A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is there a God?

November 4, 2011

Dear Cecil:

Have you ever addressed the question of God? It would seem like a fairly important question in the fight against ignorance, yet I couldn't find anything like "Does God exist?" in the archives. Was there ever an article about this or some equivalent topic?

Cecil replies:

Nope, I’ve never written about this. Nobody ever asked. That all you wanted to know?

Didn’t think so. Fine, have a seat while I … well, to say I’m going to prove God exists sets the bar pretty high. Let’s just say I’m going to show such a proof could be made.

We start with medieval Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas, the grand master of exploratory theology. Thomas proved the existence of God, to his satisfaction anyway, in his Summa Theologica. The core argument, if you’ll allow me to brutally oversimplify, is as follows: the transitory and inconsequential phenomena we see around us, such as humanity, the solar system, and rock ‘n’ roll, are but contingent beings. (I use the term “being” loosely here. Deal with it.) Each was brought into existence by some previous being, such as the apes, the solar nebula, or the blues. Each of these, in turn, was engendered by some still earlier entity, and so up the line until we get to … the First Cause.

There must be a First Cause, Thomas reasoned. Think about it this way. You and I, contingent beings that we are, are mere dominoes in the great chain of existence, devoid of autonomous impulses or pretty much any clue whatsoever and dependent entirely on previous beings to kick our butts into gear. These antecedent beings are likewise contingent, as are those earlier still, and so on. However, it affronts reason to suppose that all beings are contingent, since creation would then consist entirely of passive mope-like entities, waiting for someone (or something) else to make the first move, absent which no first move would ever be made.

Therefore, Thomas concluded, there must be a First Cause, or shall we say a First Finger, to administer the first flick to the first domino, and thereby jar the cosmos into motion. To this First Cause — essential, eternal, and unchanging — Thomas assigns the name God.

The usual objection to this proof (as a college sophomore I made it) is that there’s no obvious reason why the chain of causation has to start somewhere. Why can’t it extend forevermore in both directions, without beginning or end? Indeed, scientists Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok have conjectured that the Big Bang, once thought of as the starting point of the universe, was merely the latest burp in an endless cycle of colliding membranes in an 11-dimensional reality that, one gathers, has always been there.

But Thomas isn’t arguing there’s a First Cause chronologically. Rather, modern commentators tell us, he’s claiming there’s a first underlying or sustaining cause, in the sense that, say, the sun and its energy are the cause of life on earth. The distinction may strike the lay mind as rather fine and in any case seems of little consequence, since most thoughtful observers agree that in positing a First Cause and calling that God, Thomas assumes what he’s trying to prove. Thus his attempt to demonstrate God’s existence fails.

Let’s not be too hasty, though. Thomas has shown us a couple things. First, the distinction between a chronological first cause and a sustaining first cause is in fact crucial, as we’ll see. Second, although Thomas labors mightily in the Summa to establish the attributes of God, one of which is personhood, no one can seriously claim the result is a personal God — the warm and fuzzy but also detail-obsessed entity who, if you were Roman Catholic, would condemn you to eternal fire if you died unshriven after eating meat on Friday prior to 1962. Thomas’s work is considered the definitive explication of Catholic theology. From this we deduce that, from the standpoint of one of the world’s great religions, an impersonal, abstract, and frankly mechanistic God is nonetheless God.

We turn now to the work of physicists, who in their way are also searching for first causes. Steinhardt and Turok have written of the endless universe, which on first thought seems to undercut any notion of a prime mover. However, calling to mind the Thomistic distinction between temporal and sustaining causes, we realize the conjectured 11-dimensional reality of which they speak arguably is itself the First Cause from which all else springs.

Other scientists, taking a different tack, search for the First Cause in the quantum lint of which matter is composed, going so far as to call the hypothesized fundamental force holding all else together the God particle. A scientist’s joke? Not entirely. The God particle and 11-dimensional reality are, Jah knows, on the woolly fringe of science. However, should the existence of some such First Cause be demonstrated, one might, on the logic of Thomas Aquinas, be entitled to call it God.

(For a followup column, click here.)

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