Divine Causation of the Big Bang: Is It Logically Possible?
Quentin Smith

The first section of my paper is called "Introduction." Here I give some definitions. The universe is a maximal or complete space and time. It contains, say, this space–time point here, and every point spatio–temporally connected to that point, and it contains everything—all inanimate objects and organisms—that occupies all the space–time points. According to Big Bang cosmology, which Bill was talking about, which I'll simply assume in this article in order to deal with a certain issue of the cause of the universe if it began to exist, the universe began to exist about 15 billion years ago with the Big Bang occurring at the earliest time of t0; it's called the Big Bang singularity.

Now something is a continuing cause of the universe only if it causes each state of the universe. And something is an originating cause of the universe only if it causes the earliest state of the universe. If the universe began with the Big Bang and has no originating cause, then it has no continuing cause, since if the first state has no cause, then its false, of course, that each state has a cause.

Now my question in this paper is this: is it logically possible that the universe has an originating divine cause? Is it logically possible that there is a first state of the universe that's caused by God? I think that virtually all theists, virtually all agnostics, and even virtually all atheists today would admit this is logically possible. It seems to me, however, that this is not logically possible. And I present some arguments on behalf of this conclusion by showing that the thesis that the universe has an originating divine cause is logically inconsistent with all permissible definitions of causality. I will conclude that the cosmological and teleological arguments for a supernatural cause of the universe, traditionally understood as arguments for the existence of God, are in fact arguments for the non–existence of God.

The second section is called "Causal Definitions and the Notion of an Originating Divine Cause." Since we are talking about the cause of the universe's beginning and not the cause of God's act of willing that the universe [would] begin, considerations of agent causality are not pertinent here. We are not examining the relationship between God, who is the agent, and his act of willing, which would be the effect, but the relation between his act of willing, which is an event, and the beginning of the universe, which is another event. Thus, definitions of agent causality referred to in the literature in the philosophy of religion are irrelevant to our discussion. We are interested only in definitions of event causality, where the cause and effect are both events.

Now if we follow Big Bang cosmology or quantum gravity cosmology and hold that the universe and time both began to exist with the Big Bang, this rules out as impossible an originating cause according to all definitions that include temporal priority as a logically necessary condition of causation. Temporal priority, of course, means that the cause is earlier in time than the effect. The most famous definition that includes the temporal priority condition is Hume's.

This section now is called "Hume's Definition of a Cause." All, or almost all, contemporary definitions of causality are based in some way on Hume's definition in the 18th century, whether by way of repetition, modification, or reaction against Hume's definition. Hume explicitly includes temporal priority in his definition, which implies that something, c, is a cause of something, e (I'm using c throughout the paper to refer to an event that’s a cause and e to refer to the event that’s the effect), if and only if these three conditions are met: (1) c is spatially and temporally associated with e, (2) c is earlier than e (the cause is earlier than the effect), and (3) every particular like c is always conjoined with a particular like e. Given this definition of a cause, something c is a cause of the universe's beginning to exist at the earliest time only if c is earlier than the earliest time, which is an explicit logical contradiction. For all Humean–type definitions of a cause imply that the cause is earlier than the effect, which is inconsistent with the supposition that the Big Bang singularity had a cause.

Now we go to the next section, which I call "Nomological Definitions of a Cause." Nomos is a Greek word meaning the law, so these definitions are called that because they include a law of nature in any kind of causal process. So another feature of Hume’s definition, the nomological condition, which implies that a law of nature is needed in the definition of a cause, is also common to most contemporary definitions of causality. Specifically, Hume's definition belongs to the line of reductive definitions that define causality in terms of laws of nature and a set of non–causal relations between the two particulars, c and e. Now if you isolate this nomological feature and make it not merely logically necessary for causation but also logically sufficient, we have this definition: c is a cause of e if and only if there's a law of nature, called the law of nature L, that enables a statement that e occurs to be deduced from the premise that c occurs and another premise asserting the law L.

However, the nomological definition of a cause is logically inconsistent with a divine cause of the Big Bang, since God by definition is a supernatural being and his/her actions are not governed by laws of nature.

At this point, we have already ruled out virtually every existent definition of causality, since most every definition includes either the temporal priority condition or the nomological condition. In fact, most existent definitions of causality today in the philosophical literature include both conditions. So we're left with atemporal and singularist definitions of causality. Now these are very rare definitions, but we have to use them if we want to have any sort of coherent notion of God causing the Big Bang. Now an atemporal definition either makes no mention of time at all or it allows that the cause is simultaneous with the effect, in which case it would mean that God's act of causing the Big Bang is simultaneous with the existence of the Big Bang. And it's called singular, since it allows an event to cause an effect in a single case, which is obviously the case when God caused the Big Bang, without the cause of God's willing and the effect needing to instantiate some law.

