Aquinas’ 3rd way (contingency)
P1. Everything is contingent
P2. There cannot be an infinite regress of contingent things
P3. Assuming P1, before a finite series of contingent things would be nothing.
P4. If there was once nothing, there would be nothing now, which is absurd
C1. P1 leads to an absurdity so it is false.
C2. There must be a necessary being.
C3. There cannot be an infinite regress of necessary beings
C4. There must be a necessary being “having of itself its own necessity … That thing we call God.”
The premise that everything is contingent leads to the absurd conclusion that nothing now exists. Since that is false, what led to it (that everything is contingent) must be false, so there must be a necessary being which started the whole process.
Aquinas claims an infinite regress is impossible because If there is an infinite regress, then time has existed forever. So there must be an infinite amount of time before the present moment. That means that to get to the present moment, an infinite amount of time must have passed. However, an infinite amount of time cannot pass. No matter how long you wait, even if you never stop waiting, you will never actually reach infinity. So, there cannot be an infinite amount of time before the present moment and therefore there cannot be an infinite regress. Modern Physicists think that time could have begun at the big bang, which would fit with Aquinas’ argument.
The status as a proof of the Cosmological argument
A posteriori. The Cosmological argument is an a posteriori argument, which means it is based on experience. The Cosmological argument is based on observation of everything in the universe being contingent and therefore requiring a creator which is necessary. This observation forms the premises of the design argument. On the basis of that premise, an inference is then made to the nature of the origin of the universe.
Inductive. The type of inference involved in the Cosmological argument from the premises to the conclusion is inductive. Inductive arguments are those for which the premises count as evidence for, in support of, a conclusion. The truth of the premises does not logically entail the conclusion. So, inductive arguments are those for which their premises could be true and yet their conclusion false. They give us reasons for accepting a conclusion, though cannot prove that the conclusion is certain. The best an inductive argument can achieve is to show that a conclusion is what we currently have most reason to believe based on our best attempt to understand the available evidence.
Inductive arguments as proofs. Evidence is not proof. The reason for this is that arguing on the basis of evidence cannot guarantee truth, because for all we can currently know there is additional evidence we could discover that would disprove the conclusion our current evidence suggests. The technical term for this is that knowledge based on experience is ‘defeasible’, meaning there could be further evidence that is currently unknown which would show it to be false.
Strengths, Weaknesses and Evaluation
Strength: Consistent with science – science suggests that the universe has not always existed. The big bang is our current explanation of the universe, but it had to come from somewhere. Science can’t currently explain that, but the cosmological argument can. It must have been caused by a necessary being.
Weakness: Hume on the possibility of an infinite regress. If there is an infinite regress of objects going back in time forever, then all forms of the the cosmological argument fail, because God could not be ultimately responsible for the origin of causation or the universe if it had no origin.
Hume points out that in order for something to be impossible it must be self-contradictory. For example, a four sided triangle is impossible because a triangle having four sides is contradicts the definition of a triangle as a three sided shape. However, there doesn’t appear to be anything self-contradictory about the infinite regress. Therefore it is possible and so the cosmological argument rests on an assumption that the infinite regress is false when it could possibly be true
Evaluation: Aquinas claims an infinite regress is impossible because If there is an infinite regress, then time has existed forever. So there must be an infinite amount of time before the present moment. That means that to get to the present moment, an infinite amount of time must have passed. However, an infinite amount of time cannot pass. No matter how long you wait, even if you never stop waiting, you will never actually reach infinity. So, there cannot be an infinite amount of time before the present moment and therefore there cannot be an infinite regress. Modern Physicists think that time could have begun at the big bang, which would fit with Aquinas’ argument.
Optional further evaluation: However, Physicists also have theories that suggest that the time which began at the big bang might only have been the time of our universe, and there could be other times or other kinds of time. The “big crunch” theory suggests that universes could have been eternally expanding and contracting again. If a new timeline began upon each contraction, an infinite amount of time would never pass even though the process of expansion and contraction has been going on infinitely. The point is we know very little about how time works and should not make assumptions about it, which the cosmological argument does.
Whether the universe requires a cause or explanation
Strength: the cosmological argument is a posteriori, so it is based on experience of the world which is a strong method for drawing conclusions about the world.
Weakness: Hume and Russell: fallacy of composition. It is a fallacy to assume that what is true of a thing’s part(s) must be true of the whole. It is possible for what’s true of the parts to not be true of the whole. If all you have knowledge of are properties of the parts of a thing, you cannot infer from that alone that the whole also has those properties. Bertrand Russell illustrated this by pointing out that just because every human has a mother, that doesn’t mean the human race has a mother.
In the case of the universe, Cosmological arguments rightly point out that the parts of the universe (at least those we have observed) have a cause or are contingent. However, it commits the fallacy of composition to assume that therefore the universe itself as a whole is contingent or has a cause.
