What is the cosmological argument?

The cosmological argument is really a family of philosophical arguments (logos; See: Logic) that fall within natural theology and seek to demonstrate, through a priori or self-evident and empirical knowledge, a “Sufficient Reason or First Cause” for the cosmos.[1] Theism throughout the history of the cosmological argument has been the necessary metaphysics constituting what is needed by what is inferred from argumentation as the First Cause. A theistic natural theology, and so the philosophy of religion in that context, regard the cosmological argument as central, inexorably leading to the monotheistic view of a personal God. It is a central theme of the cosmological argument that there need not be a beginning to the universe and to physical space-time, but that the First Cause actually endures existence at every moment. In other words the most prominent historical defenders of the cosmological argument, outside of the Islamic inspired kalam version, do not formulate the argument with concern for a beginning of the universe (See: Big bang theory).[2]

It uses a general pattern of argumentation (logos) that makes an inference from certain alleged facts about the world (cosmos) to the existence of a unique being, generally identified with or referred to as God. Among these initial facts are that the world came into being, that the world is contingent in that it could have been other than it is, or that certain beings or events in the world are causally dependent or contingent.[3]

Versions

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) thought the beginning of the universe could not be understood by way of philosophical arguments but rather by divine revelation.[4] This fact of the Aquinas worldview is why contemporary defenders of the cosmological argument do not consider their philosophizing requires support for a beginning of the universe and time. Philosophy cannot approach the question about the beginning of the universe according to Aquinas, one of the, if not the most famous defender of the cosmological argument.

Certain versions of the argument attempt to show the universe as having a beginning like the kalam cosmological argument. It does not assume that there was a beginning however but demonstrates the premise by appealing to scientific evidence like the big bang theory.

The general pattern of argumentation taking into account medieval and modern formulations is as follows;

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The world is contingent.[3]

Leibnizian

Georg Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) is famously known for advancing a particular version of the cosmological argument with Samuel Clarke (1675–1729) reaffirming. The Leibnizian version states;

  1. Every contingent fact has an explanation.
  2. There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts.
  3. Therefore there is an explanation of this fact.
  4. The explanation must involve a necessary being.
  5. That necessary being is God.[5]

Kalam

The kalam cosmological argument is different from traditional versions of the cosmological argument. The kalam calls for a first cause to actual time itself. It retains the traditional feel because it is still the First Cause necessary to endure existence of the world, but in conjunction with the position that it is the cause of the beginning of the physical space-time universe as well.

William Lane Craig is the current most prominent defender of the kalam cosmological argument. The crucial premise is premise 2, as it infers that there was a beginning to the universe. The conclusion is that the cause of the beginning of the universe points logically to theism rather than atheism. Kalam is essentially that;

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause. (Premise 1)
  2. The universe began to exist. (Premise 2)
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause. (Conclusion)[6][7]

Premise 1

Premise 1 is a type of first fundamental law of metaphysics basically stating that things do not pop into existence from non-being, being only comes from being. This fundamental to metaphysics parallels biogenesis which is a scientific law of Biology. Any other avenue for the premise would be trying to prove something far less obvious instead of supporting the obvious. It is human common sense that being comes from established being. It is a premise that relies on the common experience of humans. Some atheists will actually argue against premise 1 but this is usually a fail safe last resort point on complete fabrication and irrational belief. It is considered by defenders of the cosmological argument that when critics question premise 1 the argument has been won. The appeal for existence from non-existence by atheists and naturalists becomes worse than magic.

A very important distinction is that premise 1 is not a physical principle but a metaphysical principle. It only addresses the whole of the universe not the parts within the universe. The scientific method is a way to explore natural events within the cosmos, but metaphysics (and by extension philosophy) concerns being for beings sake grappling with why there exists a nature in the first place.

