People believe that God is the creator of everything that exists.
People believe that without God, nothing would exist.
People believe in God because of the simple 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.
Aquinas called the uncaused cause God.
1. What simple fact is the starting point for 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 would you say if someone asked you 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’.
7. Read carefully the following paraphrase from Aquinas’s Third Way:
Assume that at one time there was nothing. It is clear that nothing can come from nothing. If, therefore, there was once nothing, even now there would be nothing. The universe cannot therefore have come into existence from nothing unless something brought it into existence.
However, we know that the universe now exists. If God, or something equivalent in terms of power, does not exist then the universe must always have existed since, if it was not created, it could not have come into existence of its own accord from nothing.
Try to explain in your own words what Aquinas was trying to express. Keep your answer fairly brief.
Does the cosmological argument work?
Many people find the cosmological argument very appealing. It certainly raises some interesting questions for scientists to grapple with. However, not everyone is convinced.
The big bang
In recent years scientists have proposed the theory of the Big Bang in an attempt to explain how the universe came about. The idea was first talked about by a Belgian priest-scholar called Georges Lemaître in the 1920s. However, it wasn’t really thought of as a serious scientific idea until the mid-1960s. Two young radio astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, accidentally discovered evidence that a huge explosion must have taken place at some point in the early history of the universe. This seemed to confirm Lemaître’s idea that the universe exploded into existence. It is now thought that this event took place between 12 to15 billion years ago. The order of events goes something like this:
The universe explodes into existence.
Immediately after the Big Bang the universe was thought to be smaller than the nucleus of an atom.
A millisecond later the universe had expanded to the size of the sun.
A few minutes after the Big Bang the first hydrogen and helium atoms were formed.
Gradually these atoms then formed into gases which eventually would become the stars and all matter that we can see.
Everything that now exists in the universe could be thought of as debris from the bang.
What actually ‘exploded’ is difficult to say. One common way to try to explain it is to imagine squeezing everything that presently exists into a tiny, almost unimaginably small space. This space is thought to be about a billion times smaller than the size of a proton. Given that about 500 billion protons can fit into the dot on this letter ‘i’, this is clearly a pretty small space!5 It is so small that it has been called the ‘point of infinite density’. Others say that just before the explosion there was nothing but energy. What certainly didn’t happen was that two stars collided or some molecules bumped into each other causing the explosion. The Big Bang is thought to have created everything that exists. Some even simply say that there was nothing and then there was something.
Many people think that this scientific theory takes away the need for a creator God. It is suggested that everything, even time itself, began at this point.
Many philosophers have also challenged the cosmological argument. As well as talking about scientific explanations like the Big Bang, they also comment on the logic of the argument itself. One such famous critic was the English philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970). He made two key criticisms.
Criticism one – What caused God?
Many people point out that the cosmological argument appears to contradict itself. Look at the following quote from Bertrand Russell:
‘If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God …’6
Russell was pointing out that if you start by saying that everything needs a cause, then maybe it’s not fair to then say, ‘everything that is except God’. You may feel like simply asking, ‘What caused God?’
Russell was also suggesting that it’s perfectly possible that the universe may not in fact have had a cause at all. The universe could well be eternal. He suggested that when people say that the universe must have had a beginning they simply lack imagination.7
Criticism two – How can we ever know that the universe needs a cause?
Russell’s most famous comment on this argument came in a radio debate with another English philosopher, Fredrick Copleston. Russell said that we cannot ever know the answer to questions about the origins of the universe. The only thing that we know for sure is that the universe exists.
‘I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all’ 8
Russell was following in the tradition of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume had said in his book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (published posthumously in 1777) that we have no right saying confidently that the universe as a whole needs a cause. We can say that everything in the universe appears to have a cause because we have observed this in our experience. However, the creation of the universe was clearly a unique event. It was also an event that didn’t have any observers! Because no-one was there to watch the event unfold we simply can’t ever know whether it needed a cause or not. Hume would have almost certainly liked Russell’s conclusion, that all we can say is that the existence of the universe is a brute fact.