Examine the cosmological argument for the existence of God.
The cosmological argument (C.A.) is an a posteriori argument (based on empirical evidence) which sets out to demonstrate that in all probability God exists. The C.A. has been presented in various different formats yet the similarities far outweigh any differences. Essentially the C.A. in all its formats seeks to demonstrate that ‘God’ exists and is ultimately responsible for all other aspects of existence. Hence in response to the big existential question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ the C.A. affirms the existence of an ultimate being that in turn is responsible for the creation of the universe.
Arguably the most famous and for some the most persuasive exponent of this notion of causality is St. Thomas Aquinas. The first three of his five ways form the basis of the C.A. I will now examine each of these in turn. Aquinas’ first way states that when we observe the universe we discover that all things are in a state of motion or change. From this empirical observation Aquinas noted that things do not do this of their own accord but are instead moved or changed by something else. From this Aquinas felt compelled to conclude that this process can’t go on to infinity and that ultimately this unmoved mover or what Aristotle termed prime mover was ‘that which all men call God’. An example will make this clear. A pen does not just move across the page and write – it must be moved by someone. In the same way a football moves because it is kicked or thrown. This is because things in the universe simply don’t have the ability to move themselves thus the C.A. states God is needed to explain motion/existence.
For both Aristotle and Aquinas all things move from a state of potentiality (that which has the potential to move and change) towards a state of actuality (wherein its potential is realised). In order for something to move from a state of potentiality to actuality a third part is required known as the efficient cause. The efficient cause already possesses the quality of actuality and is thus capable of transforming something else from a state of potentiality to actuality a point illustrated by Aristotle’s famous example – a sculptor (efficient cause) is able to transform a block of marble (potential) into a statue (actual). For Aquinas this efficient cause must be God.
Aquinas’s second way is in many respects similar to his first. Aquinas maintains that the world ought to be viewed as brought about, effected or made. For Aquinas God is responsible for bringing the universe into existence. God is a being that is not produced by anything else and is therefore referred to as ‘the first cause’. Aquinas maintains that everything that exists in this world does so because something else caused it to be with the exception of God whose nature is to simply be. Again an example will make this clearer. When a domino falls it does so because this was caused by another domino which itself fell because of another and so on. Yet again our experiences of the world compels us to conclude that this process cannot go on indefinitely and thus a ‘first cause’ is needed to make sense of all other causes. According to Aquinas this first cause is God. God is the ‘all-embracing cause of beings’. God is ‘sheer existence subsisting of his very nature’
Aquinas’ third way is called an argument from contingency. This basically states that things currently in existence once did not exist and at some point in the future will again cease to exist. In other words their existence is contingent on something else. Once more an example will serve to illustrate this point. Whether it is a human being or an innate object (i.e. a pen, car, house etc.) all of these things rely on something else for their existence. If everything in the universe relies on something else for its existence, which appears to be the case, then nothing within the universe explains the existence of the universe itself. Again this version of the C.A. appeals to reason and logic based on our experiences of the empirical world and concludes that there must be something outside of the universe which is needed to explain it. For Aquinas God is this necessary being and it was God that brought other contingent things into being.
Any thorough examination of the C.A. will also make reference to the principle of sufficient reason. This theory originated from Leibniz and claims that explaining the truth of a fact, or the existence of a thing, includes an explanation of why it is like that and not different. In other words there ought to be a reason why things are as they are and part of this explanation should also entail how a particular thing came to exist in the first place. This viewpoint again is based on his experiences of how the world works. According to Leibniz only when a full explanation is given for the existence of a thing can one say that a sufficient reason has been provided. Partial explanations for the existence of a thing are insufficient.
This point was explained by Leibniz talking about different editions of a book. One edition explains the previous one but is only a partial reason not a sufficient reason. Until the author of the book is posited a full explanation or sufficient reason is not reached. Leibniz stated ‘What is true of the books is also true of the states of the world. If you suppose the world eternal, you will suppose nothing but a succession of states and will not find in any of them a sufficient reason.’ Here Leibniz is employing the logic of Parmenides which states ‘ex nihilo, nihil fit’. Leibniz concludes that the only sufficient explanation for the universe is a necessary God. Leibniz’s version of the C.A. is in many respects similar in logic and structure to Aquinas’ third way and like all other versions of the C.A. uses experiences of this world to draw conclusions about existence.
