So we’ve finally come to the last of the articles in the First Cause series. In this post, which is significantly shorter than its predecessors, I will identify one final, damning flaw in the Argument from First Cause (AFC). The flaw comes from getting stuck in “backdrop” mindset, where time and space are thought as a sort of background, separated from the matter and energy that exists on the main stage.
Way back in the day, back when the AFC was first developed, people assumed this backdrop mindset. And as long as we stay out of crazy-powerful gravitational fields, keep to velocities less than a few thousand kilometers per second, and keep our time measurements less precise than a few nanoseconds, this picture is actually a very good approximation. So it’s not surprise that it wasn’t until the twentieth century that physicists realized this view was incorrect.
In the backdrop mindset, it’s easy to continue to see time and possibly space as part of the background even when you’re introducing supernatural deities. When Aristotle introduced his “prime mover,” he was attempting to explain the origins of motion. In such a scenario, you already have time and space. Similarly with Aquinas’ formulation of the first cause argument, in which he uses the premise that causes precede their effects. These kinds of arguments assume the existence of time from the getgo. They are proposing a deity as the cause of matter and energy, not as the cause of time.
In fact, any attempt to argue that God is the cause of time defeats the AFC. This is because the AFC uses the fact that causes temporally precede their effects to argue against the existence of an infinite causal chain. Remove the need for time in the process of causation and you can easily have a finitely old universe with an infinite causal chain. In fact, if the theists attempt to avoid special pleading by talking about things that “begin to exist,” then they can’t apply any of their conclusions to time. After all, time can’t “begin to exist” because there was never a time when time itself didn’t exist.
At this point, some theists may be tempted to say something along these lines: So we can’t use God as a causal explanation for time. That’s fine. Science already has to take time as a given, so we’ll do the same. But unlike science, we can use god to explain the origins of matter and energy, things science would otherwise have to take for granted.
This kind of thinking still assumes the backdrop mindset. Now we all know that this mindset is incorrect, that time and space are actually dynamic. They interact with matter to causing gravity, and they even change when you’re travelling really fast. And while all of that is true, it’s not very pertinent to the AFC. The important revelation came a bit later, from quantum field theory. It turns out that spacetime doesn’t just interact with energy (which is interchangeable with matter), it necessitates it.
Quantum mechanically, you can’t have empty space. What we ordinarily think of as a vaccum already has energy. So no, science doesn’t have to take matter and energy as an extra given. In fact, once you’ve already assumed the existence space and time, you get the existence of energy automatically, without having to hypothesize the existence of any deities. So the very assumptions needed in the AFC already tell us that we don’t need to use God as an explanation!