The self-existent cosmos.

Principles of scientific pantheism* by Paul Harrison.

Are you a pantheist? Find out at the Scientific Pantheism site.

The universe exists for itself, without cause or purpose. Nothing existed before it that could have been its cause. Nothing exists outside it that could be the source of its purpose.

Veils of dust in the Crab Nebula. HST.
"Proofs" for God's existence.
Aquinas' statement of the cause and purpose arguments.
What the "proofs" cannot prove.
Why the proofs are invalid.
A universe without a beginning.
Why the "proofs" are an abuse of language.
Things need no purpose.
Cause and purpose do not apply to the universe.

"Proofs" for God's existence.

Humans have thrived through their urge to investigate cause and effect. We have prospered by our ability to design tools to manipulate the world.

The impulse to understand causes is so strong that we apply it to everything from amoeba to our own brains, from single particles to the entire cosmos. When we see what seems to be design, we are biologically driven to ask who designed it and for what purpose.

Ironically, these drives have helped to sustain beliefs in God and gods - even though these are results of our failure to explain.

When pre-scientific peoples saw lightning flash, they assumed that gods must be hurling the thunderbolts. They designed rituals to manipulate the gods.

Today scientists try to explain the beginning and the end of the universe. Yet still no-one can explain its ultimate cause or purpose. Many people assume that God is the answer, and the arguments from cause and design remain the most commonly used "evidence" for the existence of God.

We shall deal with the design argument in a separate page (see The self-organizing cosmos). Top.

Aquinas' statement of the cause and purpose arguments.

The proofs were perhaps most authoritatively stated by Thomas Aquinas:


There is no case known (nor indeed is it possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself, because in that case it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is impossible to go on to infinity. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God. [Summa Theologica, 1.2.3]


We see things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their result not by chance, but by design. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence, as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are ordered to their end; and this being we call God. [Ibid.] Top.

What the "proofs" cannot prove.

Even if these arguments were valid, they would prove only that there was a first cause, a designer and a purpose.

They would not demonstrate:
  • What the first cause was.
  • Whether the first cause was material or mental.
  • Who or what the designer was.
  • What the designer's purpose was.
  • Whether first cause and designer were the same.
  • Whether first cause and designer were identical with the God of any particular religion.
  • It is important to understand the limitations of these arguments. The causal argument proves - at most - that there was a first cause. It does not tell us what the first cause was like. It does not prove that the first cause was mental. There is no reason why it should not have been material. Similarly, the design argument proves, at most, that the universe was designed. It does not show who or what the designer was, or whether the designer was a material or purely mental being. The designer might have been a computer game (SimUniverse, say) played by a child in another dimension. It might have been an enormous intelligent life form. The argument from design does not explain what the designer's purpose was. It cannot prove that the universe was created for a "good" purpose - it could all be an ongoing experiment, an abandoned experiment, a joke, or a mystification. One of the most brilliant critics of religion, the eighteenth century British philosopher David Hume, suggested that it might be the first rude essay of an infant deity who afterwards abandoned it - or the work of an inferior deity and the object of derision of his superiors - or the production of an ageing deity which has run on out of control since his death. [Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Part V].

    Probably the most convicing purpose invented by theists is the one conceived by Mohammed, in which God created humans to contemplate him: "I was a hidden treasure, and I desired to be known." By contrast, his motives would have been - in human terms - perverse if his goal was to create humans with all their foibles and to test their ethics and devotion, only to violently wind up the whole spectacle and punish failures with eternal agony.

    The arguments cannot prove that the first cause and the designer were one and the same. The first cause may have started matter in motion, which a mental designer then worked on to shape our universe. Many Gnostics believed that the material world was not created by God but by an evil Demiurge. The Roman poet Lucretius believed that the cosmos created and ordered itself, while the gods passed their lives in calm and peace.

    They cannot prove that the cause and designer are the God of any particular religion, or a God of any particular character. Notice how, at the end of each proof, Aquinas leaps abruptly to the statement: "And this being we call God." But he does not prove that this being is God, nor does he prove that it is his Christian Trinitarian God as opposed to the one Allah of Mohammed or other creator Gods.

    The cause and purpose arguments cannot prove that the cause or designer was a personal, loving God who requires us to worship him. Top.

    Why the proofs are invalid.

    Sceptics have long argued against the arguments from proof and cause.

    David Hume, pointed out that God's ideas were no true explanation of the material world, since a mental world required a cause just as much as any other. And if we had to stop our questioning there, then why not stop at the material world?

    If I am still to remain in utter ignorance of causes, and can absolutely give an explanation of nothing, I shall never esteem it any advantage to shove off for a moment a difficulty which . . must immediately, in its full force, recur upon me… . It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.
    [Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part 4]
    The beginning of motion in matter itself is as conceivable a priori as its communication from mind and intelligence. [Ibid, Part VIII.]

