The universe is full of systems and cycles that can’t go on forever, as far as our intuition can tell. These natural regularities are causal, meaning that some events are probably produced by others. Natural events are contingent since they don’t come from nowhere or from absolutely nothing; if they did, they’d be inexplicable rather than natural. Some states of a system give rise to later states, and the whole system evolves.
For example, the planet’s rotations around the sun produce our changing seasons. The planet orbits the sun because of how the solar system formed long ago. The solar system formed from the collapse of part of a giant molecular cloud. That cloud was produced by differences in density of the nearly-uniform soup of baryonic matter that congealed soon after the Big Bang.
What, then, is the ultimate source of all of this causality and evolution? Things in nature can produce other natural things, but what of nature as a whole or what of the first natural (contingent and scientifically-explainable) events? According to theistic proponents of the cosmological approach to proving that God exists, there are only three possibilities.
First, there might be no end to natural things but rather an infinite series of them. Second, the series of natural things might be finite, but the series might have originated from nothingness. Third, all natural things might have originated from something supernatural, from a necessary being, an Unmoved Mover, a First Cause, an eternal, uncreated entity. For having created the universe and for needing no cause of itself in turn, this supernatural being would be God.
In what follows I’ll mostly leave aside the first possibility, since the question of an infinite series of finite things is complicated by the scientific reduction of what we would call ordinary, material things to protonatural, practically timeless and immaterial “things” such as quantum fluctuations or the earliest events after the Big Bang. Much of what theoretical physicists deal with is virtually supernatural in the sense of being far beyond our ordinary experience.
If the point of the infinite series of natural events, then, is meant to invoke timelessness for the whole of nature, there’s an equivalent possibility which is the reduction of time-bound things to much smaller, timeless ones that fly under the radar of spacetime and gravity, as it were. As I say about the teleological argument for God, the very early universe isn’t necessarily like the later stages, so we shouldn’t oversimplify in speaking of an infinite series of equally “finite” or “natural” (intuitively ordinary) things.
God Equals Nothing
In any case, let’s clarify the meaning of the cosmological proof with a simplified set of causes. Suppose there’s a series of natural events that produces the four seasons which are especially pronounced in certain places on our planet. So there are natural events One, Two, and Three, let’s say, and “Three” stands for the four seasons, while “One” means the first natural event we can make sense of, such as the Big Bang.
If the series of natural events isn’t infinite and didn’t come from nothing at all, the series must have come from something special, which we can call Zero. Notice that Zero’s production of One has to be miraculous, which is to say that that “production” must be incomprehensible to us. Otherwise, Zero would be just another natural, contingent thing in the series which would have to have been brought about in turn by something else. Assuming Zero or God is supernatural, rational explanations would end with One, stopping at the Big Bang, and God’s creation of One, namely of the natural seed of the Big Bang would had to have been as inexplicable as God himself.
It follows from the point about the difference between supernatural and natural “causes,” that the second and third of those three possibilities above collapse into each other. If we use our words carefully, we should realize that when we’re talking about God or about a super-duper “entity” whose being is necessary rather than contingent and so on, we don’t know what we’re talking about and are effectively talking about nothing.
Intuitively, all things are natural, contingent, and limited. Stars, galaxies, theories, and people are all things. A supernatural entity isn’t a thing in that sense. If all things have such limitations, this means the supernatural entity isn’t anything at all, which is the same as saying this deity is nothing as in not a thing.
Likewise, if we try to imagine absolute nothingness, the complete absence of any particular thing, we draw a conceptual blank. Picturing empty space isn’t the same as picturing nothingness, since space would be a container which is something. The best we can do in thinking of complete nothingness is to speculate that since anything we can understand has some limits that define its particular identity, complete nothingness — which we can’t picture or really understand — would have no such limits. Thus, nothingness magically turns into God via the limitations of human cognition.
The Limits of Reason
But what of the cosmological argument itself? There are two key steps to this type of argument. The first is the positing of limits of the natural mode of explanation. The second is the supplementing of that mode with a supernatural one. So if science and philosophy run out of steam, say, at the Big Bang, that’s where religion takes over. Let’s look at each of those steps in turn.