The Kalam argument is yet another formulation of the C.A based on experiences of this world. The Kalam argument claims that things could not get going by themselves therefore existence needs a cause and this cause is God. This theory has been popular since the middle ages and today is defended by William Lane Craig who states that ‘transcending the entire universe there exists a cause which brought the universe into being’. In short this argument dismisses the idea of actual infinities. Again the logic being applied here is that there must be a starting point to the things that exist. The alternative view that the universe has always existed relies on the acceptance of the existence of an actual infinity i.e. the universe. The statement ‘the universe has always existed’ is rejected by the Kalam argument as a meaningless statement. Once more a practical example will demonstrate the logic at work here. Imagine a library with an infinite amount of books. Within this library there are an infinite number of red books and an infinite number of green books. It follows that there are the same amount of green books as there are red books. The problem is though if the library has an infinite amount of books it follows that there are the same amount of red books as there are the total of all the books! The ‘logic’ here leads us to suggest that there is the same number of total books as there are of a subset of books. This example illustrates the absurdity of actual infinities. As actual infinity is illogical the only viable option left to explain the existence of the universe according to Lane Craig is God.
Miller offers a slightly different version of the Kalam argument. According to Miller the world (universe) exists. It could not be the cause of itself (it would be illogical as this would say it existed before it existed!). It could not come from nothing (Parmenides ex nihilo, nihil fit). It could not be the effect of an infinite regress. Therefore it must be caused by something outside space and time (i.e. an ultimate being). Hence he wrote; ‘If the universe has always existed, then it has taken forever to reach this point. But then it could never reach this point. But here we are! So it didn’t take forever.” For Miller, as with all other exponents of the C.A. God is responsible for existence. One interesting difference between William Lane Craig and Miller’s version of the Kalam argument is that Miller is not insistent on a personal God and in doing so is more akin in his thinking to Aristotle than those within the tradition of classical theism.
It is therefore apparent from the evidence above that the C.A. manifests in a plethora of guises. However despite their unique features they all have one thing in common, each version is an a posteriori argument that appeals to our experiences of the world. From this they then set out to demonstrate that in all probability God exists.
‘The cosmological argument simply fails to prove God’s existence’.
Assess this view.
Claims that the C.A. fails to prove God’s existence has and continues to cause great controversy and debate among philosophers and theologians alike. I shall now endeavour to identify, analyse and critically evaluate the main arguments used in an attempt to verify this statement in order to arrive at a rational and well supported conclusion.
David Hume was an ardent critic of the cosmological argument. He maintained that just because something exists (effect) it does not necessarily follow that this effect must have a cause. Hume argued that given that the mind can grasp the idea of a universe without a beginning/cause then this notion as a reality is not the absurdity that many have claimed.
However Copleston and Anscombe reject this line of thinking. Just because something can be conceived in the mind it does not follow that such things are possible in reality. Thus Copleston and Anscombe conclude that effect without cause is nothing other than a contradiction, in short an absurdity.
However the debate about cause and effect does not end here. Even if one were to concede that every effect has a cause including the cosmos it does not necessarily follow that you end up with the personal God of classical theism, in fact far from it. At best you might have to content yourself with the very impersonal unmoved mover evident in the writings of Aristotle. To this end it is perhaps fair to say that the cosmological argument fails to prove the existence of a personal God but the statement under consideration here takes things significantly further and arguably this claim remains as of yet unproven.
Furthermore using the cause/effect argument to demonstrate God’s existence generates additional problems. If every effect must of logical necessity have a cause then what caused God, a point raised by J.S. Mill in his article Theism? This seems to be a very valid and pertinent question. The answer that God is a necessary and non-contingent being existing outside the confines of time and space seems inadequate. Why can’t, as Russell claims, the universe simply exist as a brute fact? Just because the things within the universe have a cause it does not mean then that the universe itself must have a cause. Those that make this leap in logic are according to Russell guilty of the ‘fallacy of composition’. At least we know that the universe really does exist and some would say (using Ockham’s razor) that this is a much more plausible explanation than attempting to extrapolate the existence of some supreme metaphysical creator.