Quantum physics objection

In the sub-atomic realm particles offer evidence for a contradiction or negation of premise 1 seemingly. Particles seem to just pop into physical space-time for mere moments not caused by anything, out of nothing they appear, and then immediately disappear out of physical space-time. This is due to the quantum vacuum fluctuations. When the quantum vacuum fluctuates it spins off particles which is what physicists observe as they are in the excited state. Then instantly the particles dissolve back into the vacuum. This can give the appearance of particles spontaneously popping into existence out of what seems, by many physicists, as nothing. However, this is misleading mostly due to popularized writings about the subject of quantum physics, only supporting the interpretation that particles do in fact spontaneously pop into and out of existence.[8] Appealing to the realm of quantum physics and trying to question premise 1 because the particles seem not to have any causal determinate behind their spontaneous actions, is not unfamiliar territory to defenders of the kalam cosmological argument like William Lane Craig. There are two important understandings of quantum physics that often go overlooked within popular works. First, the quantum vacuum is actually something, not nothing. What seems to be popping into existence are fluctuations of the vacuum, that in of itself is a determinate, and secondly there are viable alternative models of quantum physics that give causal determination and maintain mathematical consistency.[9]

Premise

The crucial premise of the argument. Before the Big bang theory was theorized in the 20th century, scientists and philosophers generally thought that the universe was eternal. An eternal universe did not have a beginning and thus always existed forever into the past. This eliminates the necessary supernatural creative power of a personal being like God. If there was no beginning to the universe and space-time then divine acts of creation were superfluous. When theistic characteristics of God are brought under materialism they deny their source within God, and thus gain natural explanations. Accomplished in the attempt to refute premise 2 by actually making the universe always existing or eternal. The existence of the universe under this paradigm however creates an actual infinite. More specifically the actual infinite is of a specific type called an infinite temporal regress of events. Within completely physical and materialist worldviews this is a re-occurring issue. Along with being infinite it is also temporal because it relates to causes within time, which likewise also always existed. There then is an infinite temporal regress because it goes into the past forever. The universe must be explained this way in order to avoid an absolute cosmic beginning to all of space-time reality. It requires there exist an actual infinite within natural reality, because past causes and events have to go on forever into the past by definition given an eternal universe. This perennial philosophical problem is not an issue under theistic accounts which produce arguments for transcendent being like a personal God because traditionally God is considered the only non-contingent or always existing, non-caused cause. The infinite regress is stopped by an ontological commitment to a supernatural personal agent that is the ultimate cause of the existence, and according to the kalam cosmological argument, the beginning of the universe.

Positing that the universe is eternal then does two things for supporters;

  1. reduces supernatural to natural
  2. requires an actual infinite to exist in reality

If good arguments are supplied for the existence of an actual infinite, then the infinite temporal regress problem is not only solved for the atheist and materialist but premise 2 of the kalam cosmological argument can be regarded as illegitimate or not as self-evident as is implied. The implicit question of premise 2 is: Can an infinite collection actually exist? The argument against an actual infinite existing, is put succinctly by William Lane Craig.

An actual infinite cannot exist.
An infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite.
Therefore an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist.[10]

  • An actual infinite is a collection that has an actually infinite number of members. The number of its member is greater than any other natural number (0,1,2,3 etc). It is not growing toward infinity, it is infinite. There literally exists an actually infinite number of things in the collection. This is irrational or presents logical impossibilities like “subtracting identical quantities from identical quantities and finding non-identical differences.”[11] This is why within transfinite arithmetic such procedures are prohibited.[12]
  • Potential infinite – Collection is at every point finite, but always growing to infinity as a limit. It is indefinite, finite in any point in time, but is always growing toward infinity but never reaching it. Potential infinite, is seen as a limit. Christians would accept this view of whether or not there could be an infinite number of past events.
Modern mathematical set-theory objection

In set theory, the set of all natural number is said to be an infinite set, it contains an actually infinite number of members in the set. Not all mathematicians would agree on this however, some suggest that natural number sets are potentially infinite but is a minority view. Existence in the mathematical realm does not mean existence in the real world, because philosophical assumptions need to govern this realm but there isn’t good reason to suggest that these assumptions are true. Infinite set theory still leads to the same type of self-contradictions as does the math of actually infinite number of members.

