How To Make An Atheist's Head Explode!

How can the Law of Cause and Effect help you when speaking with Atheists and Naturalists?

This is a good-humored look at some of the interesting problems raised for Atheists and Naturalists by things like the Law of Causality, which states among many things that "something cannot come from nothing" or that "Non-being cannot give rise to Being".

The principle of causality is a first principle. All first principles are self-evident or reducible to the self-evident. But not everything self-evident in itself appears to be self-evident to everyone. The principle of causality fits that category and so must be unpacked.

The principle of causality may be stated in various ways, some more easily accepted than others. 

For example, it may be stated:

1. Every effect has a cause.

This form is clearly self-evident, and it is analytic, in that the predicate is reducible to its subject. Other ways to state the principle are not analytic, nor so self-evident:

2. Every contingent being is caused by another.

3. Every limited being is caused by another.

4. Every thing that comes to be is caused by another.

5. Non-being cannot cause being.

Sometimes the principle is stated in other ways than these, but each form is reducible to one or more of these statements. For example, "Every thing that begins has a cause" is the same as "Everything that comes to be is caused by another." Also, "Every dependent being is caused by another" is the same as "Every contingent being is caused by another." All of the ways to defend the nonanalytic forms of the principle of causality (forms 2--4) require explanation of what is meant by the terms of the statement. The following are examples:


Statement 5 can be defended by defining terms. "Non-being cannot cause being" because only being can cause something to exist. Non-being is nothing; it does not exist. And what does not exist has no power to produce anything. Only what exists can cause existence, since the very concept of "cause" implies that some existing thing has the power to effect another. From absolutely nothing comes absolutely nothing. Or it can be more popularly phrased, "Nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever could."


All contingent beings need a cause, for a contingent being is something that exists but that might, under other circumstances, not exist. Since it has the possibility not to exist, it does not account for its own existence. In itself, there is no reason why it exists. Once it was non-being, but non-being cannot cause anything. Being can only be caused by being. Only something can produce something.

But if someone does not accept this as self-evident, the statement can be defended in two ways:  First, inherent in the concept produce or cause is the implication that something that existed brought into being whatever is produced or caused. The alternative is to define nothing as something or a non-being as a being, which is nonsense. This argument should be distinguished from David Hume's point that it is not absurd to say that nothing can be followed by something. Hume himself denies that something can be caused by nothing:

"I never asserted so absurd a proposition as that something could arise without a cause" (Hume, The Letters of David Hume, 1:187).

Second, everything that comes to be must have a cause. If it came to be, it is not a Necessary Being, which by its nature must always exist. What comes to be is a contingent being, which by nature is capable of either existing or not existing. Something separate from the contingent being has to determine that it comes into existence. So, everything that came to be must be caused, since there must be some efficient action which causes it to pass from a state of potentiality (potency) to a state of actuality (act). For, Aquinas noted, no potency for being can actualize itself. To actualize itself means it would have previously been in a state of actuality, and to be actualized means it would have been in a state of potentiality. It cannot be both at the same time. That would violate the principle of non-contradiction. Hence, one cannot deny the principle of causality without violating the principle of non-contradiction.


 Using this statement of the principle of causality, the existence of God/a First Cause can be demonstrated as follows:

- Everything that comes to be is caused by another.

- The universe came to be.

- Therefore, the universe was caused by another.

Another way to prove the existence of God uses a different statement of the principle of causality:

- Every contingent being is caused by another.

- The universe is contingent in its being.

- Therefore, the universe is caused by another.