Arguments for the Existence of God

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Summary – The cosmological argument

Philosophers’ God - omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, all good, eternal, creator, sustainer and necessary being

A posterior - based of the observed fact that there is a universe.
The most famous advocate of the cosmological argument was a theologian called St Thomas Aquinas (1225–74AD).
Aquinas believed that behind everything there is a huge chain of causes that can be traced back to the beginning of the universe.
He said that it doesn’t make sense to say that this chain never ends so he concluded that there must be an uncaused cause at the start.

The only possible uncaused cause is God.

Assignment 4

1. Why is Aquinas’ argument called the cosmological argument for the existence of God?

2. List some of the people that have presented a form of the cosmological argument.
3. Write a very short paragraph about St Thomas Aquinas. Make sure that you mention the following points:
(a) When was he alive?

(b) What religion was he?

(c) In how many different ways did he try to prove that God existed?

(d) In what book did he present these arguments for God’s existence?

4. What is the problem with answering the question - What caused you? Make sure you try to give a full explanation.
5. Why did Aquinas call God the uncaused cause?
6. Try to explain in your own words Aquinas’s argument from the ‘uncaused cause’.

Cosmo – So Far

  1. Everything has a cause.

  2. Nothing is its own cause.

  3. A chain of causes cannot be infinite.

  4. There must be a ‘first uncaused cause’.

  5. God is the ‘only uncaused cause’.

Good arguments have a good structure AND true statements.

Premise 1 TRUE?

Premise 2 TRUE?

Premise 3 TRUE?

Premise 4 TRUE?

Conclusion - Does it follow?

Although the Cosmological argument is based on sense experience, it has been given a deductive structure. In deductive arguments, if the premises are true then the conclusion cannot be false.

Premise 1 - Based on observation

Premise 2 - Based on induction

Premise 3 – Based on deduction

Premise 1 and Premise 4 – Contradiction?

Premise 5 - Conclusion – Alternatives?

Premise 1 There could be unobserved uncaused causes

Premise 2 Just because they are unobserved does not mean they do not exist

Premise 3 Why not?

Premise 4 Why?

Conclusion - Does it follow necessarily?

In Premise 3, Aquinas actual argument is that..


If we were to remove a first cause from a chain of causes and effects, then all the effects of that follow the removed cause will also cease to be.

We can think of this as something like removing a domino from a chain of dominoes, all those dominoes that follow will not fall over.

Aquinas argues that to deny a first cause is to remove a cause from the chain of causes and effects. If that cause were removed, then everything that follows it ought not to be here. But the world is here, just look out the window. Therefore there cannot be an infinite regress of causes.

Five hundred years later the German philosopher Immanuel Kant argues that an infinite chain of causes is something that, by definition, could never be completed.
Now if the causes that lead up to the existence of us and the world really stretched off into an infinite past, then there would have to be an infinity of causes occurring before the world could come to be. But if there were an infinity of causes stretching off into the past, they could never be completed. In which case, the present state of things could never come to be. But, the present state of things has come to be. Therefore, there cannot be an infinite chain of causes.
The Relationship between Premises 1 and 4
Many people have criticised Aquinas’ because they argue, Premises 1 and 4 contradict each other.

This is sometimes called the schoolboy’s criticism of Aquinas.

Premise 1 - everything has a cause.

Premise 4 - there must be a first (uncaused) cause.

They argue that, if Premise 4 is correct, and there must be a cause without a cause, then it is wrong to also claim that everything has a cause. And on the other hand, if Premise 1 is correct and everything has a cause, then it is wrong to also claim that there must be a cause without a cause.
However other argue that this is only an apparent contradiction.

Aquinas is using an argument form called reductio ad absurdum.

The first three lines identify a problem which means we must reject one of those premises and accept an alternative in its place.
In this argument, the problem that arises on the basis of assuming, from Premises 1 and 2, that there is an infinite chain of causes, is that there cannot be an infinite chain of causes (for the reasons we mentioned above).
What this means is that we must reject one of the premises (in this case Premise 1), and accept an alternative (Premise 4) that there is at least one thing that is not caused - God.

