless complexity. I have worked very hard to explain these concepts in a way that is easy to grasp, and I hope you have come to see how rich these concepts actually are. And, for what it’s worth, even though I have a graduate degree in theology and have taught on the college level, there are many aspects of the approach I am taking in this series that are fairly new to me as well. So I’m learning new stuff, too!
On top of this, we don’t live in a time that is conducive to serious and sustained contemplation of – well, anything. So for those of you who have stayed with me step by step over this series, thank you! And to give you a bit of a preview, after this post I have two more planned to round out the case for the existence of God. In the meantime, your feedback is so helpful. If there is anything unclear or confusing, please let me know so I can take another stab at it.
Okay, onto the post at hand!
The case for God’s existence is a journey of two (very big) steps. Step One is to show that the only way to rationally explain contingent reality is by some necessary reality or being. Step Two is to identify just precisely what this necessary being is. And if you have stayed on course with me, you know that we have concluded that this necessary being must be eternal, immaterial, immutable, and unique. In today’s post, I want to add one more concept to the mix: the necessary being is the First Cause.
The First Cause
To understand this concept, think with me about the ways in which we use the term first. Here is a picture of a strikingly handsome first grader.
“First” in this sense has to do with the beginning of a sequential series, like first grade – second grade – third grade, etc. But when I was in first grade, I was not “first” in my class. That’s another sense in which we use the term “first,” and it doesn’t have anything to do with a sequence of events. It has to do with being first in rank. Melania Trump is the First Lady, not because she is the beginning of any kind of series – in fact, she is the most recent First Lady. But she is called “First Lady” because of her status as the president’s wife.
When I think of the necessary being as the “First Cause,” the notion that initially comes to mind is that of the beginning of a series. After all, if the world of contingent reality depends on something to exist, it stands to reason that it had a beginning, and that the necessary being is the cause of this beginning. This is what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). On this understanding, God is the first cause of a sequence of events. But in the rest of this post, I want to explore the concept of a cause that is first in rank, what I believe to be an even richer concept.
The First Cause of a Sequential Series
Let me illustrate the point with two different sorts of series. Representing one kind of series is this line of dominos.
We can describe this as a sequential series – one domino next to another in a sequence. Notice that no domino has the inherent power to move. One domino can knock over another, but in order to do so, something will have to knock it over. So we can also describe this as a contingent series – whether any dominos ultimately move will depend on an outside source of movement. And in the language of this post, we could describe the finger that flicks the initial domino as the “First Cause” of the movement of all the dominos. By “first,” I mean that the flicking finger is first in the sequential order of this series (just like “first grade”).
Make sense so far?
But if you think about it, once the finger flicks the first domino, it doesn’t have to do anything else for the series of falling dominos to continue. Depending on how long the line of dominos is, the person who flicked them could just stand and look, or watch TV, or go take a nap. Once the First Cause of this sort of series initiates it, that cause isn’t needed any more. And in religious history, that is precisely how many people came to understand who God is. In this view, God created the world, but – like a watchmaker who winds up a watch and then lets it run on its own – God is no longer involved in the affairs of the world. This view, called deism, was very popular in 18th century.
The First Cause of a Simultaneous Series
There is another kind of series, however. Let me represent it with this photograph of a painter.
He’s equipped with a handle, an attachment, a roller, and paint. Like the relationship of the flicking finger to the moving dominos, each piece of equipment in this series ultimately relies on the painter for movement. But unlike the line of dominos, in which one piece falls at a time, in this series every piece of equipment must work at the same time. The paint applies to the ceiling as the roller moves, which rolls as the attachment moves, which relies on the handle to move, which relies on the painter to move – all working together at once. We’ll call this a simultaneous series. Technically speaking, the roller doesn’t put any paint on the wall – only the painter does. The paint, roller, attachment, and handle are all really secondary – the painter is the primary mover in this series. He ranks above all other parts of the series – he’s its First Cause.
In this kind of series, the First Cause does more than simply initiate what is happening. In a simultaneous series, the First Cause also sustains what is happening. The finger-flicker can go grab a bite while the dominos continue falling, but if the painter stops moving the handle, the painting will not continue. That is why I said earlier that the First Cause in the sense of rank is a richer concept than a First Cause in the sense of time. To use an ancient illustration, a cause that is first in time is like a blacksmith who makes a horseshoe – once the shoe is made, it no longer needs the blacksmith to continue to exist. But a cause that is first in rank is like a musician making music – if the musician stops, so does the music.
Putting It All Together
Now, let’s connect the dots between this richer notion of a First Cause and the previous posts. Remember that to be contingent is to depend on something else. As human beings you and I are contingent – we depend on our parents to exist. To be more precise, we begin to exist because of our parents. But why do we continue to exist? To use the jargon from a couple of posts ago, what is actualizing my potential to continue to exist?
In part, I continue to exist because my organs are functioning. But my organs are working because the cells that compose them are functioning. But those cells are working because the molecules that compose them are functioning. But the molecules are working because the atoms that compose them are functioning….
Does this sound familiar? What we have here is a simultaneous series in which many layers of contingent things (organs, cells, molecules, etc.) must all be working at the same time in order for me to exist right at this very moment. Or, to speak in the language of Aristotle, various layers of potentials are being actualized all at the same time, just like the potential of the paint, roller, attachment, and handle to move must be actualized.
For a series like this to work, there must be a First Cause, just as there must be a painter in order for the paint, roller, attachment, and handle to move. To be picky, not even the painter is the first cause in the final sense, because his own ability to move depends on deeper and deeper layers of potentials that must become actual (muscles/nerve fibers/cellular structure/molecular structure/etc.). The only way to ultimately explain all of the cause-and-effect relationships we can observe (including the existence of painters and the motion of painting) is if there is some necessary being that doesn’t rely on anything else to come into existence or to make things happen. Something, in other words, that is the sustaining cause of the existence and operation of contingent things.
And that is what is meant by the First Cause in the fullest sense.
No matter how deeply we want to explore the layers of contingency that are at work right at this very moment, these layers all derive their existence and operation from the First Cause. That is why it doesn’t make any difference whether you trace the contingency back in time to a Big Bang, or whether you trace it across time throughout a multitude of presently existing universes (like the multiverse theory). In all directions, contingent reality points to a necessarily existing First Cause that is sustaining its existence moment by moment.
But is this First Cause personal? Does it possess attributes comparable to personal characteristics we are familiar with in each other, such as goodness, intelligence, and will? That is the topic we will explore next.