God v. Matter as the Cause of the Universe – Part 1

By David P. Diaz, Ed.D.

[See also Part 2 of this two-part series]

I have believed in God 1 for most of my life. Having been brought up in a major western religion, my initial beliefs were based more in dogma and fear than in anything else. I felt I had to believe in God… or else.

Origins of the universe

As a child, I had little interest in a religion that I perceived to be overly steeped in tortuously boring tradition (e.g., the services were still performed in a foreign language), or one where my relationship, indeed, my forgiveness was mediated by empty recitations of so many prayers. My childhood beliefs should not be considered, necessarily, critical of any particular religion because I really didn’t know any better. Though I lacked all but the simplest understanding of theology or religion in those days, I nevertheless believed in God, even if I didn’t have good reasons for doing so.

But something happened after I entered college. Inside an intellectual atmosphere, I began to question and was more introspective about many of my personal beliefs. As my knowledge and understanding increased, I found myself wanting to have sound reasons for the things I believed. I wanted to hold “rational” beliefs with respect to pretty much everything. So, I continued my quest for knowledge and, in fact, I became a professional student, a status I have maintained to this very day. Throughout my journey, I have attempted to educate myself on many topics. Besides my primary disciplines of Health Sciences and Education, I have studied world religions, philosophy of religion, theology, apologetics (reasoned arguments or writings in justification of some philosophical position), hermeneutics (the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of literary texts), languages, history and communication, all of which have been helpful in forming my beliefs. Even with such background, I must admit at the outset that I am neither a philosopher nor theologian. My expertise lies in the disciplines of science (specifically health sciences) and education (specializing in educational technology). With that caveat, let me begin.

Religion?

Many people like to argue about religion. I’m not one of them. It’s a fool’s errand to think you can convincingly discuss religion with most people, primarily because there is no such thing as a single “religion.” There are hundreds of religions, each with their distinct doctrines, dogma, and sacred texts. Any such discussion has to be laboriously broken down into the parts relevant to that single religion and I have found that most people won’t bother doing the homework necessary to have the appropriate depth of engagement. Personally, I have neither the time nor the inclination to study individual religions for the sole purpose of argument. In my experience, arguments about religion typically generate plenty of heat, but very little light. The vast majority of people I’ve met will neither be persuaded nor discouraged by the outcome of arguments about religion. That said, I am more than willing to discuss most any topic with most anyone who has the desire to engage respectfully and honestly and without a need for “winning or losing” as a final result. [I believe that no honest, rational person needs to fear the truth].

In any case, in this essay I am not attempting to defend any religion, per se, nor am I attempting to prove the existence of God. Instead, over the course of two essays, I will attempt to present a broad, synoptic case for why it is rational 2 to believe that a metaphysical entity 3 was responsible for the origin of the universe and why it makes more sense to believe this than to believe the universe sprang up from naturalistic causes (i.e., the basic view of materialism).

Rational Belief

The process of rationally justifying any hypothesis, theory and/or belief, typically employs one or more of the following methods: reasoned discourse, logical proofs, historical evidences, language interpretation, empirical evidences, mathematical solutions, statistical significance, and many, many others. In general, any hypothesis or theory on ultimate origins must credibly address the origin of the universe in terms of norms of rationality 4 across many disciplines.

For a belief about the origin or cause of the universe to be considered ‘rational,’ its arguments should be consistent with applicable norms of rationality and with accepted laws or principles of science (i.e., gravity, thermodynamics, etc.), insofar as those laws and principles are properly circumscribed under the overarching umbrella of scientific methodology. If any arguments successfully meet these conditions, we should then accept the theory that best explains all phenomena or observable data relative to other hypotheses.5 In the end, there still may be arguments that count against an accepted hypothesis or theory so that it remains ultimately provisional, pending a better explanation of a given state of affairs.

Since almost every worldview 6 has its own doctrine or belief about the beginning of the universe, I ask people to consider one elemental question: “What was the cause of our universe?” Too many people have never really thought about the answer to this question. And yet, as people attempt to cite reasons for their beliefs, their answers to this ultimate question will often bring to light the rationality (or lack thereof) of many of their arguments. For example, one cannot rationally believe in freedom of choice (i.e., free will) if one also claims to believe in the theory of determinism (i.e., that all events are ultimately determined by natural laws and causes). In other words, two basic beliefs that are contradictory cannot both be true.

