God as the First Cause
To understand this concept of a first cause we need to think outside the box. What is it that boxes in our thought? Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that human beings have an innate pre disposition to see the world in terms of causes and effects. Causation is not something we learn from looking at reality but rather a condition to our experience of that reality and to our attempts to understand it. He referred to our understanding of the nature of causes and effects as ‘a priori’, condition to understanding that precedes our experience of events in the world. This assumption of a deterministic world ruled by causes and effects, has served us well, lying as it does at the heart of our scientific progress over the previous 350 years. The concept of causation implies a concept of time, a concept of before and after. Causes precede effects if only momentarily so, thus one cannot have a cause and effect without a notion of time. This concept was another of Kant’s ‘a priori’ forms of human understanding. For us reality is set in time. This then is, in part at least, our box in which our understanding sits.
Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) in the context of this understanding directed an enquiry to the way in which the process of causes and effects started off. If every effect can be traced back to a cause and that cause was an effect of a previous cause, then where did the whole process of causes and effects start? His answer was to assume that there must have been a first cause or prime mover that was not itself caused. Since causes and effects are understood to occur in time, this prime mover must exist outside of time and he referred to it as God. Needless to say this was not a Judeo-Christian God but rather was a force in the universe that impelled things on in a law like process. This process for Aristotle, was determined by an overall purpose or teleology. In other words everything that happened had a cosmically driven purpose or end. Medieval philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas (1223-1274) took up Aristotle’s idea of a purpose driven universe and appropriated it for Christianity. The universe was begun and will be ended by God and everything in it ran according to his divine purpose.
Aristotle’s philosophy of a prime mover was part of a whole system, a coherent set of arguments or observations that provided a complete theory of why and how things are ordered. This was a huge intellectual feat and has been extremely influential in both physics (the Newtonian system shares many characteristics of Aristotelianism) and in moral and social philosophies in the form of fatalism or alternatively in our sense of progress towards more comprehensive and more accurate pictures of how the world works. It has however also been chipped away by new understandings that have come to bear on us on the 2000 + years since his philosophy was written.
One such chip comes from sharp witted atheists who argue that if everything has to have a cause and God is cited as the first cause, what caused God? There are a number of things to say in response to this. The first takes us back to Kant. According to him our concept of cause and effect in time is a feature of an imperfect human understanding, a means or a conceptual tool for ordering experience. But this is not to say how the universe is ordered in itself. In this case why can we not have a God who is not restricted by the relatively puny scale of human intelligence. Secondly in our imaginations we can at least conceive of a universe that is out of our time, a universe in which all things happen simultaneously. All time might be compressed into a single moment, from the beginning until the end, alpha to omega. What is the use of such metaphysical speculations? They may appear intriguing and entertaining to writers of science fiction but without the capacity to think outside the box in this way, Einstein would not have been unlikely to transcend a Newtonian concept of the universe as fixed in space and time
Let us move away from metaphysics and consider our experience in everyday life of beginnings and endings. We live in a world of generative mechanisms that are recognised in the diversity of species and in the creative capacities of human intelligence. It is a world of determinate and indeterminate states of affairs but it is also a world of choices, of human freedom and responsibility and to try to understand these choices in terms of an algorithm or a determinate system of causes and effects simply does not accord with our experience. It might be argued that the creative energy that produced the beginnings, the big bang of the universe, finds an echo down the ages in the less dramatic detonations that are present in the ways in which our intelligence expresses itself.
Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel shows God as an old man in the clouds, pointing a finger down to the first man, Adam who is holding his finger up. The fingers do not quite touch but the artist is showing us the briefest moment at which God and man meet each other, the point at which the divine creative energy that is God’s is given to man. For humankind this is the equivalent of the big bang. There is obviously no intention that this image should be taken literally but rather it is a metaphor to try to explain how human beings are marked out as creatively free in a broadly determinist world. Humankind is qualitatively different in this respect from other contents of reality. This is not to explain anything about God but rather to draw attention to something about what it means to be human.
From a humanist perspective we may challenge the concept of God as a metaphysical force, somehow controlling the warp and weft of cosmic events. We can however recognise and respect the achievement of Aristotle and the system building medieval philosophers that it inspired. These philosophers were not trying to prove the existence of God but rather saw the conclusion of his metaphysical presence as a fundamental way of describing the flux of reality. We can also recognise the limitations and imperfections in our own understanding in relation to the creative intelligence of humankind. Rather than thinking that we have simply flipped Aristotle’s argument for a prime mover, we might be better served by trying to understand it in the contemporary context.