Causes and Rationality

Question from Jon:
At most, we all choose what is rational in believing or being convinced about something. While searching for answers, I have stumbled upon studying atheism as a choice for my belief but a find it highly irrational. Firstly, atheism appeals that believe in a god/cause/deity is highly irrational because there is no objective evidence to back-it up. But when I analyze it in terms of pure rationality (because the counter option can’t also be validated), I stumble upon choosing between

A) the universe is just a brute fact, nothing caused it to exist, its here because it is here
B) the universe is caused into existence by an agent/cause/god (in my case I don’t define the cause)

And option A which is (correct me if I’m wrong) the heart of Atheism is highly irrational, because so far, inferred from the existence of humanity, humans discovered things or events to be caused by “something” and yet option A completely contradicts it. I believe science breaks apart when something is just assumed as a brute fact. If I have inconsistencies in my analysis, please enlighten me. How does atheism become rational with these arguments taken into hand?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheism takes no position on the universe’s origin or lack thereof, except to say that it’s unlikely at best that a god was responsible because belief in a god’s mere existence (let alone agency) isn’t justified. Option B is fine for a lot of atheists because if there was a cause, it doesn’t have to have been anything like a god. It could be the quantum foam, or another universe in an infinite series, or any number of phenomena we haven’t even thought of.

That said, option A is counter-intuitive but it’s not as absurd as it sounds. If the universe is as eternal as many gods are supposed to be, then it doesn’t need a beginning, and it’s simpler to just suppose that the universe has this quality than to inject a hypothetical separate entity. More significantly, though, everything we’ve ever seen come into existence is made of existing material. Human beings are made of elements found all around us on this planet, and fueled by energy largely traceable back to the Sun. Thoughts and ideas come together in networks of neurons in our heads, powered by electrical energy. Most every building is made from things harvested from, or grown in, the earth. If, by contrast, the universe came to existence out of what could be defined as nothing, it wasn’t like anything we’ve ever seen occur and therefore we have no authority to declare that there must have been a cause. Following on from that, there’s no reason to suppose the existence of a god just for the lack of alternative explanations, and if as you say there’s no objective evidence for gods then there’s no reason to believe in them at all. Thus atheism has a rational basis at least to some extent.

9 thoughts on “Causes and Rationality”

  1. Hi Jon, you ask a profound question which obviously, given our current state of knowledge, has no definitive answers. Here are some pointers to legitimate alternative ways of thinking.

    The first point I’d like to make is that theism is belief in a god(s). Therefore a-theism is lack of belief in a god(s). So atheism no more requires objective evidence than not believing in leprechauns or mermaids or any other mythological entity. What does require evidence are positive claims, such as “a god exists” or “the universe was created by such and such a process”. However, as SmartLX pointed out, atheism alone makes no such claims; thus your charge of atheism being “highly irrational” is misplaced. You are right, however, to not define a ‘first cause’. The leap from ‘first cause’ to classical concept of a monotheistic God is probably the weakest link in an already tenuous theological chain.

    Second, your question depends crucially on how the term ‘universe’ is defined. Two broad definitions are possible:

    (i) Everything that exists now and subsequent to the ‘Big Bang’, i.e., the whole of causally interrelated material reality within the observable space-time manifold, or:
    (ii) Everything that exists, all that exists, i.e., the sum or totality of all existence. This means that both a first cause (and any hypothesised multiverse) is part of the ‘universe’ and so it would be legitimate to refer to anything existing ‘outside’ of the universe. The term ‘cosmos’ might be better suited.

    These definitions do not delineate between theists and non-theists. Philosophical naturalists might be more accepting of the sparser ontology of (i) and might accept the more expanded ontology of (ii) if it were to include abstract objects such as mathematics and logic. Pantheists would certainly accept (ii). In contrast, monotheists would be highly unlikely to accept a definition similar to that of (ii), allowing them to imply that everything except God had a beginning; before the creation of the universe they would claim that God alone existed, there was no time, space, energy, matter etc, necessitating their ex nihilo creation by that God.

