On the way to work this morning I was thinking about the question, “Who made God?”  Many people wonder about this question (answer here), but it is a favorite atheist objection to the cosmological argument which posits God as the best explanation for the origin of physical reality (the universe/multiverse).  They use this objection in one of two ways.  Either they argue, “If the universe needs a cause, then so does God,” or they argue, “If God doesn’t need a cause, then neither does the universe.”  Both formulations are faulty, but my intent is not to evaluate the objection here.  I bring it up only to highlight that there is a difference between an explanation and a cause.  While everything that exists needs an explanation, not everything needs (or has) a cause.

We tend to think of everything in terms of cause and effect, and thus naturally think that God needs a cause too.  As an eternal being, however, God never came into being, and thus does not need a cause.  People often scratch their head at this.  While it makes sense to them on one level, they still want to know why God exists.  What they are really looking for is not the cause for God’s existence, but the explanation for God’s existence.  Most people are inclined to think this is a distinction without a difference because for everything they are familiar with, the cause of X is identical to the explanation of X: The reason X exists is because Y caused it to exist.  With God, however, there is no correlation between cause and explanation.

Philosopher Edward Feser explains the distinction between causes and explanations:

Note that the notion of being self-explanatory is not to be confused with the notion of being self-caused, which is incoherent.  Causation is a metaphysical notion, having to do with the source from which a thing derives some aspect of its being.  But explanation is a logical notion, having to do with the way in which we understand or make sense of some aspect of a thing’s being.  We cannot coherently say that a thing derives its existence from itself or its nature, for that would entail, absurdly, that the thing or its nature exists prior to itself, in an ontological sense even if not a temporal sense.  But we can coherently say that a thing’s existence can be made sense of in terms of its nature, for that has to do, not with where a thing “gets” its existence from — an absolutely necessary being doesn’t get it from anywhere — but rather with how we can make intelligible or understand its existence.[1]

The late 17th and early 18th century German philosopher, Gottfried Leibnitz developed a helpful principle that has come to be known as the principle of sufficient reason.  Leibnitz argued that everything, including God, does and must have an explanation for why it exists, but distinguished two kinds of explanations.  The existence of some things can be explained in terms of some external, transcendent cause, whereas the existence of other things can be explained in terms of the necessity of its own nature.  The first are regarded as “contingent beings,” while the latter are regarded as “necessary beings.”

Contingent beings—which include the universe, humans, rocks, etc.—derive their being from an external source.  They exist in virtue of something else that caused them to exist, and thus can be explained in terms of that causal agent.  Necessary beings, however, are not caused by any external agent.  They exist in virtue of the kind of thing they are; i.e. they must exist in virtue of the kind of things they are.  They are self-existing, and cannot not exist.  God is such a being.  He does not derive His being from some transcendent source, but has being in Himself in virtue of the kind of being He is.  God’s nature, then, provides the explanation for His existence.  Not only is no cause needed for God, but no cause is possible.

So the next time someone raises the “Who made God?” question/objection, be sure to distinguish between explanations and causes.  We can answer the question as to why God exists without committing the error of thinking God needs a cause.

[1]Ed Feser, “Greene on Nozick on nothing”; available from http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/12/greene-on-nozick-on-nothing.html; Internet; accessed 03 January 2012.