Kant too, despite arguing that God existed, felt that the C.A. was fundamentally flawed and therefore failed to prove God’s existence. Kant said we can talk about things that we have experience of with some certainty however we have no experience of creating a universe therefore cannot talk meaningfully about that. The idea of cause and effect is limited to the phenomenal world thus it is nonsensical to say God is the cause of the universe as God exists outside the phenomenal world in the noumenal world. Kant therefore concluded that it was impossible to empirically prove God’s existence.
Further evidence to suggest that the cosmological argument fails to prove the existence of God includes the possibility of infinite regression. Despite claims from Craig and Miller about the non-sensical nature of actual infinities there are those that maintain the possibility of infinite regression which if true negates the need for a ‘starting point’. Subsequently if there is no beginning then there no longer exists the need for God. J.L. Mackie concedes that it is difficult to imagine an infinite train of carriages in motion without an engine providing a driving force, just as God is said to provide a creating and sustaining force of the universe. This admission seems to suggest that Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason is intuitively correct, Aquinas’ and Copleston’s contention that there needs to be a first cause (and Aristotle’s) seems to make sense.
However Mackie argues that they (particularly Aquinas) are offering a particular view of causality which he illustrates with his example of a series of hooks on a wall. The cosmological argument says that - if the wall was taken away the chain would fall apart. Mackie however argues that it is possible for the hooks to be infinite and therefore it is feasible for there to be no need for a first cause. Just because there’s no wall (Prime Mover/ God) doesn’t mean there are no hooks! In other word just because it is intuitive it doesn’t mean it is correct! Again though defenders of the C.A. would argue this point seems at best irrational and at worst completely inadequate.
Finally Kenny states that the C.A. from the point of self-change and contingency fails to prove God’s existence because of the fundamental flaws it possesses. Kenny challenges the idea that things in motion are put in this state by another thing. If true then one need not conclude that this chain of movers cannot go on to infinity and therefore arrive at a first cause i.e. God. Kenny puts forward the principle of inertia to show how animals have the capacity to move themselves without being moved by another. This objection seems less easy to dismiss.
It is apparent from the evidence above that the C.A. in its different formations has attracted criticisms some of which even the most dedicated exponents of it will struggle to refute. Some might even say that this is proof that the C.A. fails to prove God’s existence. However proving the existence of God in some empirical or irrefutable way was never what these arguments set out to do initially. Rather the aim of the C.A. was to show that the existence of God was probable and to this end, despite the numerous objections raised it has arguably succeeded. Besides none of the objections raised about the C.A. are in any way near universally accepted and until a widely accepted alternative has been proved the explanation of God remains the most viable and hence the C.A. continues to be successful.
Examine the following ideas in the cosmological argument: first cause, motion, contingency, and sufficient reason.
The cosmological argument (C.A.) is an a posteriori argument (based on empirical evidence) and is expressed in many different formats. The aim of each of these is to demonstrate that in all probability God exists. First cause, motion, contingency and sufficient reason are some of the most common versions of this argument. I will now endeavour to examine the subtle complexities of each of these.
First cause is more commonly referred to as Aquinas’s second way. Basically this argument states that following an observation of the physical world the conclusion reached ought to be that nothing is an efficient cause of itself. Efficient causes follow in order so a first cause causes a second cause which in turn causes a third cause and so on. According to Aquinas tracing causes backwards cannot go on forever because a first efficient cause is needed to trigger all subsequent causes. A practical example will make this clear, when a domino falls it does so because this was caused by another domino which itself fell because of another and so on. Our experiences of this world compel us to conclude that this process cannot go on indefinitely and thus a ‘first cause’ is needed to make sense of all other causes. According to Aquinas this first cause is God. God is the ‘all-embracing cause of beings’. God is ‘sheer existence subsisting of his very nature’. This idea that there is a first efficient cause of everything originates in the writings of Aristotle, arguably what Aquinas does is transform this impersonal first cause into the personal God now associated with classical theism.