The Conclusion at Line 5
Although we have said that the cosmological argument in general, and Aquinas’ version in particular, treats God as the first cause, it is worth saying a little more about this. Although Aquinas simply suggests that ‘the uncaused cause’ is a good definition of God, we might want some other reasons for thinking that God has to be the cause of the universe. What kind of arguments can we give? One argument comes from David Hume, a Scottish philosopher:
Whatever exists must have a cause or reason for its existence, it being absolutely impossible for nay thing to produce itself or be the cause of its own existence. In mounting up, therefore, from effects to causes, we must either go on in tracing an infinite succession, without any ultimate cause at all, or must at last have recourse to some ultimate cause, that is necessarily existent: Now, that the first supposition is absurd, may be thus proved.

In the infinite chain or succession of causes and effects, each single effect is determined to exist by the power and efficacy of that cause which immediately preceded; but the eternal chain or succession, taken together, is not determined or caused by anything: And yet it is evident that it requires a cause or reason, as much as any particular object which begins to exist in time. The question is still reasonable why this particular succession, or no succession at all. If there be no necessarily existent being, any supposition which can be formed is equally possible; nor is there any more absurdity in nothing’s having existed from eternity, than there is in that succession of cause which constitute the universe. What was it, then, which determined something to exist rather than nothing, and bestowed being on a particular possibility, exclusive of the rest? External causes, there are supposed to be none. Chance is a word without meaning. Was it nothing? But that can produce anything. We must, therefore, have recourse to a necessarily existent Being, who carries the reason of his existence in himself; and who cannot be supposed not to exist, without an express contradiction. There is, consequently, such a Being – that is, there is a Deity.”

(David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion)
What does Hume mean?
Well, what Hume is getting at is that the only kind of thing that could be the cause of the universe, the first cause as it were, is a being that relies upon nothing for the cause of its existence, and God is the only obvious candidate for being such a cause. The point is that Premise 1 above says that everything must have a cause, and, as we have asserted, this means that the universe must have a cause. But of course, anything that is the cause of something is itself something that requires a cause, and whatever the cause of that may be, itself will require a cause, and so on, potentially ad infinitum.
Now, if the beginning of the universe, as it seems to, marks the beginning of all events and times, etc., then we need the cause of the universe to be special in that it cannot itself require a further preceding cause, otherwise there exists something which precedes the beginning of things, and this is plainly odd. The suggestion is that the only way we can find something that could be the first cause is to postulate that this first cause does not itself rely on anything else for its cause. And as we have seen, this would have to be a very special kind of cause; it would need, as Hume says, to carry the reason for itself with itself.
The obvious candidate for this first cause is, a being with the special characteristics required for being a cause of itself, in short God.

Assignment 5

  1. What question does premise 1 raise?

  2. What does the phrase “an infinite chains seems counter-intuitive” mean?

  3. Why does Aquinas maintain that “no infinite regress of causes” is possible?

  4. What was Kant’s view of infinite chains of events?

  5. Why has Aquinas been accused of contradicting himself?

  6. Why is this known as the schoolboy’s criticism?

  7. What is reduction ad absurdum?

  8. Why do many people claim that the contradiction in the argument is only apparent?

  9. Which other philosopher seems to agree with Aquinas?

  10. What are his reasons?

Objection 1: ‘If God created the Universe, who created God?’

The most obvious objection to the idea that God is the first cause that leads to the existence of the universe and everything in it is to claim that God is not a sufficient reason.