Popular Criticisms

Misrepresenting the argument

A very popular misinformed criticism of cosmological arguments was made by Bertrand Russell (1872 to 1970). Many contemporary atheists and evolutionists also misread it in like fashion. Their objection is summarized by the question; “who/what created/caused God?” In support is usually a reformulation of the argument into; “everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists.” This is a very subtle change to the general layout of classic arguments. This is not a substantial philosophical question to ask, nor argument to advance however. Atheists and general critics who take this route fundamentally address what they envisioned rather than what has been defended throughout the history of the cosmological arguments development within the philosophy of religion. The classical argument states that; “everything that begins to exist has a cause.” Classic theism argues for a being, namely God, that is non-contingent and timeless. God did not ever begin to exist as is implied by the misrepresented argument, it therefore renders the popular approach of attack by critics nonsensical. Not only are academic scientists and philosophers of prominence like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennet guilty of trying to advance such lines of criticism, but there are many lay people who read their popular works and then take part in public debate and discussion defending the uninformed idea of the argument as well. Many critics setup against the cosmological argument of natural theology generally consider their critique of the argument to be devastating, but they have not addressed what the argument is, and actually self-refute themselves.

This is a classic straw-man fallacy. No cosmological argument claims that “everything must have a cause.” Rather, these arguments (in their varied forms) have claimed that there is something about the universe itself–either its contingency and need for explanation or its finitude in time–that requires a cause beyond itself, a cause that is self-existent and without need of a cause.[13]

Professional philosophers are taken to task and discredited by defenders of the cosmological argument like Edward Feser in writing or in debate by William Lane Craig. Robin Le Poidevin and Daniel Dennett have articulated within writings attempts against the cosmological argument, ignorant of its history of development. Edward Feser is especially taken aback by these popular level works by Dennett among others and ends up calling them “intellectually dishonest” and what Feser has coined as “meta-sophistry”.[14] Feser states that the reason why approaches of misrepresentation are futile is because;

… none of the best-known proponents of the cosmological argument in the history of philosophy and theology ever gave this stupid argument. Not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne.


The atheist Robin Le Poidevin, in his book Arguing for Atheism (which my critic Jason Rosenhouse thinks is pretty hot stuff) begins his critique of the cosmological argument by attacking a variation of the silly argument given above – though he admits that “no-one has defended a cosmological argument of precisely this form”! So what’s the point of attacking it? Why not start instead with what some prominent defender of the cosmological argument has actually said?

And if he is an academic philosopher like Le Poidevin or Dennett who is professionally obligated to know these things and to eschew cheap debating tricks, then… well, you do the math.[15]

References

  1. J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP Academic 2003), pg 465
  2. So you think you understand the cosmological argument? Question 3. “Why assume that the universe had a beginning?” is not a serious objection to the argument By Edward Feser. Saturday, July 16, 2011
  3. 3.0 3.1 Cosmological argument by Bruce Reichenbach. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2008
  4. So you understand the cosmological argument? By Edward Feser. Objection 3
  5. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2009) pg. 25-26
  6. J. Howard Sobel on the Kalam Cosmological Argument Response by William Lane Craig (requires free registration)
  7. New Atheist Arguments Against God’s Existence Refuted (1 of 5) By William Lane Craig
  8. Why are (some) physicists so bad at philosophy? Edward Feser blog
  9. Cosmological Argument #1 Teaching class by William Lane Craig
  10. Bruce L. Gordon and William A. Dembski, The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science (Intercollegiate Studies Institute 2011), pg. 905
  11. Bruce L. Gordon and William A. Dembski, The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science (Intercollegiate Studies Institute 2011), pg. 906
  12. Cosmological Argument Part 2 By William Lane Craig
  13. Douglass Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (IVP Academic 2011), pg. 209
  14. Meta-sophistry Edward Feser blog
  15. So you think you understand the cosmological argument? By Edward Feser. Saturday, July 16, 2011
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3 responses

  1. Thank you for the great post! It is thoughtful and deep, yet pretty accessible.more believers need to know how to argue for God’s existence and be able to defend their faith.

    1. Thanks, appreciate that. You are so right, many Christians I feel would just look at you dumbfounded if the cosmological argument gets mentioned. I would like to post your blog on my Must See Sites, hope you do the same for me in some way :).

  2. I enjoy your writing style really loving this internet site. “One must be poor to know the luxury of giving.” by George Eliot.

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