the most basic question

The most basic question one could ask is one which is asked and wondered at both by small children and genius level intellectuals.

It has various forms, and is worded differently, but is essentially the same question:

Where did we come from?

Alternate forms include: Why are we (or anything!) here?  How did things come into being?  Why is there something rather than nothing?

It’s the question of the ultimate origin (or original beginning) of everything.

A few things about the question:

First, it is valid to ask this question and to seek at least some kind of answer.  The level of certainty which one has concerning their answer has nothing to do with whether or not it is a valid question.

Second, we are never done asking the question.  Comparison between the various kinds of answers will never be finished.

Third, it is the most basic question.  It is the question where all other questions lead to.

Now, this most basic question has three kinds of answers (each with presumably infinite variations):

  1. Everything* is an illusion.
  2. Everything is eternal.
  3. Everything was created.

Now, I’ll comment on each option in more detail.

  1. Everything is an illusion. This is not a popular view.  Who would want that to be true?  More than this, it immediately raises the question of “If things are illusory, then who/what is having the illusion?”  Descartes famously said “I think therefore I am.”  So things are real.  Option one is neither desirable nor logical.
  2. Everything is eternal (uncreated/uncaused). This view encompasses all views in which the idea of an ultimate ‘beginning’ is rejected.  Cosmology (whether big bang theory or multiverse theory) seems to point ‘back’ spacially, temporally and causally to an ultimate beginning.  Also, even the views that are cyclic in nature would seem to be in need of a prior explanation.
  3. Everything is created (had a beginning / was caused). This view can be split into two: a) Everything is caused/created by a cause/creator other than itself; or b) Everything is caused/created/originated by itself.  More succinctly: a) Created by creator or b) Self-originating.  If it is arbitrary or ad hoc (which I reject) to postulate a Creator, than it is certainly and utterly arbitrary and ad hoc to postulate that ‘Everything’ just had to exist of necessity (by nature).  This leads me and countless others to conclude that the most rational and reasonable position to take (however tentatively or confidently) is the view that Everything was created/caused by a creator/cause other than itself.  This view encompasses all kinds of beliefs in any/all kinds of creators/causes.  Affirming a 1st cause does not instantly commit someone to any particular kind of set of beliefs – only the simple affirmation of a 1st cause.  Pantheism, Panentheism, Deism, Theism, Spinozian/Einsteinian cosmic ‘god’, Mother Nature, etc. are all encompassed here.

This question, again, is the most basic question and is the starting point of theology.  Theology starts with the assumption (and a rational/reasonable one) that the only valid answer for the existence of things is a Creator who is other than the things created.

Theology must be taken one step/level at a time.  It is utter nonsense to reject the general idea of a Creator because of some specific question at a later logical step/level.

That brings things to a natural breaking point, so I’ll finish there.

Can anyone think of a 4th possible ‘kind’ of answer to the question – or another example of one of the three answers given that I did not mention?  Other responses?

***

*The word ‘Everything’ is being used here in the most basic sense, to refer to all existing ‘things’.  Much argument can be had about this usage.  But not here.

23 thoughts on “the most basic question”

  1. I think the most basic question of all boils down to the question of whether causality as we know it is universal. Your three options could be rephrased in a slightly more objective way as follows:

    1. Causality is universal which implies either:
    1a. Everything has always existed in some form; or
    1b. The universe is somehow capable of self-causing.

    2. Causality is not universal which implies either:
    2a. Uncaused events can occur; and/or
    2b. Uncaused things can exist

    From this basic question we can then step on to asking what the uncaused things might be including speculating about gods and the like, but I think this issue is a more fundamental way of viewing it.

  2. Ian,
    Before even trying to respond, I’m going to need you to explain (whether or not causality is actually seen to be universal) what you mean by “universal causality” – meaning, what would this universal causality ‘look like’, and how would we know it when we saw it?, etc. – i think?

  3. hmm. I think Hinduism believes that everything is an illusion don’t they? That is a fairly popular religion.

    How did you decide on origin as the most fundamental question? I have always thought that purpose was more important than origin. Not how did I get here, but why am I here? although I guess the answer to one will often have significance for the other.

    Also does theology really start with an assumption of a prime mover/first cause or with revelation? I think if you were seeking to found a theology purely on the observation of causality you’d be a long time before you came up with anything like the Christian concept of God.