This is because - instead of asking what caused the universe and everything in it, the question has moved back a step to ‘what is the cause of God?
And then perhaps anther step back to ‘what is the cause of the cause of God?’ etc Demonstrating the insufficiency of God as a reason.
If this objection is upheld then the cosmological argument becomes unconvincing.
This objection misses the point of God as the first cause. The universe and everything in it is contingent. If we took something contingent to be the cause of the universe then this objection would be convincing but God is not a contingent cause of Universe but THE necessary one.
If someone caused or created God, then God would be contingent (like the universe) and not necessary (like God) and so wouldn’t be God at all.
It just does not make sense to ask the cause of something that does not require a cause. This objection fails!
Objection 2: Isn’t there a fallacy of composition in the argument?
Is there an unwarranted assumption that, because things in the universe come into existence and require a cause for their beginning, then the universe itself must need a cause for its coming to begin.
If this is the case, we have a fallacy of composition – a classically duff argument.

The fallacy of composition is to mistakenly treat the characteristics of the parts of something as though they were also the characteristics of the whole thing.

For example,

Every member of Celtic football club has two legs.


Celtic Football club has two legs.

From this demonstration it is clear that we have no reason to assume that what is true of the parts is also true of the whole.

And of course, if we have no reason to believe that it is true of the universe that it requires a cause for its existence, then we have no reason to infer that God is that cause. If no cause is required, then no God is needed.

Response 1
One potential reply is to admit it – okay you got me! But is that a real response?
Objection sustained!

Response 2

However if we take the example of a jigsaw puzzle, then although again it is wrong to claim that if all the pieces are less than an inch square, then the Jigsaw puzzle itself is also less than an inch square. But it seems to make sense to claim that if all of the pieces exist, then the jigsaw puzzle itself exists.

Objection denied!
So which of these two is the cosmo most like? Celtic or jigsaw puzzle?
What do you think? Sustained or denied? Why?

Objection 3: Hume and the characteristics of necessary beings
One serious objection to the cosmological argument comes from Hume. For Hume, by treating God as the first cause, we are postulating a necessary being, that is, a being that is capable of being the cause of the universe but without itself requiring a cause. For Hume, however, the nature of such a being will be remote and difficult for us to understand. This leads Hume to conclude that relying on such a being is a major weakness of the cosmological argument. Hume puts it like this:
It is pretended that the Deity is a necessarily existent being; and this necessity of his existence is attempted to be explained by asserting, that if we knew his whole essence or nature, we should perceive it to be as impossible for him not to exist, as for twice two not to be four. But it is evident that this can never happen, while our faculties remain the same as at present. It will still be possible for us, at any time, to conceive the non-existence of what we formerly conceived to exist; nor can the mind ever lie under a necessity of supposing any object to remain always in being; in the same manner as we lie under a necessity of always conceiving twice two to be four. The words, therefore, ‘necessary existence’, have no meaning; or, which is the same thing, none that is consistent.”

(Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion)
What Hume is saying here is that whatever it is that a necessary being must be, we cannot know what those qualities are because, as contingent beings, they are beyond our understanding.
If they are beyond our understanding, then we are not justified in assuming that only God has them. Because we can have no idea what those qualities are something other than God could be the cause; perhaps even the universe itself could be the necessarily existent thing. So, just knowing that some non-contingent thing, that is a thing which requires no preceding cause, is required to explain the universe is not enough for us to say that that thing has to be God.
Objection Sustained

Response 1 - Argument to Best Possible Explanation
One possible reply to this offered by Richard Swinburne is that it is hard to see what else could function as the extra special something needed to explain the universe. In many ways, God not only fits the bill perfectly but is the only game in town.
Some philosophers, notably, argue precisely along these lines and say that although Hume may be right and we can’t say that God is the only candidate for necessary being, we can say that God is the most obvious cause of the universe, that is, He may not be the only explanation, but He is the best explanation.
What do you think? Why?
Response 2
A more important reply though is that although Hume may be right that we may have no idea about the characteristics of a necessary being, the cosmological argument is merely intended to show that God is required, not what He is like.
The point of describing God as a ‘first cause’, as with Aquinas’s original argument, is to identify an argumentative space in which God can exist. If it can be shown that a necessary being is required to explain the existence of the universe, then the cosmological argument has achieved its aim.
What do you think? Why?
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