This is a slightly edited version of an article of mine which was published in the June 2010 issue of American Atheists Magazine.
Anyone who has openly argued for the truth of Atheism has sooner or later encountered some variation of the question, "What caused the Universe?". Often the response is to, correctly, point out that a creator god is a displacement of, and not a solution to, this problem, while refraining from giving any definitive answer, claiming that it is either unknowable, or simply unknown. I, however, claim that the question itself is ill-formed. It is a loaded question, in that it makes unstated false assumptions, such as that the Universe could have, in some way, not been caused, and that we can somehow detect that it was. I realize that this can seem counter-intuitive and that detection of the Universe's causation, or at least its existence, can seem trivial, but I claim that what is being detected is the Universe's possibility, and existence, as distinct from possibility, only has meaning as a relative term, relative to a specified Universe. "The Universe exists", therefore, has no meaning as an absolute statement, and as a relative statement is a tautology, no more subject to causation than "1 = 1".
Before I go any further, I need to define what I mean by universe. I will attempt to do so in a way which captures the essence of the common understanding of that word, and thus avoid the rhetorical deception of talking of one thing while appearing to talk of another, but, as with all such grand concepts, capturing all variations in its meaning is not possible without sacrificing consistency. I define a universe as a maximal causal graph. In other words, if you consider events to be represented as vertices of a graph whose edges represent cause/effect relationships, then any two events are part of the same universe if and only if they can be connected by a path along that graph, no matter how long or indirect. Here I'm using "event" and "cause/effect" in their broadest senses. Any physical quantity at any point in spacetime is an event, and any influence any event has on another is a cause/effect, even if it only causes (for instance) a miniscule shifting of the local gravitational field.
There are clearly many possible universes, universes in which a description of its events, causes, and effects, together with the laws governing its cause/effect relationships, are all consistent. For some very simple finite universes it is even possible to model them precisely. For more interesting universes it can easily be impossible not only to model them but to prove their consistency, but we know that at least one very complicated universe is consistent (our own), and it is very likely (although not necessary for my argument) that there are others. The question which usually arises when someone contemplates this is, "Why does our universe exist and not the others", but that very question assumes that there is some intrinsic difference between our universe and any other possible universe, and this difference justifies the assertion that our universe and only our universe exists. What is that difference? When I've asked people this the most common response is to beg the question. They will say such things as, "this universe exists because it's real", as if real were not a synonym for existing.
One recurrent problem with discussions of this matter is that the word exists is used for two different meanings, often by the same person in the same discussion, if not the same sentence.
One of these meanings is relative. In ordinary discourse, exist means "be a part of the universe in which we find ourselves". Much of the subsequent confusion one finds with the use of this word, I think, arises from the fact that unless the discussion drifts off into metaphysics this is for all practical purposes an absolute definition, since we generally assume that everything we talk about on any subject is relative to the universe in which we find ourselves. The other meaning is truly absolute. This is the supposed intrinsic difference between our universe and any other possible universe. It assumes that someone contemplating the natures and properties of the two possible universes could detect a fundamental difference. It assumes that identifying one universe as "actual" and another as "potential" is somehow different than identifying one as "foo" and another as "bar", and that there is some detectable quality which would make switching the labels somehow incorrect. It further assumes that a sapient being whose existence is an event in one of the two universes can somehow distinguish which type of universe she's a part of. Not surprisingly, everyone I've heard make the claim that actual and potential universes can be distinguished also puts herself on the actual side of things. I have yet to hear a coherent justification for this, though.
If this universe in which you and I live were merely potential, and not actual (and that was a real difference), then the observations, actions, and thoughts of Dennis Paul Himes would still be events in that universe, identical to the "actual" observations, actions, and thoughts of the "actual" Dennis Paul Himes in the "actual" universe we do live in. Since the actual thoughts of Dennis Paul Himes do not include, "Drat, I wish I were actual and not potential", then the potential thoughts of Dennis Paul Himes in that hypothesized potential version of our universe would also not include, "Drat, I wish I were actual and not potential". In fact the potential observations, actions, and thoughts which any of us would potentially have if this universe were merely potential would be identical to the actual observations, actions, and thoughts which we would actually have if this universe were actual, and the potential versions of us would potentially have every reason to believe that they were actual that the actual versions of us do. So how do you know that you're an "actual" reader of this "actual" article who "actually" lives in an "actual" universe, and not a "potential" reader of this "potential" article who "potentially" lives in a "potential" universe? You don't. From your point of view, the two situations are identical, and just a matter of labels, with no more meaning than "foo" or "bar".
So existence has no absolute meaning when applied to a possible universe as a whole. As a relative term, of course, every universe necessarily exists relative to itself, just as it necessarily doesn't exist relative to any other possible universe. What, then, can it mean for a being to create a universe? Existence is either a meaningless label (if taken absolutely) or merely a way to describe an observer's point of view (if taken relatively). Either way it can't be created, not because of any limits to a god's power, but because there's no way to make that idea make sense. A god who created our universe is not simply unnecessary, unevidenced, and unlikely, he is not even possible.
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