The first cause argument was first proposed by Plato and Aristotle, and it was on this foundation that Saint Thomas of Aquinas founded his first cause argument, which is divided into many versions that discuss different aspects. This argument is founded on the simple premise that nothing exists without a cause, that everything must originate from somewhere, and that the root of everything comes from a supreme being known as God (Kreeft, 2015). The atheistic belief that the universe caused itself through principles like infinite regress is disproven by this theory which manages to show that everything needs a first cause because even an infinite regress is preceded by positive one for the other numbers to exist. Thomas refers to God as the transcendent being that initiated the existence of everything on earth or the “Unmoved Mover” since according to Thomas of Aquinas everything in the universe could be tracked to their origin.
Thomas explained that God is the one who initiated the creation of the universe from nothing and although he is not inside our space and time he can influence activities that go on. The first cause argument theory was initially advanced as the cosmological theory by ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle. In their arguments Plato and Aristotle were of the view that everything that had and existed or was in existence could trace its origin from somewhere and therefore, this indicated that there could be a creator of the universe. In the cosmological theory, Aristotle states that indeed there must be a transcendent being who is responsible for creating the universe. This being would be the origin and sustainer of life in the universe, and without whom the universe would cease to exist (Kreeft, 2015).
During the 13th century is when Thomas Aquinas decided to build on the argument that had been advanced by Aristotle and Plato in explaining the cause or the creator of the universe. He, therefore, came up with the first cause theory. This theory was widely accepted because it appeals to the common senses of people who feel that for something to exist there must be a reason for its existence. As opposed to other theories such as the pop theory which suggests that everything comes from nothing and into existence on its own. The first cause argument theory by Saint Thomas paints the universe as being interconnected with everything tracing its origin from a supreme being which in this case is God who cannot trace his existence from anything else other than himself.
The First Cause Argument
Due to the interconnectedness of events and things in the universe where everything observes the principle of cause and effect, therefore, the origin of most things can be traced to the source or cause such as a car accident being traced to a faulty suspension or a child to parents. However, there were countless other reasons that directly or indirectly led to that car accident right from the manufacturing process of the faulty parts, to the installation, to the customer buying the car. Since everything that is in existence can be traced to its source of origin, then it is only logical to assume that the universe can trace its origin from a specific event which in this case many believe to be the Big Bang. The big bang cannot be scientifically explained because nothing is known about what existed before it or what caused it.
In the first cause argument, it is a deliberate first cause of maybe the big bang that led to the formation of the universe with the being behind this action having transcendence. This being would have to be transcendent and very powerful to perform such a fete. The source of this initial cause for the formation of the universe would have to be independent of any causes and therefore, be in a position to explicate itself and everything else in the whole universe (Kreeft, 2015). Only God fits this description and to prove his existence there must be a proven first cause for the formation of the universe because without it the universe has no meaning.
If the first cause of everything in the universe is proven not to exist, then this would defy the principle of sufficient cause of everything which people use to explain everything that happens in the world. Disproving of the first cause would mean that everything would only be explained in a proximate sense of things and not in the long term. Therefore, everything and everyone would be an instrument with no real explanation what initially caused this cyclical nature of change in the universe. This can be tantamount to explaining the links on a suspended chain using adjacent links only without explaining where the chain is initially anchored. This can be better explained using another analogy.
In the case that someone is interested in getting a particular book that gives a proper explanation of the origin of the universe but to get it, they have to ask another person for it. The person that they go to has to look for it from another person and so on. In the end, regardless of the length of the chain that is formed by the borrowers, the initial borrower will only get the book if only there is someone somewhere who will own the book. This analogy can be used to explain life in that, while we may trace our immediate origin to our parents and grandparents, who can, in turn, extend the chain of life, there has to be a transcendent being that initiated this chain of life. Therefore, following the chain of life that is passed down from parent to offspring must lead us to a transcendent being that initiated this chain of life from nothing and can, therefore, explain the creation of the universe and itself.