    In a sense the theist argument about a first cause cuts the ground from under itself.
    Everything, it argues, requires a cause. To avoid infinite regress, there must be a first cause.
    But this first cause is something that has no cause.
    Therefore not everything requires a cause.
    Therefore the premise is invalid.
    Again, if there is a being which does not require a cause, why should this being not be the universe itself?

    A universe without a beginning.

    Cosmologist Stephen Hawking has proposed a scientific approach to ending the cause question. He envisages a quantum universe where space-time would be curved back on itself like the surface of a sphere, and thus would have no beginning or end:

    The quantum theory of gravity has opened up a new possibility, in which there would be no boundary to space time… There would be no singularities at which the laws of science broke down and no edge of space-time at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time… 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… What place, then, for a creator?
    Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Press, 1988.

    A similar sphericity or circularity might result if the universe had enough mass to be closed - that is, to recollapse on itself in a "big crunch," which in turn might be followed by another "big bang." In that case the end of one cycle would be the cause of the beginning of the next.

    Why the "proofs" are an abuse of language.

    We can reach a similar conclusion to Hawking's from an application of linguistic analysis.

    The arguments from cause and purpose stem from a confusion of language. They apply the concepts to realms where, by definition, they can have no validity.

    The cause of an event must precede that event. Yet if we define the universe as including all time, then there was no preceding time in which a first cause could have taken place.

    The purpose of a thing lies outside itself in time or space. Yet if we define the universe as containing all space and all time, there is no "outside" where a purpose could be lurking.

    Claiming that God lies outside time, space and the universe does not advance the opposing argument. For even if we accept God into the picture, we can define a new totality, embracing God and everything that exists. That totality, again by definition, can have no cause or purpose, because there is nothing outside of it in time or space.

    God is no real answer to questions of cause and purpose, for theists do not ask or answer questions about the cause and purpose of God's own existence. This does not end the chain of questions: it merely draws a curtain over the further links. The answer "God" can only satisfy us if we suspend our drive for understanding at that point. And there is no logical reason for doing so. As Hume remarked:

    If we stop, and go no further, why go so far? Why not stop at the material world? [Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, , Part IV]

    A moment's reflection shows that human thought can never reach a final end to the chain of cause and purpose questions.

    This fact suggests that the search is misguided. In fact, when we ask about the cause or purpose of an all-embracing whole, we are over- extending concepts and abusing language. Top.

    Things need no purpose.

    We must get out of the mental habit of looking for purpose in existing natural things. They are simply there, for the sake of nothing but their own existence and unfolding.

    Is there a purpose when pebbles are blown across the sand in a desert? Is there a purpose when breakers slam into a rocky shore?

    We must learn not to ask for purpose in our own existence. Of course we can have goals. We should seek to make the earth a better place for humans, and a better place for other species. But the purpose of humans as a whole, the purpose of life as a whole, or the purpose for which each individual exists in the first place, is simply to be, to play, to dance, to sing, to love, all just for the sake of it.

    Sometimes materialists like Richard Dawkins or Stephen Weinberg talk about the "meaninglessness" of life in the universe. Equally, critics of materialism argue that if God did not exist, human life would be "meaningless."

    But this too is an abuse of language. The universe, or the totality "universe plus God," could only possess a meaning in relation to something outside. And by definition there is nothing outside a totality. It is inconceivable that they could have a meaning.

    If this is the case, then there is also no conceivable shame or loss if life and the universe have no purpose or meaning.

    Freedom from purpose can be liberating. Indeed it is at times when we have no external purpose or aim or goal that we can be happiest: when we watch waves on the sea-shore, when we lie in tall grass, when we make love, when we dance. It is only when we no longer worry about purpose, only when we are content simply to exist along with other existences, that we can find real peace. Top.

    Cause and purpose are concepts that cannot be applied to the universe.

    The truth we must get accustomed to is this.

    The universe embraces all time and all space and all things that have existed or exist now or will exist in the future.

    It has no before and it has no outside.

    Nothing existed before it that could have been its cause.

    Nothing exists outside it that could be the source or goal of its purpose or the reference point for its meaning.

    It cannot conceivably have any cause or purpose.

    The cosmos is its own cause, purpose and designer. Top.

    Background image: Veils of dust in the Crab Nebula. Hubble Space Telescope.


    is the belief that the universe and nature are divine.
    It fuses religion and science, and concern for humans with concern for nature.
    It provides the most realistic concept of life after death,
    and the most solid basis for environmental ethics.
    It is a religion that requires no faith other than common sense,
    no revelation other than open eyes and a mind open to evidence,
    no guru other than your own self.
    For an outline, see Basic principles of scientific pantheism. Top.

    If you would like to spread the message of scientific pantheism please include a link to Pantheist pages in your pages, or mirror the page at your site by saving this and other pages.

    Scientific Pantheism: index.
    Basic principles of scientific pantheism.
    Join the World Pantheist Movement

    Suggestions, comments, criticisms to: Paul Harrison, e-mail: pan(at)(this domain)

    © Paul Harrison 1996.