QuentinSmithThe kalam cosmological argument for God’s existence goes as follows:

(1) Anything that begins to exist requires a cause
(2) The universe began to exist
(3) Thus, the universe requires a cause

With some additional philosophical reasoning, the cause of the universe is ultimately identified as God.  Many atheists object to the first premise, claiming that the universe just exists inexplicably.  Such include Frank Wilczek, Chrispen Wright, Bob Hale, and John Post.  Atheist philosopher, Quentin Smith, rejects this response as intellectually inadequate.  He agrees that the universe needs a cause, but identifies that cause as the universe itself.  He is not the first to do so.  Daniel Dennett et al have made similar claims, but Smith’s version is much more sophisticated.  Unlike most others, his version is rationally coherent (even if it is ultimately untenable), and thus deserving of attention.[1]

In Smith’s cosmogeny,[2] the beginning of the universe consists of an infinite number of simultaneous events, each causally connected to the next so that nothing popped into existence uncaused.  Since the chain of events is infinite, there is no first event that lacks a causal explanation, and thus there is no need to posit God as the first cause of the universe.  Each part of the universe is fully caused by another.

The events are identified by Smith as elementary particles (such as electrons and quarks).  If we let t = 0 stand for the beginning of the universe, “…” stand for an infinite regress, e stand for electrons, q stand for quarks, and > stand for simultaneous causal relations, we can picture the beginning of Smith’s imagined universe as follows:

t=0e-3 > q-3 > e-2 > q-2 > e-1 > q-1 > e1 > q1 > e2 > q2 > e3 > q3

The whole series happens simultaneously, with no beginning and no end.

But why think the number of particles was infinite, if the universe is finite?  Smith needs to do more than assert their existence, or assert that the universe is infinite.  He needs to do more than describe a possible world that is temporally finite, and yet requires no external cause.  He needs to prove that such a world is the actual world.  But there are good philosophical reasons to think an actual infinite cannot be instantiated in reality, and thus good reasons to believe his possible world is not capable of being instantiated in reality.  Even if it could be, it would be impossible for finite beings to verify its existence epistemologically.  At best, then, we might say Smith’s proposal is possible, but not demonstrably true.  But I think even this assessment is too generous.

If the universe (space) is finite, and the number of particles is finite, then Smith is left with circular causality where N causes P, P causes Q, Q causes S, and S causes N.  It is like trying to explain the existence of a pie by saying one slice caused another, which caused another, which caused another, which caused the first.  This is incoherent.  N cannot be contingent on S while simultaneously being the cause of S.  So if Smith admits the number of particles is not infinite, then he must also admit that a transcendent cause is required to explain the first event.

And even if we agreed that there are an infinite number of elementary particles standing in simultaneous causal relations, so that there is no first event that needs to be caused, where did the particles/parts/events come from?  Why is there something (particles), rather than nothing?  How did these particles pop into being from nothing?[3] Smith focuses on the causal relations between the particles, but leaves unanswered the greater question of how and why these particles began to exist in the first place.  How did existence emerge from non-existence?

Furthermore, why think each of these elementary particles stand in causal relations to one another, rather than to something else?  Establishing causal relations between events is difficult enough given a finite number of temporally successive events, yet alone an infinite number of simultaneous events.  How could we know they stood in causal relations to each other, rather than to some transcendent, first cause?

For these reasons, I think it is best to reject Smith’s theory of a self-caused universe.  The best explanation of our universe is to be found in a transcendent, eternal, immaterial, non-spatial, personal, powerful, and intelligent agent.

[1]The typical claim is incoherent because it would require that the universe exist before it exist.  Something cannot stand in a causal relationship unless it exists, and yet a contingent being such as the universe cannot exist unless it stands in a causal relationship to some existent.  If that existent is itself, then the universe must exist before it exists, which is circular and incoherent.  Smith’s version of self-causation is quite different.

[2]My description of Smith’s cosmogeny is gathered from his comments in a debate with William Lane Craig in April 2003 at Harvard, on the question “Does God exist?”  For a transcript, see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5277.

[3]Smith believes the particles arose within an eternal and potentially infinite 4-dimensional empty space, but how could he prove space is eternal and infinite?  He thinks space is potentially infinite because it is expanding.  It probably is expanding, but that does not rule out a closed geometrical universe, like the surface of a globe that will expand forever.