Who or What Caused God?
This question often comes up as a rejoinder to an argument or proof for the existence of God. In one sense, it is natural and appropriate to continue to apply the same critical-thinking strategies and approaches that the proofs themselves employ in concluding that there must be a First Cause of whatever aspect of the world is under consideration (contingency, perfection, purposiveness, etc.). The question, though, is often bandied about as though it is an obviously devastating critique that immediately and irrevocably undermines and destroys every argument in favor of God’s existence. The question is supposedly a pithy, yet deadly, condensation of the enthymeme, if everything needs a cause, God would also. If God does not need a cause, then not everything does, so neither (necessarily) does the world (or whatever aspect of it that is under consideration). Thus, if everything must be caused, what caused God?
The first point, by way of reply, is to note that this ‘devastating critique’ is built upon a pretty fundamental misunderstanding. Taking the Argument from Contingency (that things come to be) as an example, this argument never says “everything has a cause.” The proofs start with is a principle that ‘everything that comes to be has a cause,’ and the empirical observation that ‘everything that we experience in this world comes to be.’ If everything we experience has a cause, then those causes either are things that came to be, or not. This proof readily considers the possibility that not everything comes to be.
Now if the causes of things that come to be themselves come to be, they also must have a cause, and so it goes, either back in time, or ‘up’ in simultaneous causality. (Refer to the Argument from Contingency for an illustration of this kind of causality.) But ultimately this line of reasoning drives one, by force of logic, to conclude that there must be something that exists, that is real, that is the First Cause, which does not Itself have a cause, but is the ultimate cause or explanation of all the things of our immediate experience that do (and must) have causes.
So, then to ask, “Well, what is the cause of the first cause?” is to not understand what the word ‘first’ means. The notion of there necessarily being a First Cause is a conclusion that we arrived at on the basis of our experience of things coming to be and the fact that everything that comes to be has a cause. The proof from contingency takes the idea of ‘coming to be’ or contingency more broadly to possibly apply to what is or might always exist temporally. Contingency includes not just everything that comes to be in time, but everything which might not be. So even if we found something that has always existed, as sometimes theoretical physicist postulate that the universe we’re in is right at the end of a process of began with a Big Bang, but maybe came from something before the Big Bang (and maybe this universe is of banging and crunching of a cyclical Universe, always existed throughout all time). Even granting this possibility (for which there is zero evidence, and apparently evidence against it), it is still a legitimate insight to note that even if something is temporally eternal, it still could be metaphysically contingent, in that it didn’t have to be. So anything that doesn’t have to be, has a cause in something that either itself also is contingent, or ultimately it has to be caused by something that is self-necessary. So we say that First Cause must not be contingent; what explains things that are contingent is ultimately, something that is Self-Necessary, a First Uncaused Cause.
So to ask ‘well, what is the cause of a first self necessary being?’ is not to understand what a ‘first self-necessary being’ means. The First Self-Necessary Being is uncaused, and if you ask ‘what’s the cause of the uncaused cause?’ you don’t understand what ‘uncaused’ means.
But again, coming to the reality of the Uncaused Cause is a conclusion. It’s not the starting point, nor is it a definition of God. The argument starts with the observation that things come to be and pass away, and that everything that comes to be has a cause. Ultimately, there has to be some First Cause for anything that exists and that comes to be and passes away. And so that First Cause is itself, and must be, uncaused. It does not come to be. So, It (He) is Eternal in a different sense than just being temporarily long-lasting. He is Self-Necessary. He cannot not be.
(If it were conceptually coherent to say that the universe was of itself self-necessary, would be equally non-sensical to ask what caused the universe which causes everything else to be. To see why a self-necessary universe is not, in fact, conceptually coherent, please refer to the Argument from Contingency.)
The First Self-Necessary, Uncaused Cause stands at the end of an explanatory account. To ask what explains the account is not to understand what an explanatory account is.
Perhaps this point can be illustrated by the example of the causal chain that is a train. The explanation for the motion of the last rail car on a train is that the rail car ahead of it is pulling it. From this, one can understand as a general principle that there must be something that pulls each rail car, but that this cannot regress infinitely; there cannot be an infinitely long train of moving rail cars, pulling and being pulled. There must, then, be some first ‘car’ of the train that pulls but is not pulled. This is the engine(s), a self-moving ‘car’ that moves all the other rail cars in the train, and the whole train together. Now, to ask ‘what pulls the engine’ is just not to understand how an engine explains the movement of the train, and how it is first. One may ask, how can an engine be an unpulled puller, or a self-mover, and as a matter of fact, train engines do have cause(s) of their being and of their motion, but such an explanation is of a different order. It just betrays a lack of understanding to suppose (1) that anyone has claimed, or that it must be the case, that every member of the train is being pulled, and (2) the first cause, as first, needs to, or even could, have a pulling cause.
Just so, no proponent of the Argument from Contingency ever claimed that ‘everything, or every ‘member’ of the causal chain that is the universe, has a cause.’ A proponent of the argument is not being inconsistent in claiming that a line of causality or series of explanations has an end. That is just what an explanation is. Secondly, of course the ultimate or First Cause does not have a cause; that is why it is ultimate and First.
So, the question “what caused God?” is neither devastating nor insightful. It just reveals the confusion of the one who asks it.