    Third, your question is effectively a rehash of the numerous cosmological arguments for God, none of which are accepted as having any philosophical validity outside of the monotheistic traditions. They must presuppose a particular state of affairs, i.e., that the existence of anything at all is a deviation from what we should expect; i.e., a natural and spontaneous state of absolute (metaphysical) nothingness. Because we (obviously) don’t observe this absolute nothingness the widely held assumption is that there must be a first cause for the something that we do observe. There are a number of problems with this approach. First, there are good arguments to suggest that absolute nothingness is logically impossible (e.g., R M Gale, Paul Draper, Quentin Smith). Second, even if such a state of absolute nothingness was logically possible it does not follow that we are obliged to seek some explanation as to why it doesn’t exist. We don’t look for explanations as to why myriad other logically possible states of affairs don’t exist, do we? Third, there is empirical evidence to suggest that absolute nothingness is physically impossible (Krauss, Carroll, Smolin). Fourth, no-one has ever observed or experienced absolute nothingness. But we have all experienced existence. This doesn’t, in itself, prove much but it does demonstrate that any allusion to the expectation of absolute nothingness remains unevidenced speculation. Fifth, the notion of absolute nothingness is alien to almost every human culture not emanating from outside a small region of the middle-east influenced by a handful of Christian theologians in the 2nd century CE.

    Your problem with the universe (or the pre-existing material making up the universe) being a “brute fact” is fair enough, so why do you not have a similar problem with the notion of a first cause just being a “brute fact”? Your approach smacks of special pleading on behalf of a first cause, an approach closely associated with theology; defining the first cause/God a-priori (and devoid of objective evidence) as eternal and metaphysically necessary, placing it conveniently beyond further investigation. In other words:

    1. Everything except God has a cause of its existence.
    2. The universe exists.
    3. Therefore: the universe is caused by God.

    Do you see the flaw with the first premise? Now, substitute ‘God’ with some generic notion of a ‘first cause’. The problem remains doesn’t it? So, instead of posing the question, “why is there something rather than nothing? why not ask the more reasonable question, “why would we expect a ‘first cause’ rather than nothing?” For, after all, if everything is supposed to emanate from some hypothesised eternally existing first cause, no objective evidence nor explanation for the existence of that first cause would be possible, would it? So, why not consider the possibility that the universe is as described in (ii) above and the eternally pre-existing material (energy) that makes up the universe(s) might also have no objective evidence explanation? What “objective evidence” could possibly be offered that this scenario is any less plausible?

    There is certainly nothing irrational in concluding that the fact that something has always existed is the normal, default state of affairs. It’s certainly never been a problem for other religious traditions, e.g., Buddhism, native Australian religions. In fact, historically and now, all (or almost all) religious traditions outside of the Abrahamic ones make reference to the universe being created from eternally existing material and/or the conversion of chaos into order. It would be useful to read some of Adolf Grϋnbaum’s papers here, he’s written a lot of useful stuff on these points. Also I recall Robin Poidevin had a very good chapter.

    Fifth, there are problems with the presupposition that the universe(s) has been somehow ‘caused by’ or is otherwise separate from the hypothesised first cause as in (i) above. Again, this is a cultural construct rather than a logical necessity. From what we know, it just as reasonably follows that the universe came into being from some naturalistic process i.e., a type of creatio ex deo rather than creatio ex nihilio, if you like. In other words we might live in something akin to a panentheistic or pantheistic universe whose underlying material has always existed but is capable of undergoing change. Such a universe could even have been created by a purely naturalistic process that later evolved emergent self-consciousness and subsequently rationalised to itself why it appears to be eternal and had created a universe. Really, given the current state of our knowledge, is that scenario any less plausible than the notion of an eternally existing conscious agent? There’s certainly no less “objective evidence”.

    My take home message is that when dealing with metaphysics you should always be aware of how terms are defined, cultural constructs are presupposed and logical arguments are assembled. When you are aware of the tricks used, ideas that at first appear obvious and compelling often aren’t quite as robust as they’re claimed.

  2. As it has been correctly been pointed out already; atheism does not have anything to do with the origins of the universe, and it makes no statement about it. Even if the universe actually had a cause, we may not (yet?) have any reason to believe so, and the time to believe something is when we have the evidence to indicate it. And as it has also already been pointed out, the universe could have had all kinds of causes that weren’t gods.

    But it is very important to talk about the line of causality as well as the relationship between the existence of material an causal chains.

