Unnatural Causes

From Issue: R&R – May 2011

[EDITOR’S NOTE: A.P. auxillary staff scientist Dr. Fausz holds a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from Georgia Tech.]

The most fundamental axiom of science is Causality: the belief that every material effect observed must have a sufficient cause preceding or simultaneous with it (Miller, 2011). The observed motion of a cart is difficult to explain, for example, unless we assume the existence of an appropriately placed horse (figuratively speaking, of course).  Scientific philosopher Sir Karl Popper wrote that the “rule” of causality “guides the scientific investigator in his work” (1968, p. 61). Actually, Popper refused to accept causality as a scientific “principle,” per se, but instead stated as a “methodological rule” that we should never “give up our attempts to explain causally any kind of event we can describe” (p. 61). I will not be so picky, as I believe that causality has been so thoroughly and consistently demonstrated by observation to be readily considered axiomatic, i.e., accepted without proof. Popper clearly indicates by his comments his belief that causality is heavily embedded in scientific thought and method. Nobel Laureate Erwin Schrödinger, upon defining causality, commented:

This postulate is sometimes called the “principle of causality.” Our belief in it has been steadily confirmed again and again by the progressive discovery of causes that specially condition each event (1957, p. 135).

The thoughts expressed by Popper and Schrödinger certainly support the idea that without an assumed “cause,” the scientific search would be quite aimless, if, indeed, possible at all.

The scientific importance of causality can be further illustrated with an amusing story related by noted theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!” (1988, p. 1).

Hawking’s anecdote invites several immediate observations regarding causality:

  1. Causality is fundamental to scientific reasoning. Note the scientist’s question in response to the lady’s statement. Why assume the tortoise is standing on anything, if not for the sake of causality?
  2. The principle requires effects to be natural or material (thus, observable to us). This is a somewhat trivial inference, for should an effect be unobservable in nature, then we would certainly not be concerned with knowing its cause. The observation implied in the story is nothing less than the existence of the Earth and its perceived place in the Universe.
  3. The statement of causality does not of necessity require a natural or material cause. Causes need only be sufficient and antecedent to/simultaneous with the effect to satisfy causality. For example, as a direct consequence of causality, the lady’s hypothesis in the story (a giant tortoise holding up the Earth) resulted, according to her explanation, in an infinite tower of turtles. While this conclusion is not natural by any means (and, arguably, not logical), it is admissible from the standpoint of causality. (For further interesting discussion of the “tower of turtles” analogy, see Davies, 1992, pp. 223-226).

The third statement, while last, is certainly not least important. Note that even miraculous events recorded in the Bible produced effects that were observable or measurable (e.g., water becoming grape juice, the Red Sea visibly parting, people who were observably dead becoming alive again, etc.). Otherwise, miraculous causes would probably be of little interest to us.

It turns out, though, that the admissibility of non-natural causes is the only way to avoid a serious dilemma in the causality assumption. Consider the following: if a cause is, or is assumed to be, material (observable) then, like its effect, it is also contingent—the cause itself must be the effect of yet another cause according to the scientific axiom of Causality. Consequently, a predetermination to assume only material causes will, necessarily, lead to an infinite sequence of them. For example, strict material causality dictates that the existence of life at its present state of complexity may only be explained by some form of evolution (special creation, while an admissible cause, is not material). In order for life to evolve to its present state of complexity, life had to develop from non-living matter; non-living matter had to somehow organize in a very specific way to provide the necessary constituents for life to generate (assuming, of course, this is even possible); in order to so organize, this matter had to have existed under certain special conditions; and so on.

The dilemma in this reasoning is clearly illustrated by the turtle analogy. If one assumes that the Earth rests on the back of a giant turtle, then the turtle needs to be supported by something. And, since the lady in the story was inclined to make the turtle assumption to begin with, why not just assume that it is standing on the back of another turtle, which is exactly what she did. But, what is the second turtle standing on? As long as one has predetermined to accept the turtle hypothesis, like material causality, the turtles will continue to pile up, like material causes, until we have an infinite number of them. To avoid this dilemma, an assumption must be made at some point in the chain that does not involve a turtle, or by analogy, does not conform to strict materialism.