I now wish to consider a different version of the C.A. namely that from the point of motion or change. Motion and change form the basis of Aquinas’ first way. It ought to be noted at this point that Aquinas’ first two ways to demonstrate God’s existence are very similar. Again the foundation of this position stems from our experiences. Each cause or thing that is in motion is potentially the cause/mover of another cause/mover and so on. This potential to cause/move is realised when acted upon by another cause/motion that has been actualised by a previous cause/motion. However for this chain of events to be set in place a ‘pure act’ (actual) and not a potential act/cause/motion is needed. Again Aquinas claims this pure act is God.
Another important aspect of the cosmological argument is that from contingency or what is sometimes referred to as the argument from necessity. This relates to Aquinas’ third way in his efforts to prove the existence of God. This theory claims that things which exist in nature (people, cars, trees, planets etc.) at one time in the past did not exist and at some point in the future will again not exist. Such things have what is known as contingent existence, meaning their existence is dependent on something else. If true and all that we know at some point did not exist then there would be nothing in existence now because how could something come about from nothing? However given that things (people, cars, trees, plants etc.) do exist now Aquinas argues we are compelled to concluded ‘there must exist something the existence of which is necessary’. Furthermore this necessary being must be the ultimate cause of other things being also. Therefore Aquinas concludes that God is the ontologically necessary being needed to make sense of all contingent being.
Finally I now wish to consider the C.A. from the perspective of sufficient reason. The principle of sufficient reason can be traced back to the work of Leibniz and claims that explaining the truth of a fact, or the existence of a thing, includes an explanation of why it is like that and not different. In other words if we take for example the statement that ‘the table exists’ this only makes sense in so far as we are able to say why the table exists i.e. to place objects on and how the table came to exist i.e. a carpenter made it. These are sufficient reasons in so far as they tell us why the table exists and how it came to exist in the first place. Therefore, Leibniz claims a sufficient reason to explain the universe’s existence would entail how and why the universe exists. According to Leibniz only when a full explanation is given for the existence of a thing can one say that a sufficient reason has been provided. Partial explanations for the existence of a thing are insufficient.
This point may be explained by talking about different editions of a book. One edition explains the previous one but is only a partial reason not a sufficient reason. Until the author of the book is posited a full explanation or sufficient reason is not reached. Leibniz stated ‘What is true of the books is also true of the states of the world. If you suppose the world eternal, you will suppose nothing but a succession of states and will not find in any of them a sufficient reason.’ Leibniz concludes that the only sufficient explanation for the universe is a necessary God. The statement ‘God exists’ is according to Leibniz a necessary truth much in the same way as statements such as ‘a triangle has three sides’ or ‘a bachelor is unmarried’ are necessarily true. Leibniz’s version of the C.A. is in many respects similar in logic and structure to Aquinas’ third way and like all other versions of the C.A. uses experiences of this world to draw conclusions about existence.
It is therefore rather apparent from what I have outlined above that the cosmological argument comes in different formats but that each of these in some ways overlap with others. There is it would seem an essential connectedness between the different branches of the cosmological argument as different thinkers throughout history have strived to prove the existence of God.
‘The cosmological argument has more strengths than weaknesses.’ Assess this view.
In order to assess this view the strengths of the argument must be subjected to critical analysis and hence the validity of the statement will become evident.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the Cosmological Argument (C.A.) is that it offers a simple explanation for the existence of everything. There is a universe, of that there is little point in arguing. It is eminently sensible to conclude that this universe must have come from somewhere as our experience tells us, as Parmenides in the Ancient Greek world contended ‘ex nihilo, nihil fit’. If something must have created it surely that something is as Aquinas says, what all men call God. A question is asked through the experience of being in the universe ‘Where did it come from’ and the only logical answer to this question is that a transcendent creator made it. Hence the C. A. offers itself as a strong argument by its practical simple logic.