    The line of causality is either finite or infinite. This points to the problem of infinite regress, which suggests that there may be a problem with causality reaching into the past for ever and ever. Either this critique is valid or it isn’t. If the critique isn’t valid, then the universe could easily have existed for ever; that is a no brainer. But. If causality cannot reach back for ever, and if there is a first cause – something that exists without having been caused to do so – then that may or may not be the universe. The ones who submit that there has to be a first cause have automatically created two categories; namely 1) “that which has a cause”, and 2) “that which doesn’t”. So when we observe the existence of physical material, which one of the two categories does the it fall into? I don’t know, neither does science or anyone else. But the ones claiming that it falls in the first category have to make the case. How do they know? How would they test this? How many cases of physical material starting to exist do we know of and test? How would the test go? So far, we have nothing to work with. But so far, the existence of physical material is in fact the only possible category we have to even put in the second category. No one has ever demonstrated anything else to exist. And the ones that suggest that a god exist do so on an assumption that the universe falls into the first category, and therefore needs a god as its cause, so suggesting a god here would make the argument circular.

    But it may be that we have good reasons for saying that the existence of physical material falls into the second category. The idea of material being caused to begin existing may even be logically incoherent and thus impossible. And this is because of the relationship between material and a causal event. We know of tons of things that have a cause, like cars, cakes, planets, etc, but these are things that are made OF material. And we are not talking about things made OF material; we are talking about the actual material itself. And that is where the difference lies, and that is why it seems to be a contradiction. But it isn’t a contradiction, which becomes clearer when we write the two statements in clearer detail: “Things that are made of material have causes” does not contradict “Material itself doesn’t have a cause”. Though it may seem counter intuitive. So lets look into the case:

    A causal event is when something already existing is being acted upon or affected to perform a new action or take a new form. Like when a cook causes milk, sugar, flour and chocolate to form a cake. You can state it this way, if you will:

    Agent A causes material B to become the effect, outcome or product C.

    But stating that the existence of material (like energy or particles) have a cause places material in the slot C in the equation. So we’re left asking; what existing material (B) was then being caused to make up the new material? No matter what it was, we’re just left with some other material existing. Does it need a cause? If it does, what material was THEN affected to make THAT, and did THAT material need a cause? And so we continue.

    Causation implies existing material. The existence of material is a condition for causation, and without it, causation cannot take place. After all. Even if there existed some god before anything else did, and even if we placed him in slot A in the equation, what existing material (B) did he affect to make the universe? If this god had nothing to affect or cause to do anything, then nothing was caused to do anything. No causal event could take place. And if he had something to affect to make the physical material (even though the general theology is that God was all (!) that existed) then where did that come from? Did he cause it to exist? Out of what? And there we go again. At some point, we’re left with no other option than to accept that some material just exists. However far back into the past, and however many causal steps back. It could technically have been the case that a god caused the physical material out of some spiritual material that had always existed. But so, you’re explaining the existence of material by appealing to the existence of material – a material you have not demonstrated to actually exist no less – and so you haven’t solved the problem of why material exists … perhaps that is because there is no such problem.

    Thus; the existence of material is a condition for causality, and not something that is shapen by it. Material just exists. For no reason, with no cause. It just does so. So where did it come from? Nowhere. It just exists. It is the most default state of existence. And once again, this is the only candidate we have for the most default state of existence, as there are no other presented options.

    And I can’t post this without admitting that it is heavily inspired by youtuber Theoretical Bullshit. So for more details, I’d really really recommend his various videos on the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

    1. Jillum89 makes an important point I would like to expand:

      “Material just exists. For no reason, with no cause. It just does so. So where did it come from? Nowhere. It just exists. It is the most default state of existence”.

      As we all surely agree, absolute nothingness is clearly not the state of affairs. It follows, then, whether you are a theist or an atheist, that there must be some fundamental ‘thing’ that is the default state of existence. Monotheists claim that an agentic mind (with volition and intention) must be the default ‘thing’ and that all ‘material’ must have somehow resulted from the decisions and actions of that mind. An alternative synopsis, as Jillum89, SmartLX and I suggest, is that material (synonymous of course with energy) is the most default state of existence. Let’s look at the pertinent facts available to us:

      1. Everything we have ever observed to have been caused results from the conjunction of an ‘efficient’ cause (e.g., the carpenter, a physical-chemical-biological process) and a material cause (e.g., the wood, the molecules) in order to create something (e.g., a table, a galaxy). No exceptions.
      2. Creation ex nihilo has never actually been observed. No exceptions.
      3. Every mind we have ever observed is dependent on a physical substrate. No exceptions.

