Has the cosmological argument been defeated?
People who like the argument will point out in response that there is a key difference between God and the universe. People believe that God is spiritual in nature whereas the universe is clearly made up of physical objects. It makes sense to ask what caused the universe because everything in the universe appears to need a cause. Maybe, however, spiritual realities don’t need to be caused. If given a choice between believing that a physical thing (the universe) has always existed, or believing that a spiritual thing (God) has always existed, many will go with God.
What do you think caused the Big Bang?
Some people think that the Big Bang actually helps the case for God. This is because it suggests that the universe had a definite starting point. Why it started in the first place was really the question that persuaded Aquinas that God must have been its cause.
Frederick Copleston also responded in the radio debate by suggesting that Russell was simply not facing up to the problem. If you conclude that things ‘just are’ and that they don’t need an explanation then you are simply avoiding the issue. Or, to use Copleston’s metaphor, refusing to ‘sit down at the chess board’.
Peter Vardy suggests that the success of the argument depends on your willingness to ask the question, ‘Why is there a universe?’9 If you’re not willing to ask this question, the position Russell appears to take, then the argument won’t even get started. If, however, you’re more inclined to ask the question then maybe the cosmological argument does succeed in at least posing some difficult questions about the origins of the universe.
Summary – Does the cosmological argument work?
The theory of the Big Bang is often thought of as the best explanation for the existence of the universe.
Bertrand Russell said that the cosmological argument contradicts itself because if everything must have a cause then so must God.
David Hume said that we can never know that God caused the universe because nobody was there to witness this unique event.
Bertrand Russell also said that all we can ever say for sure is that the universe is a brute fact.
Copleston said that these criticisms are simply attempts to avoid the issue.
The Big Bang can also be used as an argument for God’s existence.
1. Try to explain in your own words the theory of the Big Bang. You will not need to write a lot about this in your exam so make sure your answer is no more than a fairly short paragraph.
2. Do you think the theory of the Big Bang shows that we don’t need God as an explanation for the existence of the universe?
3. Why did Bertrand Russell say that the cosmological argument appears to contradict itself? Do you agree with him? Explain your answer.
4. Why do you think Bertrand Russell said, ‘I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all’? (Explain your answer.)
5. Do you agree with Fredrick Copleston that Russell is simply avoiding the question?
6. Why did David Hume say that we can never know whether the universe had a cause? Do you think that this is a good reason to say that the cosmological argument doesn’t work? Explain your answer.
7. Look again at the Aquinas’s quote below:
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.
(a) Do you believe that the universe has always existed or do you prefer to think that God has always existed? Explain your answer.
(b) Do you think that it’s possible for the universe to come into existence of its own accord from nothing? Explain your answer.
8. Why do some people say that the Big Bang is actually evidence in favour of the cosmological argument? Do you agree with them?
9. Does the cosmological argument persuade you that God exists? Explain your answer.
Religious belief: God is a purposeful creator; all of life is created by God with a definite purpose and goal.
The basic strategy of this argument is based on another observation about the universe. This time, however, the argument moves beyond the indisputable fact that the universe exists to another indisputable fact: things within the universe (particularly living things) are extraordinarily complex. The Big Bang theory suggests that everything that now exists is debris from the explosion. It is argued that the only reasonable explanation for the fact that this debris is ordered and complex is that God must have put them together with a purpose in mind.
The complexity of the universe
The best way to approach this argument is to observe the world as it is. It is only after we fully experience the world and all its complexity that we will begin to understand why the teleological argument has been so influential. What follows are the kinds of observations often cited by people who believe the complexity of the world must point towards a designer (God).
1. The bucket orchid
This plant has the most amazing method of pollination. It naturally produces a rich sugary food – a nectar which is very attractive to bees (apparently the bee thinks he smells a lady bee!). When the bee arrives it lands on the surface of the orchid near to the lip of the ‘bucket’. The surface is very slippery so frequently bees fall in, landing in a pool of liquid which has been produced by a gland in the plant. The bee doesn’t drown in the substance but becomes stuck. However, there is one possible escape route. At the side of the bucket there is a tunnel leading out the side of the bucket. The exit from the tunnel is conveniently aided by a step and hairs suitably placed near the surface. As the bee is
about to emerge, the opening contracts, pinning the bee down. Whilst held in this position, the plant ‘glues’ two pollen sacs onto the bee’s back. The glue takes a short while to set so the plant carefully holds the bee in position long enough to ensure that the pollen won’t fall off when it eventually flies away. Some of these sac-bearing bees are again attracted to other flowers. They clearly haven’t learned their lesson as they frequently end up back in the bucket. This time as they approach the tunnel exit hole, a special ‘hook’ on the roof picks the two sacs off the unsuspecting bee’s back and cross-pollination takes place.
2. Wings and flight …
The hummingbird is an incredible creature. Most birds partly glide through the sky with their wings outstretched. The hummingbird can’t do this; so to allow it to stay airborne it then has to beat its wings very fast. This unique wing ‘design’ means that hummingbirds are the only birds that are capable of sustained hovering. To do this they must in fact beat their wings an amazing 60 times every second! They can even fly backwards!
If you think the hummingbird has amazing wings you might be surprised to know that insects are even more incredible. For example, the common fly has wings that beat about 200 times per second. A honey bee has two pairs of wings that can beat an amazing 250 times per second. The complex motion of its wings also lets the bee hover in one spot. The next time you see a bee or a fly watch it carefully. Maybe in future you should respect the wee creatures that fly about your house rather than attempt to squash them with the nearest newspaper!
Did you know that …
Your brain is the most complex structure known to man. Your eye can distinguish 1 million light surfaces. Your lungs are big enough to cover half a tennis court. You have 60,000 miles of blood vessels. Your skin is constantly replacing itself. You give birth to 100 billion red blood cells every day. Your bones are as strong as iron. Your heart beats 100,000 times a day.
Did you know that …
When you read light bounces off 14 million colour sensors and 200 million black and white sensors, sending countless electrical impulses along the optic nerve to be processed by the most complex computer known to man10.
When you look carefully at the above examples, as well as countless others, you can’t help but notice that every living creature is made up of many, many different and unique parts (organs, limbs, muscles, etc.) which are all performing some vital function. They appear to have been designed with a specific purpose in mind.
The name of the teleological argument comes from the Greek word telos, which means ‘purpose’11. Many people conclude that the only possible explanation for the
existence of such complex creatures is that God must have designed and then made them. How else could debris from an explosion end up forming itself into things so amazingly complex?