Why is there something rather than nothing?
That little question, sometimes used to poke fun at philosophical speculation, nevertheless points to a real puzzle. We all assume that particular things we encounter in the world—tables and trees, cats and kazoos—always have a cause. For every object that exists, we believe there’s something that accounts for its existence, some story that explains it.
But is there a story that explains not just the existence of those particular things, but of absolutely everything? Does the cosmos itself require a cause?
The history of claiming the universe needs a cause is long and honorable, found in the ancient Greek philosophers and carried on through the Middle Ages to the present. The universe didn’t need to exist—there might’ve been nothing at all. The fact that there is something rather than nothing, however, requires an explanation—and a causal one at that. Arguments that try to establish God as the best explanation for the existence of the universe are known as cosmological arguments.
Cosmological arguments come primarily in two flavors. The first variety emphasizes the dependence and contingency of the universe. It didn’t cause itself to exist, which makes it dependent. Nor is it the kind of thing that absolutely had to exist. It exists, but it might not have, and that is what we mean by contingent. As a dependent and contingent thing, it requires a cause, and in order to explain all the contingent and dependent things, the cause must be a necessary and independent thing—which is how Christian theology describes God. One advantage of this argument is that it works whether the universe had a beginning in time or has always existed. The important thing is the universe’s contingency, not if or when it began.
The second kind of argument focuses on the universe having a beginning, and the need for a cause whenever something begins to exist. The kalam cosmological argument is the most famous and currently popular example of this reasoning. Part of its contemporary success is the widespread agreement among cosmologists that the universe began a finite time ago, a view that replaced the eternal steady-state model prevalent until the early- to mid-20th century. The “Big Bang” model, initially proposed by Belgian Catholic priest Georges Lemaître, seems to fit especially well with the creation account of Genesis, which Christians have traditionally understood as teaching that God spoke the world into being ex nihilo (“out of nothing”).
Critiques of Cosmological Arguments
Not surprisingly, skeptics have criticized both forms of arguments.
Many have questioned the inference that the universe requires a cause. While some objections are quite technical, most have a few basic elements in common. The first is to question the claim that we know anything about what it would take to bring about a universe. For example, some say we have no relevant experience we can bring to bear on the question of universe origins. Since science proceeds on induction, building up probabilities based on repeated observations, it simply can’t address the question of what might give rise to a cosmos. We’ve never observed any universes beginning to exist, so we simply can’t say what (if anything) is required for a cause. The only beginnings we’re familiar with concern things within the universe—never any universe as a whole. Along similar lines, some argue we have no experience with beginnings whatsoever; everything we see is simply a rearrangement of previously existing material, not a true beginning at all but a shuffling around of already existing protons, neutrons, and electrons.
Other skeptics might allow that the universe requires a cause, but they maintain that if it does, there’s nothing that requires the cause to be personal or intelligent. The multiverse model, which says untold legions of universes are being spit out by an inflationary mechanism, is an example of an impersonal cause. The cause behind our universe could be a previous state of an oscillating collection of matter, exploding and collapsing and exploding again from eternity past. That would be a cause, but the cause would in some way be embedded in the universe itself.
How Christians Should Argue
What are we to conclude from all this? Does the universe require a cause? It may be too much to hope for a definitive answer. It’s hard to envision any conclusive scientific evidence or irrefutable philosophical argument one way or the other—the science will always fall short, since the question involves things that are unobservable. Can we transcend the universe and look back on it from the outside?
As frustrating as it might be for apologetics, we might be better served by recognizing that reasonable objections to both positions will always be possible. Instead of endeavoring to prove to a skeptic that there must be a God because the universe requires a cause, a more promising tack may be to show that belief in a divine cause for the existence of the cosmos is reasonable given all we know, and that the objections against a Creator are equally open to doubt.
As the apostle Paul says, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:14). As children of God illuminated by the Spirit of God, we rightly see the handiwork of the Creator in all of reality. And our most promising approach may be to invite others to see things the same way—not to try to prove God’s existence beyond any doubt, but to present the enduring intellectual power and coherence of the Christian perspective, and to ask God to open their eyes to the reality of his glory.