      It is not unreasonable, therefore, (and certainly not “highly irrational” as Jon claims) to hypothesise that the observed universe does not result from a disembodied mind but from the conjunction of an efficient cause (some natural process) and a material cause (pre-existing material/energy) because thus far we can always trace back to some interaction between these two causal variables. This process can be conceptualised in terms of singularities or quantum foam etc. It really doesn’t matter at this stage – most of the physics subsequent to Planck time is pretty solid but prior to that is largely speculative.

      The problem for me is that monotheists rely wholly on speculation with this issue. In effect, they are claiming that they know what occurred prior to Planck time: that the universe was created solely by an efficient cause in the complete absence of a material cause via a mind that is not dependent on a physical substrate. Let’s be honest here. This is surely as ostentatious a statement as you will ever find. If anything is “highly irrational” it is this synopsis. However, the only evidence they proffer in support of this claim are logical arguments. Yet logical validity, in the absence of empirical confirmation, cannot be relied upon as a means of ascertaining what is true. Some of the most famous philosophers are famous because they thought up logical arguments which, although perfectly valid, were later found to be completely untrue. Another good point made by Jillum89 concerns causality and infinity:

      “The line of causality is either finite or infinite. This points to the problem of infinite regress”

      I don’t presume to know whether actual infinities exist or not, or even whether an infinite causal regression is the case. Certainly, the notion of infinite causal regression into the past is intuitively problematical; at least for most western philosophical notions (eastern philosophy seems to have much less of a problem with it). But there is a far more relevant point to be made here. Theologians have no more idea than anyone else has and the whole question of the actual existence (or not) of mathematical infinities underlies some fine examples of muddled theological thinking. For on the one hand you have one set of Christian theologians arguing against the existence of actual infinities to justify, for example, the Kalām Argument for the existence of God, while others posit their very existence (in explicit terms of quantity) in order to bolster the Ontological Argument for the existence of God! The irony is that it was a Christian philosopher (Wes Morriston) who showed, in several papers, that if infinite causal regressions are indeed impossible, then so must be infinite causal projections into the future. Graham Oppy is another philosopher who cogently argues the same case (in more detail). Of course the lure of classical monotheism for the less philosophically inclined relies almost entirely on their accepting the claims of infinite causal projections into the future………

  3. And what do you think is the cause of God?
    And what caused that which caused God?
    And what caused that which caused that which caused God?
    And … and … and … ad-infinitum

    And if you say that God is the “uncaused cause” … why can’t we say that for the universe and just get rid of an extra level and a regress to infinity?

    Its not irrational to suspend belief (almost to the point of not believing even) when there is no evidence and when everything you can think of can actually be explained in consistent and logical manner using science.
    Causality implies an arrow of time, it implies that the second law of thermodynamics is operational. When we think of the origin of the universe, there can be no time (since space and time are intertwined). So how can we be sure that causality operates in such conditions?

    Yes, for sure we do not know what laws / axioms operate at the beginning of time (though physicists continue to make complex mathematical conjectures regarding it). But replacing our current ignorance by hypothesizing a god is a hindrance to the progress of thought and rationality.
    Its one of the most unimaginative and naive hypothesis of all time, in my view.

  4. Jon.. It would be absolutley logical and reasonable to assume that the universe never had a beginning, after all if one can assign that quality to a god, then why not energy or matter or time. Time is what gives legitimacy to every thing that exists. Take away the time element and nothing ever happens, nothing exists. Time is infinate, and it has always existed. It is really quite simple. We exist because time exists, which caused the universe to exist, which eventually caused us to exist.
    And the existence of time or the universe does not require a god to cause it to be. If one chooses to believe in the greatest lie that was ever conceived, the lie that there is a god or the many rediculous religions it has spawned, to get an answer to their questions
    then I feel sorry for them. Science may not be as accurate as we all would like it to be, but it is the only reliable tool that we humans have to even begin to understand our predicament.The christian bible and all the other religious books and their rediculous religions have only served to keep the human race ignorant and confused for millennium.
    And for me at least, to be a true scientist is to be an atheist as well.