As people consider the assumptions of their own worldviews, they can’t help but be confronted with the many difficult questions that variously pop up: Can something exist without a cause? What can cause a rational mind? Is there a distinction between the brain and the mind? Do humans possess free will, or are their actions determined? Do humans possess an authentic purpose, or are we purposeless and insignificant in the universe? These questions, and more, must all be confronted when one deeply considers the cause of the universe.

In the remainder of this essay, I will explain why materialism,7 which is the prevailing non-theistic philosophy of the origin of the universe (and is a central belief of most forms of atheism), cannot sufficiently account for the origin of the universe and why it is ultimately irrational.

Matter as the Cause of the Universe

Current scientific consensus puts the age of the universe at about 13.8 billion years and there is evidence from different scientific disciplines that the universe was the result of a “Big Bang.”8 That is, at the beginning of the universe, there must have existed sufficient information and energy to make possible (1) the instantaneous formation and (2) rapid expansion of the cosmos into (3) a highly organized and complex system.

Subsequent to the Big Bang, the universe has been governed by a set of universal laws including the law of cause and effect.9 For each effect, there is a cause, which goes back until some such root cause, or the beginning of the universe, as the case may be. Any system of belief (i.e., worldview), theory, or hypothesis about ultimate origins should explain the appearance of universal laws, the appearance of the physical universe, the apparent existence of non-spatial and non-temporal realities (e.g., rational thought, numbers, soul, spirit), and the apparent existence of free will.

Most forms of atheism as well as agnosticism subscribe to a belief that materialism explains (or will explain) the cause of the universe. The point at issue is whether a purely materialistic cause, or a supernatural, metaphysical cause provides the best explanation of the entirety of the universe.

Below are reasons why I believe materialism is not a rational theory for the origin of the universe:

For those who believe in materialism, there are two basic choices that can be made regarding the existence of the universe: either the universe has, in some form, always existed (an infinite causal regress), or at some point it sprang into existence (a causeless effect). Though there are other hypotheses, none have achieved a status other than problematic and conjectural. Below are some of the problems that cannot be rationally answered by materialism:

  1. If the universe has always existed, then there was no beginning, indicating an infinite regress of causes, which is philosophically untenable. An eternal universe also does not agree with the Big Bang theory, which posits an instantaneous formation (i.e., beginning) of the universe. Thus, the findings of philosophy and current science do not support an eternal universe.
  2. Materialism does not rationally explain how the laws of nature and the physical world sprung into existence simultaneously and from nothing (i.e., if there wasn’t something existing that caused the universe, then nothing caused it, which is absurd). If the universe began approximately 13.8 billion years ago and was the sole result of material interaction, what caused matter in the first place? In other words, to be rationally believed, materialism has to explain how something came from nothing. (At very least, materialism must explain how matter came into existence. In other words, what caused matter?) There is neither scientific evidence nor accepted theory that the universe spontaneously came into existence without cause, or from nothing.
  3. Materialism does not rationally explain purely mental phenomena and the apparent distinction between mind and matter. Instead, materialism simply assumes that nothing besides matter exists. Besides begging the question, this assumption must attribute fanciful creative power to lifeless matter. That is, the assumption of materialism must attribute to mindless matter the power to create emotions, numbers, laws of logic, thoughts, ideas, concepts, etc. However, matter is fundamentally different from and cannot be responsible for metaphysical ideals, human relationships, or rational thought. Materialism has no conclusive answer for how impersonal, mindless matter can cause a rational mind or any other nonphysical entity in the universe.
  4. Materialism is not true because if it were, there would be no genuine reasons, only deterministic causes (Hanna, 2011). If determinism is true, you could not do anything truly (authentically) wrong (or right) because you couldn’t act otherwise. No one could accurately state that you ought to have acted this way or that. In other words, it’s not that materialism can’t produce good behavior, but rather that if one is determined to produce either good or bad behavior it does no good to say any behavior is right or wrong because the person had no choice. This makes materialism indifferent to rationality, truth, and free will. Materialism substitutes blind material causes in place of rationality norms and, as a result, there is no good reason to trust it. Those who rest their hopes on determinism must sacrifice any claims to truth and rationality because every claim is reduced to either opinion, or purely subjective belief.