However the question ‘Where did it come from?’ is problematic as it assumes that which it is trying to prove i.e. that it comes from somewhere. Perhaps the universe just is. Russell offers the most economical version of this problem when he suggests that the universe is a ‘brute fact’ requiring no explanation. Hence the apparent simplicity of the C.A.’s answer is trumped by a much more efficient answer – the universe is the explanation for itself! Russell suggests that modern Quantum Mechanics helps to support this criticism in that it offers us the possibility of particles that have no cause illustrated by examples like Schrodinger’s Cat and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and hence supports the idea that a radically different view of reality will lead to the recognition that the question the C.A. relies on is a flawed question hence the conclusions it comes to are flawed and hence its weakness as an argument is exposed.
At issue here is however a battle regarding the nature of reality. As one branch of Physics might offer the possibility of random and perhaps infinite existence needing no creation, the pantheon of evidence is that cause is necessary for existence. Frederick Copleston’s response to Russell’s use of Quantum Mechanics to support his viewpoint encourages a recognition that the very modus operandi of Physics is to find the cause of things. It seeks explanations of both where things come from and why they behave the way they do. These are exactly the same principles that the C.A. relies on. Hence it is disingenuous to attempt to use a small, and contentious area of physics which itself relies on the logic that the C.A. relies on to attack the C.A. Indeed the most common theory regarding the origins of the universe in Physics is the big bang theory – what is this if not a cause! The question of its origin surely leads inextricably to the same God that Aquinas in the 13th Century concluded to. Therefore the strength of the argument is surely restored.
Even if this logic is accepted however the requirement of this ‘cause’ to be God is clearly not apparent. When words like God and Necessary being are used language becomes meaningless as both Bertrand Russell, and before him David Hume point out. Just because I can say the word necessary being and designate this as the source of everything doesn’t mean it is real. Indeed the term itself makes little sense outside the theoretical realm. This argument has practical strength as it accepts the clear limitations of our knowledge and discourages speculative reasoning which results in flawed perception. The C.A. on this basis is a weak argument because it requires the acceptance of terms that are meaningless.
Meaning however is not a simple thing to attribute. Russell’s refusal to accept the term necessary as meaningful in the context of an existent being is surely akin to a child refusing to accept that the term snow doesn’t mean anything because they have not experienced it and feel it is a nonsensical idea. A mere reluctance to accept something is no guarantee of the falsity of the concept. Hence necessary existence, whilst a challenging and confusing idea is potentially surely also a possibly existent thing. Hence the C.A. finds its health restored.
Perhaps it is in this element of the argument about the strengths and weaknesses of the C.A. that the crux of the matter resides. Copleston astutely comments ‘If you refuse to sit down at the chess board and make a move how can I checkmate you’. It is here perhaps that a conclusion to this debate is to be found. Whilst the C.A does stretch human understanding and make assumptions it is my opinion that these are logical assumptions which lead to the probability that a transcendent first cause exists which equates to God. Perhaps the most telling piece of evidence to support this is to be found in the fact that alternative solutions are less likely and don’t explain the evidence before us sufficiently. If this is then added to the other rational arguments for God’s existence this provides proof beyond reasonable doubt for the existence of God. Hence the C. A’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.
Examine the arguments against the cosmological argument.
One of the most famous; some might argue infamous reasons for concluding that there must be a God is founded in the idea that if there was no God there would be nothing. This line of thought provides the basis of the Cosmological argument. Since things exist e.g. the universe and indeed me, so must something which created the universe and as Aquinas, a famous proponent of this line of thinking argues ‘men call this God’. The logic of the argument is to many compelling however as with any argument it has its detractors.
