Who or What Caused God?
by J.P. Moreland
‘If everything has a cause, then who or what caused God?’ While this question is often asked, it is inherently flawed. J.P. Moreland explains.
Introducing the First Cause
Recently, I was watching a debate on television between an atheist and a believer. The Christian had presented several arguments to support the idea that the physical universe of space, time and matter had not existed forever, but rather came into existence a finite period of time ago. He went on to argue that the best explanation for this fact is that there is a First Cause — God — who caused the universe to come into being.
At that point in the debate, the atheist responded, “If you say that everything needs a cause and so there must be a cause for the beginning of the universe, then what caused God? And if you say that God is the first cause and nothing caused Him, then why not just say that the universe itself is the first cause and nothing caused it? Postulating a God is both unhelpful and unnecessary.”
Fortunately, the believer was prepared to give an answer to this response, but would you have been ready? What would you say if presented with this argument? Let’s see if we can make some progress in formulating an answer.
There’s Something Fishy with the Question
The first thing to notice is that there is something wrong with the question, “Who or what caused God?” To understand the problem, I need to introduce a simple notion in logic called a category fallacy. A category fallacy is the mistake of ascribing the wrong feature to the wrong thing. For example, asking, “How many inches long is the smell of a rose?” or “What does the note C taste like?” seems to assume that smells have length and sounds have taste. Both assumptions commit a category fallacy.
You can commit a category fallacy about something even if that thing does not exist, as long as you have a concept of what the thing would be if it were to exist. For example, unicorns do not exist, but we have a concept of what a unicorn would be if it were to exist, namely, a one-horned horse. Given this concept, the question “How many iron filings does a unicorn attract?” commits a category fallacy (it falsely assumes that unicorns have magnetic properties which, given our concept of a unicorn, is a confusion of categories).
Now, the question, “What caused X?” can only be asked of things that by definition — by their very concept — are causable sorts of things. I can ask, “What caused the Earth to come into existence? What could cause unicorns to exist if there were such things? What caused the universe to come into existence?” because all these things — the Earth, a unicorn, the universe — are things that by their very nature have, in fact, come into existence…
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