The First-cause Argument


‘Perhaps the simplest and easiest to understand is the argument of the First Cause. (It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God.)

That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have; but, apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. I may say that when I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question ‘Who made god?'” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause.

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.

It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.” The argument is really no better than that.

There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause.’

– Denonn. L.E., Egner. R.E. Ed. 1961. The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell London, United Kingdom: George Allen & Unwin (1962) p. 587


Bertrand Russell delivered the lecture Why I am not a Christian (of which this is an excerpt) on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall.

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5 thoughts on “The First-cause Argument

  1. About the origin of the universe, why is it so difficult to simply say, “I don’t know.” I don’t need to know the evolutionary history of a flower to know that it’s beautiful and smells good.

  2. We don’t know… yet, might be better. That one admission, far from claiming eternal ignorance, has been the tool of progressive inquiry and discovery throughout generations of mankind.
    “We don’t know, so God did it” has been the opposite. It’s intentionally closed those doors and sought to destroy all who might try to push them back open. -KIA

  3. Agreed.

    “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance, that gets smaller and smaller as time goes on.”
    — Neil Degrasse Tyson —

  4. I think the first cause argument is a control issue intended to lead people to think by faith (yes a contradiction, but valid for my argument). Faith, as the KJV book of Hebrews states, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith, I have found by interacting with it seriously, is a form of self-hypnosis and a desire, or need, to be hypnotized from reality. With the right hypnotist, faith can make one firmly convinced of anything, as long as that “anything” remains outside any fact or physical evidence. Many people do not realize this about faith: it only works outside facts and evidence. First cause must be based on faith, hence why it is called God, a faith-based concept.
    Maybe, as Arch implies, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and leave it at that but I’ve never been a fan of that approach. What makes “us” is our innate need to know. Born questers, for good or ill. Some are quite willing to sacrifice the well-being of the entire planet to discover if a certain weapon will work as theorized. The drive to know is more powerful even than sex – it’s endemic. The idiot who lays a length of burnt rubber on the street with his rod is no different that the one who set off operation plumb-bob. Both exhibit sociopathic traits; one being annoying, one being willing to risk starting a singularity that could have opened a hole to the core of the planet and eaten it up.
    My own thought on first cause changed when I gave up faith. It became what I now see as an infinity of ever-changing “causes” better understood as inputs, no longer restricted to the past, but existing in the future as well. We live our short physical lives on, or within, a sea of cosmic changes we try to understand as we evolve through our own set of infinite, if infinitesimal, changes.

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