A Mormon and Atheist Debate: Is God Necessary to Explain a First Cause?

The fifth installment in a debate series between a young atheist and devout Mormon.

It doesn’t get much different than a Mormon and an atheist — so that’s precisely who we have engaging in a monthly debate on matters of spirituality.

Donna Carol Voss is a Berkley grad, stay-at-home mom, former pagan and devout Mormon. W Cassity-Guilliom grew up with interfaith parents and landed as an irreligious apatheist, which evolved into atheism and skepticism with education.

In this installment, the two debate whether God is necessary to explain a first cause.

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Donna Carol Voss:

Whether you call it the Big Bang or something else, how did it all get started? Without God, how do you explain the First Cause?

W Cassity-Guilliom:

Causation began as a philosophical concept in the good ol’ days of Natural Philosophy, the precursor to science. In our attempt to understand reality we posited that every event had a cause; if you see the eight ball rolling across the pool table, its movement has come about because in the past it was struck by another ball. Cause: direction and speed of the seven ball; effect: direction and speed of the eight ball. The word “past” is important as traditionally understood causes must precede their events — they are temporal in nature. Causation is used in today’s language in very much the same way. We throw around the adage “correlation is not causation” and recognize its significance in medicine, statistics, and elsewhere.

There’s a problem with causation known as the problem of infinite regression. Since its inception, we’ve had to consider that if every effect comes from a cause, what do we do as we go further and further down the causal chain? A was caused by B, which was caused by C, which was caused by D, which was caused by E, and so on all the way down to the first cause. But according to this theory of causation where everything is caused, that “first cause” should itself have a cause, so it can’t be a “first” cause. This is a problem.

What does this infinite regression problem have to do with religion? Well usually this problem of infinite regression was brought up as a counter-argument against gods. The idea is that if the gods exist, then they must have had a cause because there can’t be such a thing as a first cause. So there must be something greater than the gods out there! And there must be something greater than that, and so on. However, nowadays it’s commonly used by theists as an argument for the existence of their gods. They propose to solve the problem of infinite regression of causes by asserting that their gods don’t have to be caused, therefore their gods can be the first cause.

My proposal for solving the problem of infinite regression has nothing to do with religion and doesn’t solve the problem. My proposal is that the problem properly kills that old theory of causation. When they came up with it thousands of years ago, it was a sensible theory and it’s helped us frame scientific questions — but it must be false that everything needs to have a cause. This puts me in agreement with theists who believe their gods weren’t caused, to the extent we both agree that old theory of causation must be wrong.

Which finally brings me to your question, “How did it all get started?” The objects and forces of the universe interact in set ways. In our attempts to understand those ways, we’ve constructed Laws of physics to describe what we observe and understand those observations systematically.  Even though the Laws and Theories we build aren’t perfect descriptions of reality, there is something fundamental they capture about how reality works and those underlying laws about how reality works are, I believe, the uncaused causes.

It could be the case that the physical laws of our universe were themselves caused, in which case they aren’t uncaused causes. However, if we follow the causal chain back far enough we’ll reach an uncaused cause, and I believe that is most likely to be something very simple — a fundamental way reality functions. I could say this explanation is logically more likely to be true than any given god being, that uncaused cause as gods are complex beings, but either assertion would require evidence to be believed.

Just to quickly mention, other possibilities to solve the problem of infinite regression while keeping that theory of causation are: 1.) Time is infinite in both directions, 2.) Time loops back on itself like a Mobius strip, 3.) Time is finite and causation is inapplicable without the dimension of time. I’m not endorsing them, just mentioning them.

Donna Carol Voss:

Okay, I’m not trying to insult you, but I think you did a beautiful job of illustrating my point. You’re thinking like a mortal creature with finite understanding — like all the rest of us — of most things. If there is a God, and of course I maintain that there is, in no way is he going to be completely understood from a three-dimensional point of view.

If God is no higher than us, and his ways are no higher than our ways, and his thoughts are no higher than our thoughts, then he isn’t God; he’s just one of us.

Mormons believe in eternal progression, meaning we can progress to become — wait for it — gods ourselves. Along the course of that progression, our light and knowledge is continuously increased until we can understand God in a way we can’t now.