A related principle has been demonstrated within the most logically consistent subject of study known to mankind—mathematics. In 1931, Kurt Gödel, an Austrian mathematician, proved a theorem holding that “for any consistent mathematical system there exists within the system a well formed statement that is not provable under the rules of the system” (Overman, 1997, p. 27). Commonly known as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, this result simply implies that to make progress within a mathematical system, certain facts need to be accepted axiomatically (that is, they cannot be proven from other facts in the system).

This principal also holds in other fields of reasoning. In fact, Paul Davies makes use of this idea when he proclaims:

I would rather not believe in supernatural events personally. Although I obviously can’t prove that they never happen, I see no reason to suppose that they do. My inclination is to assume that the laws of nature are obeyed at all times (1992, p. 15).

Here Davies assumes something to be true that, he admits, cannot be proven within his system of reasoning: the assumption that supernatural events do not occur. A tacit assumption in Davies’ statement, however, is the existence of time. While the natural laws may hold “at all times” (and supernatural events may not occur), we have already seen that assuming this to be true back to the beginning of time will lead to the equivalent of an infinite tower of turtles (an infinite causal sequence).

Speaking of the beginning of time, the most widely accepted theory for this event is the so-called “Big Bang.” This was hypothesized subsequent to the discovery that the Universe is expanding (Hawking, 1988, p. 38). Specifically, what astronomers discovered was that the light spectra of most of the stars in other galaxies were “red-shifted” (reducing in frequency), by which they assumed this indicates that those stars were moving away from us with increasing velocity. If the assumed expansion is extrapolated backwards in time, then one might suppose that there is a point in time at which all of the matter in the Universe was collocated (existed at the same point). This, of course, requires the highly non-trivial assumption that time actually extrapolates back to that point. Note that the expansion assumption does not necessarily follow since one might hypothesize other possible causes for the red-shift of the stars, such as nonlinear changes in the “elasticity” of space-time itself, perhaps as if the Universe was “stretched out” at its beginning (cf. “stretched out” [Isaiah 42:5; Isaiah 45:12; Jeremiah 10:12], or “spread out” [Job 9:8; Isaiah 40:22]).

For now, though, consider what science thinks it knows about this assumed beginning point, called the Big Bang singularity. The term singularity in this context denotes a point at which some fundamental property ceases to exist or certain processes are undefined. For example, in mathematics dividing by zero creates a singularity because division by zero is undefined. To state this more precisely mathematically, the mathematical operation of division is undefined at zero, so the origin (zero) is called a singularity point with respect to the operation of division. In the case of the Big Bang singularity, the assumed reverse time extrapolation creates a point at which all of the matter in the Universe is collocated, or has “zero size” (Hawking, p. 117). This would necessarily imply infinite mass density which, according to general relativity, implies infinite curvature of space-time (Einstein, 1920). Physicists Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose have studied the properties of singularities predicted by general relativity quite extensively. Hawking observed that at such a point, “the laws of science and our ability to predict the future would break down” (p. 88). Since the laws of science as we understand them are undefined at this point, the point is called a singularity or, in this case, the Big Bang singularity.

So it seems, perhaps not unsurprisingly, that if the chain of causality could be followed back to a beginning of time as defined by the Big Bang, it would take us to a point in which natural laws do not apply. Hawking goes on to say: “[T]his means that one might as well cut the big bang, and any events before it, out of the theory, because they can have no effect on what we observe” (p. 122).  However, cutting the singularity out of the theory just serves to bog the theory down once again in the dilemma of material causality. When the ultimate conclusion of causality turns out to be an unnatural cause, and we cut it out of our theory simply because we desire to stick with material causality, then our reasoning can only lead us, again, to an infinite tower of turtles. Note that Davies points out that it doesn’t make sense to talk about “before” with reference to the Big Bang singularity since time presumably had its beginning there (p. 50).