Not only does materialism not successfully address the problems listed above, it can only avoid its own unsubstantiated assumptions through attempts by its own “true believers” to focus on irrelevant data and through special pleading.10 Thus, pending further explication, or a good defense, materialism does not present a rational theory for the existence of the universe.

Limitations of Science in Discussions Regarding the Origin of Universe [see a full explanation of this view in the article: Seeking Truth: The Limits of Science and the Role of Philosophy and Theology.]

Naturalistic sciences, which are largely based in methodological naturalism,11 have helped us to understand much about the universe. However, materialism and ontological naturalism12 are philosophical positions (not merely methods) that postulate that all phenomena can only be explained as the product of natural laws and causes.

It is important to realize that there is a built-in bias against the supernatural and metaphysical within scientific methodology that favors non-supernatural explanations. Indeed, science doesn’t even consider supernatural causes, but instead, assumes there are none. However, while it is certainly appropriate to circumscribe scientific study to the realm of natural laws and causes, the decision to adhere to a naturalistic methodology (for scientific research) does not entail that the world is solely naturalistic.

Empirical science, properly delineated, makes (should make) no comment on metaphysical realities. At best, science can only present its observations regarding the physical world. Failure to observe this maxim leads many to a position known as scientism. Scientism is an excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge to explain everything. Scientism places an arbitrary restriction on knowing anything outside of what is attainable through scientific methodology. Unfortunately, by following a naturalistic methodology, sciences can neither affirm nor deny a metaphysical cause of the universe because by their very nature the sciences are limited to propositions about the physical world. 

Conclusion

Materialistic atheism must assert that the universe (1) is eternal, for which there is no evidence, or that it (2) ultimately sprang forth from nothing (i.e., an effect without a cause), which is patently absurd. It must claim that (3) mind, intellect, psyche, soul, and/or spirit are indistinguishable from matter, which means that everything in the universe, including thoughts, concepts, ideas, and other obviously non-physical entities are caused by some physical process. (4) Materialism is a self-defeating dogma, for by its entailment of thoroughgoing determinism, it cannot be known to be true. If all causes are predetermined, they are insusceptible of rational deliberation that would lead to truth. In fact, determinism nullifies itself by precluding both rational justification and knowledge, making it impossible to explain ultimate origins.

In Part 2 of this essay, I will discuss my reasons for a belief in a metaphysical cause of origin of the universe.

References Cited

Hanna, Mark M. (2011). Biblical Christianity: Truth or Delusion? (Kindle Location 13002). Xulon Press. Kindle Edition. 

About the Author

David P. Diaz, Ed.D. is the publisher and owner of Things I Believe Project. An educator and author, Dr. Diaz has a lifelong love of learning. His pen name (aka “Don Quixote”) comes from his love of chasing windmills (i.e., truth and other ideals) and his penchant for tongue-in-cheek humor: “Don Quixote was developing his arguments in such an orderly and lucid way that for the time being none of those listening could believe he was a madman.”

Footnotes

  1. My use of the term ‘God,’ in the title and early parts of this essay is meant to strike common ground with the reader but is not intended to imply any particular meaning outside of that which is described in this essay. I will not be referring to the ‘God’ of any specific religion. My reason for using the term at all is, if I didn’t use it, nobody might be interested in reading this article! Therefore, whenever one reads the word ‘God’ in this essay, one should merely substitute the words, “metaphysical entity.” This article attempts to contrast two potential causes of the universe, one physical and the other metaphysical.
  2. Rational. In non-technical language, rationality is the quality or state of being reasonable. It is the habit of acting by reason, as opposed to whim, and according to the facts of reality. Rational belief involves the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe.
  3. Metaphysical entity: Metaphysical is here used to refer to claims about ultimate reality beyond the limitations of the empirical, space-time world. Entity, of course, refers to something having existence. Thus, a metaphysical entity would be something that exists within, around, and/or apart from the universe we live in. I am basing my discussion on the premise that an entity or being that is not part of the space-time universe brought it into existence. In fact, I intend to show that such a metaphysical entity is the only rationally adequate explanation for the existence of the universe. Thus, this essay will represent an argument to the best explanation.
  4. Norms of rationality. Whenever one claims to have “reasons” for what they believe, they implicitly or explicitly appeal to various rationality norms. Though this essay will not endeavor to discuss or explain rationality norms in depth, a short list of examples will, hopefully, suffice.

