Why is there something rather than nothing?
That little phrase, often used to poke fun at philosophical speculation, nevertheless points to a real puzzle. We all assume that particular things we encounter in the world—tables and trees, cats and kazoos—always have a cause. For every object that exists, we believe there’s something that accounts for its existence, some story that explains it.
But is there a story that explains not just the existence of those particular things, but of absolutely everything there is in the universe? Does the cosmos itself require a cause?
The history of claiming that the universe needs a cause is a long and honorable one, found in the ancient Greek philosophers and carried on through the Middle Ages to the present. The universe didn’t need to exist—there might’ve been nothing at all. The fact that there is something rather than nothing requires an explanation, and a causal one at that. Arguments that try to establish God as the best explanation for the existence of the universe are known as cosmological arguments.
Cosmological arguments have come primarily in two flavors. The first variety emphasizes the contingency and dependence of the universe. It didn’t cause itself to exist, which makes it dependent. Nor is it the kind of thing that absolutely had to exist: it exists, but it might not have, and that is what we mean by contingent. As a contingent and dependent thing, it requires a cause, and in order to explain all the contingent and dependent things, the cause needs to be a necessary and independent thing—just the way Christian theology describes God. One advantage of this argument is that it works whether the universe had a beginning in time or has always existed. The important thing is the contingency of the universe, not if or when it got started.
The second kind of argument focuses on the universe having a beginning, and the need for a cause whenever something begins to exist. The kalam cosmological argument is the most famous and currently popular example of this reasoning. Part of its contemporary success is the widespread agreement among cosmologists that the universe began a finite time ago, a view which replaced the eternal steady-state model prevalent until the early to mid-20th century. The “Big Bang” model, initially proposed by Belgian Catholic priest Georges Lemaître, seems to fit especially well with the creation account of Genesis, which Christians have traditionally understood as teaching that God spoke the world into being ex nihilo, or out of nothing.
Critiques of Cosmological Arguments
Not surprisingly, there have been criticisms of both kinds of arguments by skeptics.
Philosophers and scientists alike have questioned the inference that the universe requires a cause. Some of the objections are quite technical, but most of them have a few basic elements in common. The first is to question the claim that we know anything about what it would take to bring about a universe. For example, some people say that we have no relevant experience we can bring to bear on the question of universe origins. Since science proceeds on induction, building up probabilities based on repeated observations, it simply can’t address the question of what might give rise to a cosmos. We’ve never observed any universes beginning to exist, so we simply can’t say what (if anything) is required for a cause. The only beginnings we’re familiar with are for things within the universe—never of any universe as a whole. Or, along similar lines, some people argue that we have no experience with beginnings whatsoever; everything we see is simply a rearrangement of previously existing material, not a true beginning at all but a shuffling around of already existing protons, neutrons, and electrons.
Other skeptics might allow that the universe requires a cause, but argue that if it does, there is nothing that requires the cause to be personal or intelligent. The multiverse model, which says that there are untold legions of universes being spit out by an inflationary mechanism, would be an example of an impersonal cause. The cause of our universe could even be a previous state of an oscillating collection of matter, exploding and collapsing and exploding again from eternity past. That would be a cause, but the cause would in some way be embedded in the universe itself.
How Christians Should Argue
So what are we to conclude from all this? Does the universe require a cause? It may be too much to hope for a definitive answer. It’s hard to envision any conclusive scientific evidence or irrefutable philosophical argument one way or the other—the science will always fall short because the question involves things that are unobservable. Can we transcend the universe and look back on it from the outside?
As frustrating as it might be for apologetics, we might be better served by recognizing that reasonable objections to both positions will always be possible. Instead of endeavoring to prove to a skeptic that there must be a God because the universe requires a cause, a more promising tack may be to show that belief in a divine cause for the existence of the cosmos is reasonable given all that we know, and the objections against a creator are equally open to doubt.
As the apostle Paul says, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:14). As children of God illuminated by the Spirit of God we rightly see the handiwork of the Creator in all of reality, and our most promising approach may be to invite others to see things the same way—not to try to prove God’s existence beyond a reasonable doubt, but to present the enduring intellectual power and coherence of the Christian perspective and to pray for God to open their eyes to the reality of his glory.