All of our imagination and reasoning, as well as our experience and observation, point to a necessary break-down in strict material causality. Theories of an infinite Universe, mathematical incompleteness, and space-time singularities testify to a physical reality that cannot be completely deduced by the rules of the system. The logical conclusion is a cosmological model that admits unnatural cause.

Furthermore, if we are forced to assume an unnatural cause for the beginning of time, as the evidence suggests that, indeed, we are, then why should we necessarily presume, specifically, that in order to pinpoint the beginning of time, we should extrapolate back to a point in which all the mass in the Universe is collocated? As we have seen, Hawking suggested discarding the Big Bang singularity because its effects cannot be predicted by science. However, Hawking also points out that the singularity theory implies that space-time had a beginning and a boundary, prompting him to ask “What were the ‘boundary conditions’ at the beginning of time?”  He then comments: “One possible answer is that God chose the initial configuration of the universe” (p. 122).

Such boundary conditions as these could specify any of an infinite number of initial configurations and states for space-time and the matter that it contains. Indeed, boundary conditions are, by definition, these types of specifications. I see no particular reason to assume that these boundary conditions start with a point of infinite mass density and equally infinite space-time curvature, other than a predetermined desire to push material causality to its unnatural limit. These boundary conditions may, with equal probability, specify a Universe at the beginning of time that is not much different than what we now observe, thus implying that time has not progressed as far as some have conjectured. Perhaps that is why Hawking, using a mathematical contrivance he calls “imaginary time,” has more recently endeavored to create a consistent model of space-time that is finite but does not have a boundary, therefore would presumably not require any boundary conditions. Hawking, however, points out that this idea is “just a proposal: it cannot be deduced from some other principle” (p. 136).

The biblical Old Testament records that God said to Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). Job understood well the rhetorical nature of God’s question, for he had already proclaimed to his companions:

But where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man does not know its value, nor is it found in the land of the living. The deep says, “It is not in me”; and the sea says, “It is not with me.” It cannot be purchased for gold, nor can silver be weighed for its price (Job 28:12-15).

Clearly, Job observed that complete understanding does not lie in materialism or nature and, if he did not know it before, God pointed out to him that neither does the knowledge of how “the foundations of the Earth” were established. Even what understanding we do have contains immutable evidence of its own hard-coded limitations in explaining the observable Universe.

Our observations and reasoning tell us that the foundations of the Universe could not possibly have been laid through strictly material or natural causality. Theories of cosmology, physics, and even mathematics point to the necessity of a Cause that operates independent of the rules of the system. These theories, however, while they can point to the necessity of unnatural causes, are impotent when it comes to explaining those causes. The Bible closes this gap in our theories by telling us of an omnipotent and omniscient Creator who is capable of operating outside of nature to make everything we observe out of what we cannot observe. The divinely guided Hebrews writer articulated this very concept in his striking statement against strict material causality: “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible” (11:3).

If we pay attention to what all of our observation and reasoning are telling us, then our mind’s eye will “see” the foundations of the Universe being laid, not by material or natural causality, but by the omnipotent Creator, God, working outside of nature to set the boundary conditions, bringing natural laws on-line to shape and direct His creation. And our reasoning will, in turn, no longer require an infinite tower of turtles.


Davies, Paul (1992), The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World (New York: Simon & Schuster).

Einstein, Albert (1920), Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (New York: Barnes & Noble).

Hawking, Stephen (1988), A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books).

Miller, Jeff (2011), “God and the Laws of Science: The Law of Causality,” Apologetics Press,

Overman, Dean (1997), A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield).

Popper Karl (1968), The Logic of Scientific Discovery (New York: Harper & Row).

Schrödinger, Ernst (1957), Science Theory and Man (New York: Dover Publications).


A copied sheet of paper

REPRODUCTION & DISCLAIMERS: We are happy to grant permission for this article to be reproduced in part or in its entirety, as long as our stipulations are observed.

Reproduction Stipulations→