Cause and Effect and Cosmology
The theist asks the atheist who made the universe. The atheist asks the theist who made God. Both of them are pointing to the right issue. They’ve both found the question. Though they both may claim otherwise, they have not yet answered this question—but they have succeeded in asking it.
The issue concerns relations of cause and effect. We witness ubiquitous, constant, unwavering relations of cause and effect. We can visualize a sequence of such relations as a chain. The complexity and interconnectedness of many of these relations makes a web a better image, albeit still an inadequate one. But the image of a single chain keeps our focus on the connection between any one even and its particular cause (or causes), so it will work best for our present purposes.
The opening questions about where the universe came from, or where God came from, arise when we try to follow causes and effects all the way back to the beginning. The problem is that the chain of causation cannot go on forever. Picture it as a physical chain hanging down from the sky, each link in the chain hanging from its cause directly above it. We look up, and we may only see the chain stretching up and up, link after link. But somewhere, something different must be going on. Somewhere up there the chain must be anchored. Or perhaps instead something new and strange that we’re not familiar with stands in for such an anchor. But regardless, the chain links that we know so well cannot simply be hanging there in the air. Somewhere, something different is going on. That is the cosmological issue. Both the theist and the atheist must face it, and neither of them wins simply by invoking it against the other.
The theist claims that this something different is supernatural—an eternal God, who is uncaused. The atheist claims that whatever this something different is, it must be natural—perhaps that the Big Bang was a spontaneous occurrence since the “nothing” that “preceded” it was somehow inherently unstable, or that our universe is one among many within some larger reality.
The rub—for both the theist and the atheist—is that we only have the chain of cause and effect to work with. Everything we observe is part of that chain, and all the reasoning that we trust is tested and vindicated with reference to that chain. There seems to be no way to observe or reason beyond the Big Bang. Our physicists can theorize, but it doesn’t seem that we’ll ever have observations of “before” the Big Bang with which to test their theories. The theist similarly has no observations with which to test her theory. Logical possibilities for such a test abound, but we have no actual observations that prove the existence of a God.
Our attempts to observe and to reason seem unable to squeeze through the bottleneck of the Big Bang. We can postulate a natural or a supernatural cause on the other side, but we’re equally unable to confirm either one.