Contrary to scientism, science is indeed limited as a way of acquiring knowledge. There are at least three such limits. The first is that scientists objectify phenomena, which is what makes for the so-called hard problem of consciousness. Conscious creatures have a subjective viewpoint and scientific methods of investigation are ill-suited to explaining that viewpoint, because scientific objectivity and conscious subjectivity are antithetical to each other.
Another limit is that science is pragmatic, meaning that however neutral or knowledge-hungry “pure” scientists may claim to be, scientific knowledge is supposed to be applicable or relevant to the human agenda of conquering nature. The overriding reason we investigate natural processes is because we’re interested in controlling them.
Finally, science is limited because it’s a mere human activity, and the kind of arrogance inherent in suggesting that we might have evolved a type of reason that’s capable of comprehending everything that exists would be off the charts, ethically and aesthetically speaking. (Notice that the second limitation takes human arrogance as factual, whereas the third limitation criticizes that fact on evaluative grounds.)
Philosophy is less limited than science, but philosophy is still a rational, human enterprise and is therefore subject to the third limitation if not to the first or the second. The fact that human reason overall is limited means that those atheists who look to science or to philosophical naturalism for an ultimate explanation are bound to be disappointed. Any such explanation would be incoherent and therefore preposterous, as I argue elsewhere.
Gods of Philosophy and of Folk Religion
What, then, of the second step, the swooping in of religion to round out our rational worldviews with God? The answer to this depends on how well we’ve understood the discussion so far. By confining science and philosophy and thus reason in general to the domain of natural things, the theist forfeits the right to speak of her positing of God as a rational move.
The notion of a “cosmological argument,” therefore, is oxymoronic. However logically valid the argument may be, the argument is tainted by the vacuity of that concept of God, which I called “Zero” since God is equivalent to nothing. Just as contact with the number zero infects positive numbers, as it were, as when zero times a hundred is said to equal zero, any discourse which proposes what God/nothingness can do, such as the talk of God’s “supernatural creation” of the Big Bang is as empty as the concept of God.
When we take ourselves to be reasoning that natural or rational explanations come to an end and therefore must be supplemented by a different, religious kind of explanation which posits God, we’re implicitly treating the latter as rational after all. We’re mistaking the art form of religious poetry for a rigorous type of reasoning.
The real question, then, is whether theism should be nonrationally accepted as a story that completes all our rational arguments and explanations, and that question should be decided on ethical and aesthetic grounds. When reason runs out and we feel we need to turn to something else to relieve us of our fear of the inhuman unknowable, we may turn to art. We can tell each other stories and write poems based on mystical, subversive states of altered consciousness.
Which of those myths and poems is best is largely subjective but not wholly arbitrary. When a story is archaic and clichéd, it can be abandoned for aesthetic and psychological reasons. We can say that that story no longer holds our interest, because it doesn’t speak honestly about the intangible aspects of our present circumstances. You can decide whether a religious narrative should be dismissed in that sense and whether some other genre of fiction is more compelling.
What the cosmological argument says, in summary, is that nature has to come from somewhere and can’t come from itself, so it must come from God. If “God” is just a label for incomprehensible, meaningless nothingness, if that name just a placeholder for some inherent mystery that miraculously, vacuously jumpstarts the first natural event, then fine. Positing God in that sense would be perfectly consistent with atheism, since the atheist can just as well say that besides the domain of things, beyond space and time and the natural universe, there may be nothing at all, that is, an unfathomable, limitless, unnatural Zero which isn’t reducible to anything.
However, if the theist wishes to add that this absence of anything is known to be God in the traditional sense, that this unfathomable ground of being is alive, wise and chooses to create the universe out of generosity and love, the mystical implications of the cosmological argument would contradict the traditional sources of that theistic story. The “God” of the philosophers, which is this abstract nonentity, this pseudoscientific force or supernatural placeholder for our cognitive limitations, this First “Cause” or Unmoved “Mover” is hardly the same as the God of ancient folklore, the creator deity whose exploits are narrated in the world’s religious myths.