One of the things I like best about Mormon doctrine is that it can be understood backwards and forwards as the story of a family. God is our father, Christ is our brother, and we are all siblings. Mormon doctrine mirrors our earthly families, and we can extrapolate in either direction.

Let’s say there’s a two-year-old and a 16-year-old in the same family. The two-year-old thinks car keys are shiny and jangly; the 16-year-old knows their purpose is to bring an engine to life. The 16-year-old is also capable of understanding concepts far beyond the grasp of the two-year-old — freedom, independence, status, etc. The only difference between the two-year-old and the 16-year-old is 14 years of progression.

The two-year-old will get to the point of understanding car keys and the concepts they embody, but by then the 16- (now 30-) year-old is likely to understand the overwhelming love that having a child evokes. And on it goes.

“As man is now, God once was; as God is now, man will be.” This is not doctrine, but the words of an early Mormon Church leader who distilled our doctrine to its simplest form.

I know that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and that he is infinite. I have no idea how that works. That’s where faith and knowing things by the spirit come in.

Like the two-year-old and the 16-year-old, there is a dramatic difference between someone who has been transformed by a spiritual experience and someone who has not. The most dramatic example is Saul the persecutor of Christians on the road to Damascus. Encountering Christ himself, Saul was transformed into Paul, the most prolific and influential apostle of all time. Once the spirit touches you, there’s no going back. If you’ve never experienced it, what a lot of horse pucky, yes?

Back to thinking like a mortal creature. You say that we humans created the laws of physics to describe what we observe and to understand those observations systematically. How can we invent laws that exist independent of our existence? Gravity is not a law we created and would still exist if we had never been here.

Physics is one of the tools God has given us to understand Him. There is such perfect symmetry and coherence to the laws of physics; to a theist, they may be the most tangible expression of God we will ever reach in mortality.

W Cassity-Guilliom:

You’re thinking like a mortal creature with finite understanding — like all the rest of us — of most things.

Why thank you, it’s nice to know I haven’t yet lost my head in arrogance. Or, that you haven’t noticed I have.

I appreciate the surrealist humor of taking the classic bait-and-hook religious doctrines to a hilarious Oprah-like extreme in Mormonism; you get to be a god, and you get to be a god! Everyone look under your seats, you’ve won godhood! But on the other hand, such a fantastic dream invokes the kind of motivated reasoning endemic to faith. We’ll have to remain in strong disagreement about the importance of evidence and the role of faith.

You say that we humans created the laws of physics to describe what we observe and to understand those observations systematically. How can we invent laws that exist independent of our existence? Gravity is not a law we created and would still exist if we had never been here.

We created the Scientific Laws of physics, we didn’t create the phenomena of physics. Scientific Theories are explanations of how something works, and Laws are descriptive models of reality, usually mathematical. Newton’s Law of Inertia is F=ma, which is an imperfect descriptive model, yet it captures something fundamental about the nature of reality. The true models that perfectly describe all the ways the universe interacts haven’t been discovered, but I believe the universe is fundamentally systemic. Gravity is not a Law, but Newton’s Law of Gravity is a Law: F=G(m1m2/r^2) Gravitational phenomena do exist, and the systemic interactions of the gravitational force exist whether or not we do.  We call our best models of reality Laws, but that doesn’t mean we think reality is a human invention.

If there was a first cause I don’t know what it was, no one does. There’s no reliable way to determine the characteristics of a first cause, so any assertion of knowledge is hooey. My best guess is that it’s very simple, since we keep finding simple rules to describe fundamental reality like E^2=((mc^2)^2)((pc)^2). An uncaused cause could be a simple system inherent to reality whose interactions result in great complexity, like our current Laws of physics describe.

Donna Carol Voss:

Since theists and atheists agree that no one knows whether there was a first cause or what it was, it sincerely bewilders me how atheists are so sure it wasn’t God.

W Cassity-Guilliom:

If there was a first cause we have no way to make reasonable assertions about its characteristics. What could a first cause be? This scientific question, like others before it, does not demand a religious answer.

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