Philosophers like Aristotle explained that every living being to be considered as transcendent it should be present due to its own will and not because of other beings. If a being exists through essence that comes from within, then it can be considered as being transcendent because it can explicate itself. Therefore, if a living being cannot explain its existence as coming from within then it needs to have extrinsic cause for its existence. This extrinsic cause is what can sufficiently explain its existence. Beings that are not responsible for their existence are, therefore, referred to as contingent beings while those that cause their being are referred to as necessary ones (Kreeft, 2015). In the whole universe, dependent beings like humans and wild animals can base their primary existence on causes such as reproduction. God, however, can be considered as the only being that can be regarded as being necessary who we the dependent beings can base our existence upon because he can explain himself. According to Thomas, the presence of dependent beings like humans signifies the presence of an independent being because without a necessary being contingent beings would not exist. Thomas came up with four accounts of this basic argument.
In this version, Thomas explains that the motion or change that is experienced in the universe must have originated from a source that was transcendent. This could be considered as being true because the chain of life in the universe would be nonexistent if it were not initiated by an unmoved mover since it would not move from one being to the other. Not only life, but any change would not exist because there has to be an initiation of this motion by a being that is unmovable and there only needs to be one such being (Aquinas, & Pegis, 1997). If the universe was composed of an infinite regress of essential beings, the motion or changes that are presently being experienced in the universe would not be possible nor would it exist. This would be so because in a universe that is filled with unmoved movers change or motion would not exist because these beings are transcendent and therefore, cannot be influenced by another entity (Kreeft, 2015). Therefore, the changes that are currently in the universe disprove this theory. Since change does exist, with it being easily explicable in the short term, in the long term it can all be traced back to a first cause which could only be initiated by a transcendent being. The description of this being is a fitting description of God that various religions and cultures have of him which proves the theory that a necessary being should exist for the existence of the universe to make sense.
In this version he expounds not on the motion of life that is present in the universe but instead focuses on proving an efficient cause of existence. James argues that weren’t it for an efficient first cause of existence then there would have never been subsequent causes for existence (Aquinas, & Pegis, 1997). This first cause had to be transcendent because second causes of existence such as reproduction and change are dependent on a first cause which in this case must be God. The argument is essentially pointing out that the universe is currently filled with second causes which are constantly causing other causes. But for there to be so many secondary causes of motion in the universe, there had to be a first cause that was independent of causation that would then initiate secondary motion which is present in the world today. In this second version, Thomas is arguing that just the presence of second causes in the universe shows that there must be the first cause since second causes are dependent and therefore, exist because of first causes. This depiction of an uncaused cause fits the description that people have of God and disputes the atheistic argument of self-formation of the universe.
In his third version, James argues that if in fact there was never a transcendent being that initiated life this would then mean that everything that is in existence should have the possibility of terminating its existence. Over time this change of non-existence would have been realized for everything that is in existence. This means that if everything has the possibility of dying completely then this would have already happened with there being no subsequent life after this initial death. In that, it would be impossible for life to begin again. This would have already happened because without the existence of God then time would be infinite with no starting point or first cause and therefore, any existing life would no longer exist (Cohoe, 2013). But since the universe has continually existed for a very long time then that must mean that there was a first cause of a transcendent being which has continually sustained the second causes of existence.
In this version, James explores the meaning of perfection. James explains that human beings rank things in the order of decreasing perfection or value with the most valuable and perfect things being treasured. For such a hierarchy to exist, there must exist a constant standard to which everything is measured as being closer or further from this standard of perfection (Aquinas, & Pegis, 1997). Therefore, there has to exist a being that is perfect enough to set the standard of perfection for any of the values of perfection that we hold to have meaning. The being that fits this criterion can only be God who we are told is perfect in every way and should aspire to be like. Thus in Thomas’s view, the current standards of perfection exist today since they mirror the flawlessness that only God can have. This, therefore, proves that God does exist since perfection
All four versions proving the existence of God share a similar structure in the logic used. They all use an indirect manner to prove that God exists by coming up with strong arguments why he should not exist. The argument of first cause disproves any atheistic claims that contest the existence of a God directly and therefore; this argument does not directly prove that God exists. Each of the versions advanced by Thomas has the same logic even though four different causes namely: motion, the beginning of life, current existence, and the last one being the origin of value. The main point in all these cases is that were there not for a first cause; the second causes would be nonexistent; there must be a first cause for everything to exist or nothing would be in existence.