    Peace

  4. Heya, Jonathan,
    I mean that origin is the most fundamentally basic (i.e. logically prior) question in relation to all other questions. This (as you say) doesn’t mean that it’s the most important question. I 124% agree: purpose is infinitely more important.

    And when I say that theology starts with a prime mover/first cause, I certainly am not talking about specifically ‘Christian’ theology – which (again, I agree) certainly needs a heck of a lot more than just a first-cause argument to get to.

    So rather than arguing for specifically Christian answer to the question, with this post, I’m simply establishing the logical problems with options 1, 2 and 3b :)

  5. Generally speaking to say A causes B is to say three things. Firstly temporal precedence which is to say A occurs before B in order for A to cause B. Secondly A and B must co-vary which is to say that when A changes, B must changes in sync with it in order for A to cause B. Thirdly A must exclusively cause B which is to say that for A to cause B, C must not cause B.

    Now universal causality means that every possible event or change (A) must have a cause (B) which meets those three criteria. For a so-called “first cause” or uncaused thing to exist then universal causality would be violated. Some other supernatural claims may violate universal causality as well.

  6. Ian,
    A ‘first’ cause would necessarily be distinct from all subsequent causality. This is obvious with ‘temporal precedence’. The Cause (A) of time itself could not ‘occur’ ‘before’ the creation of time (B). Also, the co-variance thing wouldn’t be the same either with a ‘first’ cause. The Cause (A) of the physical/material universe could not be a physical/material thing, and so could not be physically/materially synced with the physical/material universe.

    In short, you’re using what I’ll call ‘created/caused causality’ to attempt to evaluate the cause that caused this ‘created/caused causality’. The distinction here is between what you might be calling ‘universal causality’ and ‘creative (or divine) causality’. Or between ‘natural causality’ and ‘supernatural causality’.

    An analogy that may/may-not be helful is this:

    I can ’cause’ another person to do change their location by physically moving them with my body (hands/arms/force). That would be one kind of ‘causing’. Also, I can ’cause’ another person to change their location by some kind of verbalisation (either a request to move, a command to move, informing them of the thing about to fall on them, etc.) This is a different kind of ‘causing’.

    By analogy, the a Creator of time/space/matter would be non-time-specific (eternal), non-space-specific (all-present) and non-physical (spirit), and would therefore ’cause’ the universe in a way that was irrelevant to time, location or physical mechanism. This fits with the Judeo-Christian language (metaphorical as it is) of the Creator ‘speaking’ the creation into existence. “Let there be”…

    Just to reiterate: God is not a ‘thing’ that creates a lot more ‘things’ by ‘thing-ish’ causality. Sure, this will stretch language (do we really think that we’d be able to use perfect words to describe such a thing?), but we can still follow the logic where it leads – and logic requires that (as above) a creator/cause of time/space/matter simply cannot be within time, in any ‘location’ or a material thing.

  7. A ‘first’ cause would necessarily be distinct from all subsequent causality.

    By definition (I think) a “first cause” is actually an oxymoron. If there was a initial mover of some description then causality is not universal.

    The Cause (A) of the physical/material universe could not be a physical/material thing, and so could not be physically/materially synced with the physical/material universe.

    No materialilty is required. “God” wills it to happen; it happens; that’s covariance.

    I can ’cause’ another person to do change their location by physically moving them with my body (hands/arms/force). That would be one kind of ‘causing’. Also, I can ’cause’ another person to change their location by some kind of verbalisation (either a request to move, a command to move, informing them of the thing about to fall on them, etc.) This is a different kind of ‘causing’.

    They are only different in a subjective-pigeon-holing kind of sense. Both events are causal in exactly the same way by meeting those three criteria.

    Just to reiterate: God is not a ‘thing’ that creates a lot more ‘things’ by ‘thing-ish’ causality. Sure, this will stretch language (do we really think that we’d be able to use perfect words to describe such a thing?)

    Firstly the meaning of causality is well established. Its universality in modern day observation seems evident but we can’t be sure it is universal for all circumstances, particularly unusual ones such as beginnings or black holes.

    The materiality/thingness has very little to do with causality and should probably be left aside for the moment.

    logic requires that (as above) a creator/cause of time/space/matter simply cannot be within time, in any ‘location’ or a material thing.

