An Ultimate Cause

I’ve run into the cosmological argument several times lately, probably due to the people I’ve been engaging with on Twitter. Roughly speaking, it goes something like this:

  1. Pretty much everything we see around us was caused by something else.
  2. If you follow the causal chain backward, you’ll eventually wind up with something that doesn’t itself have a cause.
  3. Let’s call this “God”.

This is nice and all, but one problem I have with this argument is that it tells us nothing about “God” aside from not having a cause. So I thought I’d come up with some. This isn’t formal; hell, it doesn’t even rise to the level of “hypothesis”.

The universe we live in is subject to various laws, like gravity, the Pauli exclusion principle (that certain types of particles can’t be in the same place at the same time), and so on.

If you look at it mathematically, the universe is a gigantic automaton, where the current state of the universe follows, by certain rules, from the previous state of the universe. Even if the rules aren’t deterministic (e.g., there’s a certain probability that a virtual particle pair will appear out of nowhere at a given time), that means there are multiple possible futures. In any case, our universe is but a minuscule twig on an inconceivably-vast tree of imaginable universes: ones where gravity is slightly stronger or weaker; ones with two dimensions of space and two of time; ones that recollapsed twelve seconds after their Big Bang, and so on.

Go ahead and throw in a multiverse, if you like. Or multiple multiverses with their own possible laws. You can put that inside a meta-multiverse as well, and a meta-meta-multiverse, and so on. It doesn’t matter. It’s all just math. As long as everything is internally consistent, it’s all good.

If you had the hardware (and, of course, we don’t), it would be possible to simulate all this. Not that it matters, because our physical universe is as real to us as a simulated world would be to its inhabitants. Really, what matters is the mathematical relationships between each successive state of the universe.

But of course mathematical relationships don’t depend on hardware, or physical reality: when we say that 1+1=2, we’re saying that if we had an apple and added another apple, then we’d have two apples. It’s true whether the apples actually exist or not.

In other words (and yes, I realize I’m driving headlong into stoner rambling territory), what if we’re all inside a simulation that’s running on nothing? We perceive the universe because it is internally-consistent. Or to put it another way, the universe (or universes) is as real as addition.

So let’s say that some brilliant mathematician figures out that “nothing exists” (in the sense of “why is there something instead of nothing”) is mathematically-incoherent, that it only seems to make sense in English because we don’t see the full ramifications of that statement? That, in other words, something exists because it can’t be otherwise? And from that, all the universes follow.

This theorem, that “there has to be something because it can’t be otherwise” would then, as far as I can tell, fulfill all the necessary requirements of an ultimate cause, a prime mover, and whatever your favorite cosmological argument requires. It’s the first cause, it exists outside of space and time, and so on.

But notice what it isn’t: it’s not a mind. It’s not alive. It doesn’t give a damn about whether you and the rest of humanity live or die; it doesn’t even have the cognitive apparatus to know this. It doesn’t communicate with humans, doesnt’ tell them where to stick their genitalia. It doesn’t respond to prayer. And it certainly won’t send you to hell if you’re not nice enough to it.

It is, in short, something completely different from what most people have in mind when they use the word “God”. And I’ve never seen a sophisticated theologian describe what they mean by “God” in any way similar to the above, so consider this my modest contribution to theology.

So now, if you use an ultimate-cause argument, I’m going to ask whether my theorem-as-first-cause fits the bill; and if so, why I should believe in a Galilean carpenter instead.

Paley’s Computer

(I could’ve sworn I wrote about this earlier, but I can’t find it in the archive now. So sorry if this is a duplicate.)

Let’s say you’re visiting a foreign country, along with a native. As you’re wandering the forest, you see a mechanical watch on the ground. You pick it up, open it, examine its mechanism, and wonder among yourselves how it might have come to be in the forest, who designed it, who manufactured it, and so on.

After walking a bit further, you see a computer in a glade, its LED lit, its fans whirring, its power supply connected to an array of solar panels, its monitor showing a CAD tool with plans for a watch. It says “Dell” on the side.

You ask your guide about this device: who designed it? Who built it? Who decided to install it in the woods, of all places, and why? He says, “It’s always been here. As far as anyone can tell, it’s been here since the beginning of time.”

Satisfied, you nod your head and move on.


This is, of course, ridiculous. A computer is a big complicated thing whose presence demands an explanation, and you can’t get around that just by saying that it’s always been there.

For those who didn’t recognize it, what I’ve done here is to combine two common Christian arguments. The first is Paley’s Watchmaker, which says that a complicated thing requires a complicated designer.

The second adapts the Kalam argument to Paley’s watch. Briefly: the First-Cause Argument says that life/the universe/everything is a big complicated thing that didn’t just happen on its own, and therefore demands an explanation. If everything has a cause, we can ask what caused life, and then ask what caused that, and what caused that, and so forth. Eventually, we’re bound to come to the Ultimate Cause, which has no cause of its own. And hey, let’s call that God because that’s what we’re trying to prove.

At some point, someone realized that if everything has a cause, then it’s fair to ask what caused God, and what caused the thing that caused God, and so forth. So the argument was modified to say that everything that begins to exist has a cause, and BTW God is eternal and therefore never began to exist, and therefore doesn’t require an explanation.

I hope I’ve demonstrated, above, that being eternal is not sufficient for not requiring an explanation. Heck, the four-color theorem, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, Pascal’s last theorem are all eternal, yet they’re all complex entities that demand an explanation. If “it’s eternal, therefore it doesn’t require an explanation” were true, math class would be a lot shorter. In other words, Kalam is basically a very fancy and roundabout way of saying “I don’t need to explain God because shut up is why.”

(Some people might object that I’m casually using “cause” and “explanation” interchangeably. Yes, I am. Because for my purposes, they’re close enough that the distinction doesn’t matter.)

No, what short-circuits the infinite regress of explanations is when we get to something simple enough not to require further explanation. An explanation for Paley’s watch might be “the watch was designed in the same way as a ship’s rigging or a water pump, but smaller, more delicate, and more complicated.

But if “God” is the ultimate simple explanation, perhaps a principle of logic, like “0 = 0”, then that god loses a lot of the attributes that people who want God to exist really want that god to have. Like caring about their welfare. Like being aware of them, or indeed, of the Milky Way galaxy. Like being capable of noticing those sorts of things. Which “0 = 0” doesn’t. I’ve had people tell me that there are arguments to show why the Ultimate Uncaused Cause must necessarily have been a Jewish carpenter who was executed 2000 years ago, but somehow they never got around to presenting these arguments.