In which an atheist tries to rebut the Causal Principle by presenting this dialogue:
Christian: When you see a building, you know it had a builder. When you see a painting, you know it had a painter. When you see the universe, you know it also had a maker. This is God (of course it must be the Christian form of the many Gods). It is IMPOSSIBLE for something to come from nothing
Atheist: A builder and a painter takes existing materials and uses them to make the end product such as a building or a painting.
What existing materials did God use to make the universe? What? Are you telling me God made the universe out of NOTHING? I thought you said that was impossible?
Here, the atheist tries to fashion a hypothetical discussion between a Christian and an Atheist which he hopes would seriously undercut if not rebut the Causal Principle. After reading that brief dialogue, the atheist hopes you would at least be persuaded to believe that the Christian is advocating a position which could be proven to be logically inconsistent or perhaps metaphysically unnecessary. At any rate, does the atheist’s objection actually defeat the Causal Principle?
The answer is NO.
The problem I suspect is that the atheist has not fully understood what the Causal Principle or the causal premise is actually saying. In my experience talking to many atheists, they usually attack a rather flippant or overly simplistic version of the argument without actually attempting to understand the full explication of that premise.
Let us briefly examine what the Causal Principle is actually saying. The proper way to understand what the Causal Principle is saying is to read it thus: “Being can only come from Being; something cannot come from non-being”. This would be the same as saying that “nothing (no something) comes from or of nothing/non-being”. This is not only intuitively and philosophically valid, it has also been confirmed constantly through science. There are no serious objections to this principle.
The common objections you hear from people claiming to anchor their objections on science is nothing but a grave misunderstanding of what nothing actually means. When you talk to people who pretend that this premise can be shown to be false, all you need do is try to talk to them about what they understand NOTHING to mean, and you will see quite clearly that in most cases they treat NOTHING as if it were SOMETHING indeed.
What about this atheist above who misconstrues the argument for why the universe has a maker? Well, I am not sure that this atheist understands the logical conclusion of his argument. It is one thing for an atheist to suggest that we may not currently have the full explanation of how the universe came about; or where the universe came from (considering the recent forays into multiverse theories). Nevertheless, it is another thing altogether to say the universe created itself out of nothing, or that it spontaneously popped into being. This is where many atheists indeed have to bite the bullet if they have to escape the logical inference to theism. But why would the atheist risk rationality and even common sense to stake out the absurd claim that the universe created itself? For the universe to spontaneously pop into being, or to create itself as it were, the universe would already have to be existing! This is clear nonsense.
So how do we apply the Causal Principle to the universe? Well, here’s the simple answer. The universe has already been proven to have a finite past. In other words, the universe was not eternal in the past. For the universe which shows a finitude in the past to begin to exist, it had to have a cause which brought it into existence. Even if you posit a multiverse (an unproven fantasy at the moment) which gives rise to this universe as one of several billion possible universes, you have not escaped or avoided the specter of cosmic beginnings. It simply pushes the question back as to how that parent or mother universe came to be. The atheist would be forced to declare that there is no naturalistic explanation for that, or else assert that this unproven figment of the imagination called the multiverse is simply eternal and uncaused.
The statement “God caused the universe to exist” does not furnish us with anything other than the realization that God preceded the universe and was the efficient cause of the universe. Consider the sculpture called The David, for instance. This sculpture didn’t pop into existence uncaused out of nothing from nothing and by nothing. It had a cause. The efficient cause of that sculpture is the sculptor Michelangelo. He is the one that thought it up and fashioned it albeit from a material cause (the marble). It is useful to understand the difference between efficient and material causes. When someone says that God is the cause of the universe, that statement does not furnish anyone with the physics of the event because the said event was clearly above naturalistic physics. When a Christian says that the universe did not spontaneously pop out of nothing, they are quite plainly saying that the universe came from something. That something is God. How God chose to do it is what science is trying to unravel.
So what stuff did God create the universe from? This is a very good question. God is held to be the maximal possible being. As a maximal being, he possesses maximal power. So, only a maximally powerful being can act on a state of affairs causally prior to the universe to produce the universe. Only a maximally powerful being can create the universe that now exists out of literally no stuff (nothing). The claim the Christian is making is simple: God is the explanation or the efficient cause of the universe—and this he did or fashion ex nihilo, or literally out of nothing; which simply means that he did not use any supposedly pre-existing material substance to create the universe.
At this juncture, the atheist may be tempted to disagree, with the hope that there may come a time in the future when some scientists that are deeply uneasy about the logical inference to theism, which comes out of the realization that the universe was not past-eternal, would succeed in showing a completely naturalistic account for the origin of the universe. Indeed, many of such theories purporting to establish a past-eternal universe have been advanced in the past and ultimately defeated.
If I may suggest, there is possibly no way that I see to get around the specter of cosmic beginnings. Any thinking atheist who purports to actually follow the science involved will sooner or later realize that the issue of the origin of the universe cries out powerfully for an explanation. The only explanation that makes sense of all the relevant philosophical and scientific knowledge at our disposal is the case made for a creator God.