    That is only true if you make the very specific claim that causality is universal except for the creator, a rather big claim. However if any of the three necessary conditions of causality can be violated at all then you cannot discount possibilities such as A causing B when A happens after B, or A causing B without changing, and so forth. In other words if you allow for the hypothetical possibility of anything being able to cause things without meeting all three conditions of causality then you open up a world of possibilities beyond a creator.

    This is why the causality thing is so fundamental IMO.

  8. Ian,
    Again, your assessing ‘divine causality’ using ‘natural causality’ as a filter (which – to briefly use the FlatLand analogy – is a bit like assessing ‘height’ using ‘length & width’ as a filter).

    At any rate, natural causality can only occur in our universe, which raises the question again – where did it (the universe – and therefore natural causality) come from?

    I can’t help but wonder that your assuming that natural causality is the only kind of causality because the idea of divine causality is not favourable to you. However unfavourable the logic of a caused universe is to you, it remains reasonable to follow the logic where it leads. As I say, this doesn’t instantly commit someone to any specific brand of ’cause’-ism. We can take things one step at a time.

  9. a shorter way of saying it: (??)

    If the universe is caused (which it seems manifestly logical to think so), do we actually think we could postulate that a ‘universe-ish’ kind of causality could have caused it!?

    The very notion of a caused universe, therefore, necessitates a non-universal-ish kind of causality.

  10. I think you are over complicating the issue with flavours of causality. Formally A causes B if and only if those three characteristics are met. If B comes about some other way then it is not caused in the formal sense but rather it occurred via some other mechanism.

  11. “By definition (I think) a “first cause” is actually an oxymoron. ”

    I agree with this. Dale, I think I pretty much said this in the other thread.

    Consider what has happened in this thread, though. Words and concepts have been used, in the OP, to essentially describe god. When those words and concepts have been tied to the real world as we always use them, they have come short of what Dale is trying to convey, such that he is has appealed to a foreign type of causality. The word ’cause’ being the pertinent case.

    If there is a ‘divine causality’, this has to be demonstrated. Not assumed. And people who don’t see it certainly shouldn’t be accused of purposefully not seeing it!

    Dale, there is simply no way that a caused universe is ‘logical’, unless the problem of where the creator comes from is removed. Clearly you think that a ‘divine causality’ is at play such that the word ’cause’ is not what we usually mean by it. Can you supply any information you hold about the differing meaning of the word ’cause’? (We can point to nature to exemplify the normal word ’cause’. What can you point to for the ‘divine’ causality?)

  12. If there is a ‘divine causality’, this has to be demonstrated. Not assumed. And people who don’t see it certainly shouldn’t be accused of purposefully not seeing it!

    It’s not so much that a foreign (divine or other termed) causality needs to be demonstrated; it’s rather that some cause other than the causes/forces of the natural world is logically necessary to explain the very existence of the natural world. We can complain that we wouldn’t know what ‘other’/’foreign’ kind of cause/force would be like, but some kind of other cause is logically necessary. It is not so much ‘assumed’ as it is necessitated. And if you don’t ‘see’ this necessity, you might well be “purposefully not seeing it!” :)

  13. Oh yes,

    (We can point to nature to exemplify the normal word ’cause’. What can you point to for the ‘divine’ causality?)

    The existence of Nature. :)

  14. Your point Dale is precisely why I think figuring out if causality is universal is fundamental to the whole issue. Until we settle that issue, all talk of necessitated creators or non-causal methods of change is moot.

  15. Ian,
    We’re probably not going to get much further. I still think you’re trying to declare all things other-than-nature ‘moot’, based only on nature itself (which we don’t even know fully as is, much less how it might have been caused). You can’t make authoritative declarations (+ or -) about supernature only in terms of nature, any more than you can deny/prove ‘height-ness’ in terms of ‘length-and-width-ness’.

  16. All I am saying is that either causality is universal or it isn’t and knowing the answer to that really gives a foundation to every other aspect of explanatory discourse.

    Incidentally supernatural events can still be perfectly causal. If a soul exists then when the person dies, the spirit is caused to move on from the body, etc etc, causality is preserved. Causality actually says absolutely nothing about materiality, supernaturality or any other issue – it is more basic/fundamental than that.

