Leading atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are convinced they have refuted the traditional idea that the chains of causation in the universe imply the existence of a creator. In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins concedes that the universe is fantastically complex and gives every indication of design. Even so, Dawkins notes that we cannot infer a creator because such a creator would have to be at least as complex as the universe that he has supposedly designed. Therefore Dawkins concludes that “the theist’s answer has utterly failed” because it has only pushed the problem back by one level. “If God created the universe,” Sam Harris writes in his book Letter to a Christian Nation, “what created God?”
Both Dawkins and Harris are very proud of this argument. Harris triumphantly notes that to say the universe must have been created by God “poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress.” Why, in other words, does the chain of causation have to stop with God? Why can’t it go on forever? Harris argues that the Christian answer simply won’t do because “to say that God by definition is uncreated simply begs the question.” Dawkins haughtily concludes that “I see no alternative but to dismiss” the theistic argument. These debunkers of religion think they have, with scientific precision, exposed a thousand years of metaphysical reasoning as irrational. Take that, Aquinas!
In my forthcoming book What’s So Great About Christianity, out from Regnery in October, I take on the arguments of the atheists. Here let’s revisit the traditional Christian argument for a creator in the form that Aquinas presented it. Aquinas begins with two principles that are today at the heart of all scientific reasoning. He argues that every effect requires a cause, and that nothing in the world is the cause of its own existence.
Whenever you encounter A, it has to be caused by some other B. But then B has to be accounted for, and let us say it is caused by C. This tracing of causes, Aquinas says, cannot continue indefinitely, because if it did then nothing would have come into existence. Therefore there must be an original cause that is responsible for the chain of causation in the first place. To this first cause he gives the name God.
Let me clarify Aquinas’ argument with an example which I borrow from historian Thomas Woods. Imagine yourself going to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a driver’s license. Upon arrival at the license counter you are asked to take a number before taking your test. Just as you are about to take the number, you are told that you must go to a different counter and take a number there. And when you reach that counter, you are informed that you must first take another number. Suppose further that every time you attempt to take a number, you discover that there is a prior number that you must take before you can take the next number. At this point you would be extremely exasperated at what seems to be an unending process.
Now suppose that, just as you are ready to lose your composure, you see a man walking out of the DMV with his new license. You are extremely relieved, because you know instantly that the series of numbers must not in fact go on indefinitely. If the series were infinite, then no one would ever be able to reach the counter to take the test and get a license. So the fact that this fellow has done so proves that the series cannot be infinite.
We are in a better position at this juncture to see Aquinas’ point. Given that nothing in the universe is the cause of its own existence, the universe cannot be explained by an infinite regress of causation. If there were infinite regress then the series would not have gotten started in the first place. The universe is here, just like the fellow who has gotten his driver’s license. And just as there had to be a first number at the DMV that got the sequence going, so too there must be a first cause for the universe that accounts for the chain of causation that we see everywhere in the world. We may not be able to say much about what this first cause is like, but we have established the need for it and the existence of it. Without a first cause, none of its effects—including the world, including us—would be here.
The real force of Aquinas’ argument is not that every series must have a temporal beginning but that every series, in order to have being or existence, must depend on something outside the series. It is no rebuttal to say that since everything must have a cause, therefore God Himself requires a cause. Aquinas’ argument does not use the premise that everything needs a cause. Everything that exists in the universe needs a cause. God is not part of the series and therefore the rules of the series, including the rules of causation, do not apply to Him.
Aquinas can rest easy. It seems evident that Dawkins and Harris have not answered the theistic argument. Yet amusingly they think they have. What’s up with these self-styled paragons of reason? Dawkins and Harris are experts in laboratory science. One is a zoologist, the other a student of neuroscience. Here is the classic case of people who are experts in one field trying to issue authoritative pronouncements in another. When this happens the results are not hard to predict.