  5. Interesting comments all around. I’ll add this in to the mix. I have no problem with the concept that the universe is finite and did not have a “first cause”. Why? Because the universe equals zero. Add up all the positive energy in the universe (light, heat, mass, kinetic, etc) and subtract the negative energy (gravity) and you get zero. Net spin? Zero. Net charge? Zero. The universe is literally nothing broken up into a lot of offsetting pieces. Like 1+1+1+1-1-1-1-1=0, but on a far grander scale. You don’t need anything to create what we’ve got, because what we’ve got is, quite literally, nothing.

    There are logical problems with infinite existing anything too. If mass has always been around, so has time. Which means so has entropy. Which means the universe would have reached max entropy already (assuming the time and entropy arrows cannot switch direction) given infinite amount of time to do so, and we wouldn’t be here then.

    But aside from that is the one basic assumption that everyone wants to make that isn’t actually known – that there has to be a cause for the universe. Cause and effect is time dependent. Before time, who says cause and effect even exists? We have no idea that a cause is needed for anything. I know that sounds ridiculous given what we experience, but we live in a universe with an arrow of time. Before time, no arrow, so cause and effect may not be real or necessary…

  6. In describing Abrahamic Traditions you describe a state of nothingness. It is my understanding that the claim in Genisis is that words exisited always and words are the same as God. I have come to think of “words,” and “The Word” to mean Reason/Logic. Without reason/logic no human thought about much of anything would likely occur, let alone be discussed. The Bible also claims “God is Love.” I have come to understand that, when couple with “The Word is God,” to mean that “Loving reason/logic/words are God. I also think it is profoundly important to acknowledge that Jesus’ only wrtting was done in sand and then quickly brushed out. An honest person has to acknowledge that many many really terrible things have been done in the name of The Christian tradition. I think that bad conduct done in the name of a trafition has no bearing on the valudity of that tradition. No matter what our differences we are best off when we use reason/logic/love in all discourse.

  7. David writes: [In describing Abrahamic Traditions you describe a state of nothingness. It is my understanding that the claim in Genisis is that words exisited always and words are the same as God.]

    That might be the claim, but words exist because humans invented them. There is no data or evidence that shows that words existed before humans did, so no reason to think otherwise.

    [I have come to think of “words,” and “The Word” to mean Reason/Logic.]

    In my mind anyway they aren’t anywhere near the same thing. Words are not logical or reasoned, they are merely shapes and sounds we write and utter to communicate with. Logic is a system of analysis.

    [Without reason/logic no human thought about much of anything would likely occur, let alone be discussed.]

    Without humans, logic and reason wouldn’t exist, assuming there are no other life forms in the universe that can exist at a level that can understand and process such concepts.

    [The Bible also claims “God is Love.” I have come to understand that, when couple with “The Word is God,” to mean that “Loving reason/logic/words are God.]

    There is no evidence that the supernatural, including god creatures, exists. There is no evidence that any of our language, or reasoning, or systems of analysis like logic are the result of some supernatural effort or influence. So I guess I don’t see what the point is in talking about the speculative claim of the words of an unproven deity and how they relate to reasoning and logic…

    [An honest person has to acknowledge that many many really terrible things have been done in the name of The Christian tradition. I think that bad conduct done in the name of a trafition has no bearing on the valudity of that tradition.]

    I agree. Nor does ignoring those actions increase the validity of or lend support to the claims of supernatural events and beings. The validity of the tradition is in the court of evidence and empirical data, and there is a total void in that arena.

    [No matter what our differences we are best off when we use reason/logic/love in all discourse.]

    Respectfully honest works well, and if that is what you mean by love then I could agree.

  8. Why it is so easy for some to believe in the existence of an eternal god , or creator, and not an eternal universe that requires no god bewilders me. If nothing comes from nothing, then where did god come from. The universe has always existed in one form or another, or at least the matter or energy that makes up the universe has. It does not
    require a god. Another thing that has always mystified me is that people who have survived or escaped a natural disaster or a man made one, will thank god for it, when if there is a god, he allowed them to be put in that situation in the first place. Superstition and ignorance
    has been the cause of most of humanity’s woes since we evolved into a thinking imaginative creature. The sooner we get rid all religion and belief in a god the better off we will be.

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