  17. Ian,
    You’re still not distinguishing between the causality that we know (albeit partially), and the proposed initial/’first’ causality, which is necessary for the very existence and functioning of the causal universe we (partially) know.

    Even if supernatural, spirits and souls are a part of ‘normal’ causality, there must be a first/ultimate/initial causality for even these to exist.

    The existence of anything makes this ‘other’ kind of causality necessary.

  18. Dale, can you please point me to a list of switches – ways to do italics, bold, quotes in WordPress?

    “You’re still not distinguishing between the causality that we know (albeit partially), and the proposed initial/’first’ causality, which is necessary for the very existence and functioning of the causal universe we (partially) know.”

    “The existence of anything makes this ‘other’ kind of causality necessary.”

    I think in parallel with the insistence of a ‘divine’ type of causality, verification and falsification are thrown out the window. As soon as one calls on a concept which we cannot be familiar with, any crazy thing can be claimed. A first cause needs be found only if it is known that there could have been nothing at all. How the heck could this be known? So we focus on what we can see, which is why our definitions remain sensibly grounded.

  19. On ‘switches’ (I’ve heard them called ‘HTML tags’???), they look like this:

    < blockquote > insert quoted text here < / blockquote >
    < b > insert bolded text here < / b >
    < i > insert italic text here < / i >
    < strike > inserted crossed out text here < / strike >
    ((just delete the extra spaces in the tags!!!)

    Sure, spiritual things are not verified/falsified with physical methods, but would we expect that they could be? And not everything metaphysical is ‘crazy’. :)

  20. Even if supernatural, spirits and souls are a part of ‘normal’ causality, there must be a first/ultimate/initial causality for even these to exist.

    The existence of anything makes this ‘other’ kind of causality necessary.

    Not really – that is an assumption that you are making. Perhaps causality isn’t universal at all rendering the need for a first cause irrelevant. Perhaps causality is nearly universal and only breaks from that in special cases such as black holes so anything could happen with no particular cause including self-creation. Perhaps the universe has always existed. Perhaps this universe hasn’t but others have in an eternal multiverse set up. Perhaps it’s turtles all the way down. The requirement of a first cause is an assumption. The knowledge of what such a first cause might look like is necessarily wild speculation based on that assumption. I’ll echo Simon’s point: “How the heck could this be known?”

  21. Ian,
    Nobody’s saying they were there at creation, and Nobody’s saying you have to accept a first cause. But what I think you really should be able to concede is that a First Cause is not merely some wish-ful thinking conjured up as an emotional crutch to make us feel nice inside. It actually logically stands up – and makes basic, clear sense. I don’t expect you to be too excited about that as an atheist. :) But (as you say) it’s either a first cause or self-creation or eternal multi(uni)verse (or there’s always the “everything is an illusion” option?). Or turtles. :)

  22. But what I think you really should be able to concede is that a First Cause is not merely some wish-ful thinking conjured up as an emotional crutch to make us feel nice inside. It actually logically stands up – and makes basic, clear sense.

    A first cause is an interesting theoretical possibility and it does make for interesting discussions. However that is all it is.

    I don’t expect you to be too excited about that as an atheist.

    Actually I am quite excited about the question of a possible first cause and would love to know both if such a thing is necessary and if so what form it takes. What I don’t find exciting are the theistic answers to these questions because in my opinion they are outside the scope of the logic and also outside the scope of our knowledge.

  23. Sorry for hiatus, had assingment to finish (another one looming as well…) :)

    A first cause is an interesting theoretical possibility and it does make for interesting discussions. However that is all it is.

    But of course, there’s absolutely no way you can demonstrate (let alone prove) that a first cause is only an ‘interesting theoretical discussion piece’ and nothing more. :)

    Actually I am quite excited about the question of a possible first cause and would love to know both if such a thing is necessary and if so what form it takes. What I don’t find exciting are the theistic answers to these questions because in my opinion they are outside the scope of the logic and also outside the scope of our knowledge.

    I’m absolutely baffled about the “outside the scofe of the logic” comment. (hasn’t it been shown that a first cause is logical?) And as for the comment “…and also outside the scope of our knowledge”; I’d absolutely love to know how you know that it’s outside the scope of or knowledge… :) (as well as what specific kind of knowledge you’re assuming it’s outside of?)

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