This is a good question, not least because there are many people who think that if the universe is eternal then God doesn’t account for much at all.
In an eternal universe what place, then, for a creator?
It is very common to find people assuming that if it can be shown that the universe had no beginning we would have succeeded in putting God out of work. Consider these two famous passages from Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time in which he speculates on the consequences of his no-boundary theory that attempts to erase the singularity at the beginning of the universe. Hawking begins:
“The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE.” (A Brief History of Time (Bantam, 1988, 1996), 141).
Note the capitalized “BE”. Hawking thinks a universe with no identifiable beginning (one in which, as he famously explained, had the singularity smoothed out like the north pole on a globe to be just another point on the sphere of time) would not just “be”. It would BE, presumably meaning that it doesn’t require anything outside itself to explain its existence. A few pages later Hawking makes that assumption explicit:
“But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?” (A Brief History of Time, 146)
So if the universe had no beginning, then the universe would simply BE, in which case what place, then, for a creator? Not much, apparently.
In any universe, what place, then, for a creator?
But things may be even worse. According to many people God’s explanatory redundancy does not only become evident if the universe happens to be eternal. It is redundant even if the universe is finite in age. And why is that? Because any appeal to God as the creator immediately forces the fatal question: And who created God? This is how everybody’s favorite Joe Six-pack atheist Sam Harris summarizes the position:
“As many critics of religion have pointed out, the notion of a creator poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created God? To say that God, by definition, is uncreated simply begs the question.” (Letter to a Christian Nation (Borzoi, 2006), 73.)
Wow, things are really starting to look bad for the “God hypothesis”.
Let’s summarize these two positions. Hawking defends what we can call the “weak thesis”:
(1) Weak Thesis: If the universe is eternal then the God hypothesis is unnecessary because eternally existent things do not require a reason for their existence.
And Sam Harris argues the “strong thesis”:
(2) Strong thesis: Whether the universe is eternal or not the God hypothesis is invalid because it initiates an infinite regress.
Are these theses really viable? Is there really no place for a creator?
The mystical fact that the universe exists
Let’s begin by laying some modal foundations. (Modality has to do here with the different qualifications of existence, i.e. possibly existing, contingently existing, necessarily existing, and necessarily not existing.)
To do that we’ll begin with an observation about our intuitions concerning modality. It is the most natural thing in the world to ask of the things we encounter every day “Why does that exist?” Why is that mountain there and why does it have that particular craggy peak? Why is this street here? Who left this rusty old car in this field? Where did this goose come from? Why is the sun in our solar system? What made the Milky Way? Every day in a thousand ways we encounter things that we automatically assume have some reason why they exist. That is, there is some prior reason, some causal factor(s), to which they owe their existence.
This is a very strong intuition. And this same intuition which applies to all the things we encounter in the universe — mountains, streets, cars, geese, stars and galaxies — extends naturally to the universe itself. That is, our strong intuition also prompts us to ask Why should anything exist at all?
Sometimes somebody will try to tell you that this is an illegitimate extrapolation. They’ll say that you can very well ask “why this mountain or that star?” but you can’t very well ask “why this universe?” or “why anything at all?” That’s baloney. Many of the greatest philosophers have recognized the importance and legitimacy of this question. To take one example, consider Ludwig Wittgenstein, arguably the preeminent philosopher of the twentieth century (and certainly no person of conventional religious conviction). In his great work the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he observed (in his distinctively terse style):
“Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” (Barnes and Noble, 2003, 6.44 (originally published 1922).)
Here Wittgenstein is expressing the conviction he returned to elsewhere in his writings over his amazement that anything should exist at all. Now you just might think that he was prompted to wonder in this way because of the rise of Big Bang cosmology and the reality of a universe with a finite past. But that would be wrong. Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus during WWI, thereby predating the advent of the Big Bang theory by years. Even if the universe had always existed, Wittgenstein still saw the sense in asking the question why it should exist.
The case of Wittgenstein merely confirms our intuition that it is legitimate to ask why the universe should exist just as it is legitimate to ask why the things in the universe should exist. And since the universe is the whole kit and kaboodle (as far as material reality is concerned), this sets us to looking for a causal factor beyond the universe to explain it.
Why the why questions must end. Cause some things just are.
Of course the obvious response is to plug God in as the cause. But not so fast. What about Harris’s alleged infinite regress? If we’re primed to ask “But why the mountain?” and “But why the star?” and “But why the universe?” are we not beholden to ask “But why the God that created them all?” And doesn’t that just initiate an endless regress that suggests we should be content with the universe alone?
This is admittedly a natural extrapolation, at least superficially. However, it resides in a deep confusion. We will get to that confusion in a moment. But first we should note that not all our intuitions about things are weighted toward asking “why”. In other cases our first intuition (at least the first intuition of philosophers who have thought long and hard about the relevant issues) is to reject the very appropriateness of the why question. The reason? Because it seems that some things just are.
Examples? Here’s a simple one. Think about the number “5”. What is this thing that was the object of the previous sentence? What were you thinking about when you thought about the number 5? The realist proposes that you are thinking of an abstract object or, to use a more traditional term, a universal. That is, 5 is a non-physical, atemporal object that can be multiply exemplified in concrete things (such as the conventional inscription “5” on the chalk board). But it is itself distinct from all those concrete exemplifications.