Arguments Against the First Cause
Various philosophers and scientist have come up with arguments that oppose the main ideas that have been advanced in the first cause argument; which was introduced by Plato and Aristotle and was later advanced by Saint Thomas of Aquinas. In these opposing arguments, the philosophers have sought to question some of the central pillars of the theory of first causation such as the transcendence of God and the principle of causation.
The argument is viewed as intentionally using complexity to explain the pertinent question, where did God originate from. The first cause argument follows one major principle which is the principle of causation, but this principle is later abandoned when it comes to the explanation of who or what caused God. The principle does little in explaining who God is and what caused God by stating that he is a transcendent being and therefore, has no causation. Thus many atheists argue that if the universe itself has no cause, then this much should be stated instead of coming up with an abstract concept of God. They believe that the concept of there being a God merely adds to the complexity to the question where the universe originated from because there is no evidence that can justify self-existence. However, while the first cause argument may not prove the existence of God, it does prove the presence of an eternal and transcendent being which fits the description of God as per the accounts of many religions.
The fact that causality applies to the universe, in general, is an unproven assumption. This objection seeks to discredit the assumption the principle of causality is universal. The objection is based on an analogy of the big bang which scientists associate with the formation of the universe and giving rise to both space and time. However, no one can effectively answer how the big bang came to be or what existed before the big bang. The failure of the scientific community to explain the big bang phenomena adds strength to the first cause argument whereby, the existence of the universe was caused by a transcendent being. God could, therefore, have created the universe with the big bang from the singularity thought to have existed.
Some theorists have argued that the concept of infinite regress should be applied to life. If this were done, then time would never have begun nor would it end; existence would not have been initiated it would be something that has always existed and would continue to do so infinitely. This is similar to the infinite extension of both positive and negative numbers where no number can be considered as being first or last. However, this concept cannot be applied to living organisms who unlike numbers need causation to exist because the chain of living things progresses in one direction (Cohoe, 2013). This direction ensures that the future is dependent upon the past for it to exist. Thereby proving that for the universe to exist there must have been an uncaused cause which is a description of God. Even in the number series, the infinite positive and negative numbers all originate from positive one without it, the other numbers in the series would not exist which further proves that without a first a second cannot exist.
This explanation of the universe is seen as a version of Paleolithic thinking. The first cause argument is currently offering a better explanation of the universe since science and technology have not evolved to a point where a more rational explanation can be offered. Those supporting this line of thought use the example of how ancient people would explain thunder and lightning using mystic gods. Advancements in science and technology have, however, enabled us to understand such phenomena using rational and verifiable scientific explanations. Like the Paleolithic thinking, the first cause argument proves why God should not exist not if he does. The first cause argument is seen as being flawed in its argument of first causation because it is not explained how God came to be and what preceded his self-creation. However, the first cause argument does not use the principle of causation on everything, that principle is only applicable to things that are in motion, have imperfections and are contingent beings.
All of the above objections are easily disproven since they do not offer strong arguments against the argument of first cause. Although the first cause argument does not offer concrete proof of the existence of God, it does, however, show there is a strong possibility that that may be possible. The argument manages to disprove all atheistic claims that God is not responsible for the formation of the universe let alone exist.
Human beings have always sought to come up with a reason for everything that exists in the universe because even though everything can be explained in the short term, there is the need for a long-term explanation of why everything exists. This need for a greater explanation is what gave rise to many theories about how the universe and everything in it came to exist with many religions and cultures settling on a transcendent and powerful being called God. Many believers and non-believers alike have questioned the existence of such a being and whether there is proof of his existence. The first cause argument offers a convincing argument on the necessity of a transcendent being who initiated and sustains the existence of the universe. This argument manages to prove that the creation of the universe needed an independent first cause of motion, existence, and perfection after which subsequent causes would be compared to. The argument offers proof that shows that it would be impossible for God not to exist.
Kreeft, P. (2015). The First Cause Argument. Retrieved November 17, 2017, from http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/first-cause.htm
Aquinas, T., & Pegis, A. C. (1997). Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Volume 2 (Vol. 2). Hackett Publishing.
Cohoe, C. (2013). There must be a first: Why Thomas Aquinas rejects infinite, essentially ordered, causal series. British Journal for the History of Philosophy.