Now there are so few definitions of causality in the literature that are singularist and atemporal, it's hard for us to define one. But the nearest we can get to one is David Lewis’. Lewis' definition imports counterfactual conditions, which means conditions that are contrary to the ones that in fact obtain. He's just hypothesizing about imaginary situations. David Lewis' definitions import counterfactual conditions into the definition and seems to lend itself to an atemporal and singularist instantiation. According to David Lewis, c causes e if and only if (1) c and e are events and both occur, and (2) it is the case that either if (i) c had not occurred, e would not have occurred (in other words, if the cause did not occur, the effect would not have occurred) or, as an alternative to that, (ii) if there is a causal chain linking c and e and each link d in the chain is such that if d had not occurred, then e would not have occurred. Now since there's no causal chain between the divine volition and the Big Bang, condition (ii) is inapplicable, and so we'll concentrate simply on condition (i) that c and e both occur, and if c had not occurred, e would not have occurred. This seems to be the only definition which is going to salvage the hypothesis that God might have caused the Big Bang, but we'll see whether it does or not.

There does appear to be at least one crucial instance where Lewis' counterfactual definition is not instantiated by divine willing of the Big Bang. Let c be the divine willing of the Big Bang, and let e be the Big Bang. It follows that if the effect e had not occurred, then its cause c would not have occurred. But this suggests that e is the cause of c. In other words, e here is the Big Bang and c is divine willing, so this suggests that the Big Bang caused God's willing, which, of course, is absurd. And the reason why it suggests that is that c is counterfactually dependent on e, for the very reason that I said: if the effect e had not occurred, and then its cause c would not have occurred. In this case we have, to use Lewis' words about a problem he generally notes, a "reverse causal dependence of c on e, contradicting our supposition that e did not cause c" (1). Now Lewis solves this problem, which is an effective solution for normal causes and effects, by denying the counterfactual statement that "if e had not occurred, c would not have occurred." Lewis holds that it is instead true that "c would have occurred just as it did, but would have failed to cause e."{10} In other words, Lewis is saying it’s possible the cause could occur, or the event which was the cause could occur, but the effect would never have happened. However, that entails that Lewis' definition cannot be instantiated by God's willing the Big Bang, since if c had occurred, that is, if God had willed the Big Bang, then it necessarily causes e, the Big Bang, since God is omnipotent (all–powerful) and his willing is necessarily effective. It’s logically impossible for an omnipotent being to will that the Big Bang occur and yet for the Big Bang not to occur. Consequently, Lewis' definition appears to be inapplicable to the divine creation of the universe.

The next section is called "Necessary and Sufficient Conditions". We may take the simplest route and adopt one of these three definitions of a cause: The first one, which I'll call S, referring to the sufficient condition definition is: x is a cause of y if and only if x is a sufficient condition of y. The next one I call N because it's a necessary condition definition: x is a cause of y if and only if x is a necessary condition of y. And a third one combines both. I call it N&S because it includes a necessary and sufficient condition: x is a cause of y if and only if x is a necessary and sufficient condition of y.

Now could any of these three definitions apply to God? No, for the following reasons:

God's willing the Big Bang is a sufficient condition of the Big Bang, so S, that first definition about sufficient conditions, appears to be satisfied by God's creation of the Big Bang. Unfortunately, S fails as a definition of a cause, since numerous things instantiate this definition that are not causes. For example, a thermostat reading 65 degrees Fahrenheit is a sufficient condition under normal circumstances of the temperature being 65 degrees, but this reading is not a cause of the air’s temperature.

If we assume that it is necessary that the Big Bang be caused by God if it has occurred at all, then God’s willing the Big Bang will satisfy the definition N, which says that something caused something else if it's a necessary condition for its occurring. But this definition, N, is not the definition of a cause, since there are many causes that are not necessary conditions and there are many necessary conditions that are not causes. The movement of a feather on my desk is caused by my pushing the feather with my hand, but this pushing is not a necessary condition of the feather’s moving, since the feather may move by a gust of wind blowing. Further, air is a necessary condition of humans existing, but the air does not cause humans to exist.

Now the third definition that I mentioned, the one that combines both necessary and sufficient conditions, may be satisfied by God's willing the Big Bang, but this definition again is not the definition of a cause. Many causes are not both necessary and sufficient conditions of their effects. I've already mentioned many of these examples. I've mentioned that some causes of a feather's moving that are necessary conditions of it moving, and necessary conditions of humans existing are not causes of it. Then I mentioned some sufficient conditions that are not causes, such as a thermostat reading. Further, this definition is violated by probable causes, such as the radioactive decay of a uranium atom, which would seem to require a probabilistic definition of causality.