Perhaps most damaging to the credibility of the argument is the assumption which is at the heart of the argument: that everything in the universe has a cause so the universe itself must have a cause. This assumption is perhaps most eloquently identified by David Hume who argues that the fallacy of composition has been committed. He contends that because we observe that particular objects have a particular trait does not mean that all objects do. It would be foolish to assume that because some Welsh people that we meet are good singers that all Welsh people are good singers. In the same way the C.A relies on an acceptance that because the objects that we empirically observe in the universe appear to have a cause that it is legitimate to conclude the universe itself has a cause. Bertrand Russell echo’s Hume’s criticism in his famous debate with Fr. Copleston when he illustrates the lunacy of the argument by saying it is akin to concluding that ‘just because every human has a mother does not mean the whole of humanity has a mother’. Hence it is argued the C.A fails to establish anything as at its heart a fallacious assumption resides.
Hume however does not stop here. He recognises that the C. A. strays into territory which is unknown in that making arguments about things that are outside of our empirical reach is in itself to stray into meaningless talk. As no one was present when the world was created any speculative accounts of what happened are meaningless according to Hume and should be discouraged. In essence he is encouraging a recognition and acceptance of the limitations of human knowledge and suggesting that grand theories of a creator God should be consigned to the rubbish heap of mere speculation which is unproductive. The C.A. hence fails on the basis that it is speaking about matters which are, and shall remain, unknown.
Some might however argue that despite our lack of experience there is a universe and it is something which it is perfectly legitimate for us to try to explain despite our lack of experiencing its beginning. Hume however goes on to say that even if we do assume that it is legitimate to try to find some explanation for the existence of the universe surely the idea that the answer is to be found in a transcendent ‘God’ is to overcomplicate the question. It is akin to trying to explain the existence of the writing on this page by positing a ghostly force which moves the pen across the page when patently a much more rational and hence legitimate answer would look to the human (me) who is moving the pen across the page. In the same way perhaps the universe itself explains its own existence. Indeed there are two further sources of support for this argument that might be called upon. Russell, again in his debate with Copleston strongly contends that the universe could explain itself. He says “I should say that the universe is just there and that’s all.” Given our lack of knowledge of the universe’s beginning teamed with our experience of the existence of the universe surely, applying Ockham’s razor, it makes more sense to conclude that the origins of the universe are to be found within the universe rather than in some separate, indefinable, unknowable transcendent God. There are many within the scientific community, notably Stephen Hawkins who would support this view arguing that we are getting close to a Grand Unified Theory where the existence of everything will be explained from within the universe with no need for God as a first cause.
With his final attack Hume questions the legitimacy of the idea of a necessary being. A being which causes everything else but is not itself caused flies in the face of experience and logic. At the heart of the logic the C.A. relies on is the acceptance that things don’t change themselves, cause themselves or explain themselves and that they cannot exist forever and therefore did not always exist. If this however is to be accepted surely then to suggest that there is something that doesn’t follow these rules is to contradict the very rules that are being relied upon for the argument to work. This is akin to saying that ‘all circles are round but some are square’. It makes no sense to do this and so the suggestion of the requirement of a necessary being to explain contingency is a flawed on and the C.A. fails.
Russell furthers this criticism by arguing that the word necessary has no meaning in reality. It is merely a linguistic tool which expresses ideas about tautologies - statements which it would be self-contradictory to deny for example ‘a bachelor is an unmarried man’ however they have no connection to reality. In essence the term necessary is only meaningful in a theoretical realm. To describe a necessary being who causes everything but is not itself caused is hence to misuse the term and create an impression of an object which is merely an illusion. The C.A. relies on meaningless words and hence is involved in meaningless and unproductive dialogue proving nothing but the proponent’s ignorance.
Some scientists have also suggests that the logic that the C.A. relies on is not born out by modern scientific understanding. Indeed Anthony Kenny has used Newton’s first law of Motion to challenge Aquinas’ first way from motion. The assumption implicit in Aquinas’ first way is that for something to be in motion it must have been put into motion. Kenny points out that the Principle of Inertia which arises from the first Law of Motion challenges this logic, as something which is in motion already will remain in motion hence it does not need something to begin its motion. The need for an unmoved mover to explain motion is therefore disproved.
The C.A. suffers from three key problems, assumptions which are unfounded, language which is meaningless and proves nothing and overcomplicating the reasons for the existence of the universe by requiring a transcendent cause according to its detractors.