    Rationality norms exist for the purpose of helping us communicate rationally or reasonably with one another. These norms include basic principles of logic (e.g., law of excluded middle), arithmetic (e.g., properties of equality), history (i.e., historical method), science (e.g., creating and testing hypotheses, seeking to be objective, etc.), ethics (e.g., honesty, respect for persons), and many others. Though some of these “norms” are controversial, there exists a consensus of those that have been established within and across many disciplines that remain uncontroversial because they are fundamentally indubitable (e.g., the principle of noncontradiction). Other norms are axioms considered universal and self-evident, which have achieved consensus within and across disciplines for best practices and proper methodologies to ascertain truth.

    Without a general acknowledgment of rational norms we couldn’t claim to know or explain anything. In other words, if rationality norms do not exist, we have no basis for any authentic claims about reality, and neither does anyone else.

  5. Here I am appealing to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which stipulates that everything must have a reason, cause, or ground, either in itself or in its cause.

    In the case of the ultimate cause of the universe, it is important to demonstrate that whatever is postulated as the cause of the universe is truly sufficient (or insufficient, as the case may be) to explain the entirety of all that we know and experience.

    This principle is controversial in the sense that one must successfully address the question: “What is a sufficient reason?” The answer to this question is difficult to ascertain and is often subjective to the persons who are deciding. Different disciplines will address this question in different ways, depending on the nature of the problem to be solved. In some cases, the answer may require logical or mathematical proof. In science it typically requires repeatability (i.e., testing and retesting hypotheses) and probability (i.e., statistical). From a scientific perspective, the answer is almost always provisional, which is why I noted in the next sentence that nearly every hypothesis and theory “remains ultimately provisional.”

  6. A worldview is a philosophical framework from which we view reality and make sense of life and the world. Our own worldview is a set of propositions (i.e., statements that express something that can be true or false) that we believe to be true about the world. This personal view, and the process by which one comes to hold it, can be especially crucial when it concerns life’s most important questions: What happens after death? What is truth and how do we apprehend it? And many others. Seven major world views include: Theism, Atheism, Pantheism, Panentheism, Polytheism, Deism, and Finite Godism. For more on world views see Geisler, Norman L., and William D. Watkins. Worlds Apart: A Handbook on World Views. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003.
  7. Materialism is a philosophical theory that claims that all reality consists of one kind of thing and that all distinctions in the world are nothing more than various alterations of the single physical substrate.  Many philosophers prefer to call the view “physicalism,” because this term is more inclusive, encompassing not only material entities that are spatially extended but also fields and forces. Most forms of atheism have materialistic presuppositions and are in one way or another a form of naturalism.

    Materialism essentially agrees with monism, which is a theory or doctrine that denies distinction or duality in some sphere. Its main assumptions preclude any distinction between mind and matter and between God (or any metaphysical entity) and the universe. In this document, I am using the terms “materialism,” “naturalism” and “ontological naturalism,” synonymously, unless otherwise indicated.

  8. Big Bang Theory represents the prevailing standard cosmological model for the universe from the earliest known periods through its subsequent large-scale evolution.

    It should be noted that I am neither confirming nor disconfirming the theory’s prediction of the age of the universe. I am merely noting that this theory represents the “standard model” of the scientific community. The age of the universe—though an interesting and relevant topic for some discussions—has no relevance to a hypothesis regarding the cause of the universe. The Big Bang Theory speaks more to what happened from the first second after the universe began.

  9. Some may doubt or challenge the validity of the law of cause and effect but it is one of the most self-evident principles of the universe and one in which there is hardly any reason to doubt. After all, it is the main business of science to search for causal explanations for all events.
  10. Special pleading is used here to refer to any argument in which the speakers deliberately ignore aspects that are unfavorable to their point of view.
  11. Methodological naturalism is a strategy for studying the world, by which adherents look only for naturalistic causes in a physical world. For methodological purposes, scientists choose not to look for nor consider supernatural causes during the process of conducting experimental or other types of research. This is entirely legitimate, though many scientists are now proposing an “expanded” or “meta-science” framework for studying the world.
  12. Ontological naturalism (not to be confused with methodological naturalism: see footnote 11) is a materialist philosophy that asserts that nothing that is supernatural, or transcendent to the space-time universe, exists. In other words, nature is the whole of reality. Of course, this is one of the underlying assumptions of materialistic atheism.

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