I recognize that this notion of realist universals may prompt all sorts of questions. Unfortunately I don’t have the time here to explain all the reasons that countless philosophers from the time of Plato down to today have been drawn to realist theories of abstract objects. (For an overview of recent discussions of abstract objects see the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Wikipedia entry is much shorter and less technical.)
What we can focus on here is the very common intuition in the necessity of abstract objects. Take away all the mountains, streets, cars, geese, stars, galaxies and even the entire universe, and it would seem that the number 5 would still exist just the same.
This idea that mathematical entities and other abstract objects exist necessarily reflects another very powerful intuition which is reinforced by the mathematician’s sense that their work is a process of discovery. (The most riveting account I’ve read of mathematics as a process of exploration and discovery in a non-physical world is found in Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem (Anchor, 1998). The dazzling take-away image of the book is of mathematicians as explorers no less than Edmund Hillary or Amelia Earhart. And while the world of mathematical abstracta that they explore is not concrete like mountains, sea and air, it is not for that reason any less real.)
And so what we find is a two-fold discovery. First, the world of mathematics and other abstracta exists as a reality distinct from but no less real than the physical world. Second, it is a world which differs from the physical world in that it could not but exist. It is not contingent. This world is necessary, and as such a question like “But who made the number 5?” is simply a misunderstanding of the kind of thing the number 5 is.
This means that there is an end to the questioning, an end to the search of explanation. And that end comes when we encounter bedrock things that could not but be, that which must be, which is precisely what abstract objects are.
Necessary yes. But also necessarily inert
So we have this intuition to ask of things “Why does that exist?” And this intuition makes sense for trees and galaxies and even whole universes. But it doesn’t make sense for abstract objects because these things exist necessarily.
This raises an interesting question. Can those things which are necessary provide an ultimate explanation for those things which are not? This, of course, would make excellent sense. And so we might want to consider the claim that abstract objects are somehow, in some way, the causal ground of everything else. Why does the universe exist? What can provide the final answer for the “mystical” fact that it is? Perhaps abstract objects can do this.
This would be nice except for one thing. Philosophers understand abstract objects to be causally inert. That is, they can’t act on the physical world and make things happen within it. The number 5 can’t knock you over, and the number 12 certainly can’t cause a big bang, or even a very little one. The only way that numbers and other abstract objects can relate to the world is through the relationship known as exemplification or instantiation. That is, concrete particular objects can exemplify or instantiate an abstract universal. This is what happens when, for example, a fire truck is painted red. In that moment it exemplifies the abstract universal of redness, And when I say “The fire truck is red” that linguistic utterance comes to exemplify the abstract universal proposition The fire truck is red, and so on. This relationship of exemplification is the only relationship that abstract universals have with the universe of concrete particulars.
And so the sad fact is that abstract universals cannot be invoked as a means to halt the endless regression of explanations. They explain themselves but they don’t explain anything else.
Closing the loop with a necessary agent
What we need to explain the universe of contingent things is something which is both necessarily existent like an abstract object, and also able to make things happen in the world, like a concrete particular.
But what kind of thing could that be?
Hmmm. Let’s think. We need an entity that is understood to exist of necessity, and yet which also has causal powers. Think. Think. Think. (Tapping temple with a pensive expression.)
A ha! God will do the trick!
You see, theologians define God as existing a se, that is existing of and in himself and not drawing his life from anything else. Put another way, they have always understood him to have the property of independence or necessity, and thus to be the unmoved mover or first cause.
It is at this point that we can see the glaring error of Sam Harris. When he asks, “If God created the universe, what created God?” he shows that he does not really understand what “God” means. (Maybe he has gleaned his doctrine of God from congregants who attend church weekly rather than theologians. But that is as mistaken as deriving one’s definition of matter from the lay person rather than the physicist. The congregant or lay person may provide a good practical definition but not the technical one this kind of conversation requires.) After all, it makes no sense to ask “If the unmoved mover created the universe then what moved the unmoved mover?” or “If the first cause created the universe then what created the first cause?” or “If a necessarily existent agent created the universe then what created the necessarily existent agent?” All of these questions reveal nothing more than Sam Harris’ failure to understand what is meant by God since God is, by definition, necessarily existent and thus the terminus of explanation.
If God were merely necessarily existent then he would provide no more explanatory insight for the existence of the universe than the number 5. But he is not simply a being who exists necessarily. He is also a being who is an agent, and indeed an omnipotent agent. While abstract objects are causally inert, God is classically maximally powerful. Whatever else that may mean, it certainly includes the ability to bring a universe into existence.
And so for the person who wonders “But why should anything exist at all?” the answer comes: “Because the omnipotent, necessarily existent God brought it into being.”
Is this a perfectly satisfactory response? That depends. As a Christian I find myself perfectly satisfied with it, though of course I’d love to hear more about why God created. But it is, at least, one explanation of the mystery of the universe’s existence, which is precisely one more explanation than the atheist can offer.