The next section is called "A Correct Formulation of Any Divine Relation to the Big Bang." There seems to be an argument that God is not the cause of the Big Bang, an argument that remains sound regardless of which definition of causality is employed. The argument is based on the simple premise, if something is a logically sufficient condition of something else, that doesn't cause it. Or to read it more formally out my paper, for any x, if x is a logically sufficient condition of y, then x is not the cause of y. For example, a body’s being in motion is a logically sufficient condition of the body’s existence. But the body’s being in motion is not the cause of the body’s existence. However, God's willing the Big Bang is a logically sufficient condition for the Big Bang, for "God wills the Big Bang and the Big Bang does not occur" are logically incompatible. The reason for this is that God is omnipotent, all–powerful, and thus his willing is always successful (of logical necessity). If an omnipotent being wills x and x does not occur, then God is not omnipotent. The omnipotent being is not omnipotent, which is a direct contradiction. Now God can do everything that is logically possible but, of course, cannot do what is logically impossible.

This is not to say that we cannot talk intelligibly about God and his relation to the Big Bang. We can say that a mental event in God's mind is a logically sufficient condition of the Big Bang's occurrence. And that's what we should say rather than that God causes the Big Bang. We can say that there's a certain relation, R, in which God stands to the property F, F being the property of being the Big Bang, such that by virtue of God's standing in this relation R (the reason I call it R is because we may not know what that relation is; maybe it's the relation of God trying to will the Big Bang to be instantiated), to the property of being the Big Bang, it is logically necessary that the property or characteristic of being a Big Bang is instantiated and therefore that there is a Big Bang.

Now my conclusion, which puts an interesting twist on all this, is this: the argument of this paper might seem at first glance to tell us more about the nature of God than about theism vs. atheism. "God cannot cause the Big Bang" does not entail that "God does not exist" or that "The Big Bang is not logically necessitated by God," but it does entail that we cannot define God as the cause of the Big Bang or the universe. Nonetheless, there are implications for the debate between theism and atheism, namely, that arguments from the necessary truth, a priori truth, or empirical truth of some causal principle cannot be a relevant premise from which to deduce or induce that the Big Bang is the logical consequence of God's standing in this relation, R (which is some relationship, it’s not the causal relationship—we don't know what is) to the property of being a Big Bang. Consider, for example, the argument that Bill brought up in his talk, the argument also that I responded to. The argument is this: (1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause. (2) The universe begins to exist. (3) Therefore, the universe has a cause. That argument fails to support the thesis that God exists or is the cause of the universe's beginning to exist. Indeed, this very argument entails that the universe's existence is not a consequence of any act on the part of God, since God could not have caused the universe to exist. Nor can any inductive argument, based on the fact that every observed event has a cause, be used to support the thesis that the Big Bang is a result of a divine act, since this inductive argument would instead support a thesis incompatible with theism: namely, the Big Bang has a cause. Indeed, any inductive evidence for the thesis that all events have a cause is by that very fact evidence against the existence of God, or at least against the hypothesis that the Big Bang is a consequence of standing in some relationship to a deity. Indeed, it seems now that all the various cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God are in fact arguments for God's non–existence, since these arguments are arguments for the thesis that the universe has a cause. For example, one version of the teleological argument is this: (1) Artifacts are caused to exist by intelligent beings. This is a cup, it's an artifact, it was caused by an intelligent being with some purpose in mind. (2) The universe resembles an artifact. (3) Therefore, it's probable that the universe was caused to exist by some intelligent being or beings, with some purpose in mind. If this argument is an adequate argument from analogy, then God probably does not exist, since God is not a cause, but a logically sufficient condition of the universe's existence. Since the cosmological and teleological arguments have standardly been thought to be the strongest arguments for God's existence, and since they support atheism rather than theism (which is rather odd, since traditionally atheists have said, "Well, here's a problem of evil; therefore, God doesn't exist," and then their next move is to go through all the theistic arguments—the cosmological, the teleological, the ontological, and all that—and then try and refute them all). What I'm doing is saying, "O. K., let's grant all the theistic arguments are sound. Grant all the cosmological arguments are sound. Grant Bill's argument is sound. Grant the teleological argument is sound. What does that prove?" I'm arguing that they prove that God doesn't exist because their conclusion has got a God who causes the beginning of the universe. So it seems now that the case for theism is very weak indeed. Indeed, it seems hard to imagine how one could ever inductively or deductively establish, or let alone find self–evident, that the Big Bang has a logically sufficient condition of its occurrence, which it would have to if God in some sense brought it about. Perhaps there are somewhat plausible arguments that the Big Bang had a cause, but there are no existent arguments, at least that I'm aware of, that the Big Bang has a logically sufficient condition of its existence. This suggests that the belief in the existence of God is considerably less reasonable than even the most cautious theologians have standardly supposed.


{9}David Lewis, Philosophical Papers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 2: 170.


[ Previous | Table of Contents | Next]