Russell concludes that the universe is ‘just there, and that’s all’, i.e., it could exist without reason or cause or explanation. This has often referred to as the universe being a ‘brute fact’. It claims that due to the fallacy of composition, we have no basis for thinking that notions such as causation even apply to the universe. The universe could be necessary, in which case its explanation would be its necessary existence, or it could simply have no explanation.
Hume and Russell are not claiming to know that the universe has no cause or is not contingent. They are merely pointing out that it is invalid to argue from the parts of the universe having a cause to the universe itself as a whole having one. While the properties of the parts of something may possibly be the properties of the whole they aren’t necessarily so and it is the fallacy of composition to assume that they are.
This argument works best against cosmological arguments from contingency because they assume that the universe as a whole is contingent. If the universe is not contingent then we don’t need God to explain its existence.
Evaluation: Copleston responds to the fallacy of composition that arguments from contingency are not making the mistake of inferring a cause for the whole series from the fact that its members have a cause. The argument, going back to Leibniz as well as Aquinas, is that a series of contingent things must have an external cause. Copleston’s argument is as follows:
P1. A series is either caused or uncaused.
P2. If a series is uncaused, then the reason for its existence must be internal to it; its existence is necessary.
P3. A series of contingent things can’t be necessary. No amount of contingent things can be necessary, not even an infinite number of them.
C1. Therefore, a series of contingent things cannot be necessary.
C2. Therefore, a series of contingent things must have a cause.
C3. Therefore, there must be a cause of the series of contingent things which is outside the series.
Optional further evaluation: Russell’s brute fact response to the cosmological argument and Copleston. Russell responds that there is an assumption made by arguments from contingency. Copleston, Leibniz and Aquinas all assume that a series must have an explanation at all.
The claim that contingent beings or series of contingent beings must have a sufficient explanation could be denied without contradiction. It therefore cannot be a necessary truth. A series (whether finite or infinite) could have no cause/reason/explanation at all. Russell points to Quantum mechanics as evidence for his argument:
“The physicists assure us that individual quantum transitions in atoms have no cause.” – Russell
Whether the idea of a necessary being is valid
Strength: The strength of the cosmological argument is the logic of its reasoning – a contingent universe or series of contingent beings must come from a necessary being. Nothing can cause its own existence, nor can a contingent thing contain its own reason for existence. Logically, the only option left to explain a contingent series is that it must depend on something which has its own reason for existence – a necessary being (God).
Weakness: Hume: the impossibility of a necessary being. A necessary being must exist, meaning there is no possibility of it not existing, so we shouldn’t even be able to conceive of it not existing. However, Hume claims that whatever we can conceive to exist, we can conceive to not exist. We can conceive of God not existing, so there is a possibility of God not existing and therefore God cannot be a necessary being.
“The words, therefore, necessary existence, have no meaning.” – Hume.
Evaluation: Masked man fallacy. Hume’s argument depends on conceivability entailing possibility. It is therefore susceptible to the masked man fallacy, which shows that we can conceive of the impossible. Imagine someone heard of a masked man robbing a bank. They can conceived that it is not their father. Yet, if it was their father, then it is impossible that it is not their father. Yet, that was what they conceived of. So, we can conceive of the impossible. When Hume argues that our ability to conceive of God not existing shows that it is possible for God to not exist and that God therefore cannot be necessary, he assumes that conceivability entails possibility. Conceiving of God’s non-existence could be conceiving of something impossible because God is necessary.
The value for faith of the Cosmological argument
Natural vs Revealed theology
Most theologians agree that faith should be the foundation of belief in God. This view is called revealed theology, the idea that knowledge of God can be gained from God’s revelation to us e.g in Jesus and the Bible.
Some theologians, typically Catholic, claim that reason is also a means of gaining knowledge about God, a view called revealed theology. The arguments for God created Aquinas are examples of natural theology. They argue that reason can have the role of supporting faith.
Aquinas’ cosmological argument & natural theology
Aquinas insists that his natural theology does not undermine faith but instead supports it. Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence are only intended to show the reasonableness of belief in God. They at most show that there is evidence for some kind of God. This is nowhere near strong enough to actually replace faith. This is partly of why Aquinas rejected the Ontological argument, since as an a priori deductive argument it sought to prove God’s existence which Aquinas worried would cause it to replace faith.
Natural theology doesn’t try to claim more than is justified
Aquinas accepts his argument at most shows that there is some necessary being, but it doesn’t prove the Christian God in particular. He aims only to show the reasonableness of Christianity in order to support faith.
Counter-argument: Hume argues that God is not the only explanation. Hume argues that even if we had evidence for God in the universe, such as the appearance of design, that would not support belief in the Christian God. The universe could have been created by a junior God, apprentice God – or even a God who died. There could even be multiple creators/designers – ‘a committee of Gods’, so even monotheism isn’t justified.
If arguments for God’s existence can only establish that some generic God(s) exist, that limits their value for faith.
Evaluation: Swinburne accepts that Hume is correct that natural theology cannot prove that the creator/designer is the Christian God. Other arguments will be needed for that.
Nonetheless, Swinburne thinks that Ockham’s razor can be used against some of Hume’s claims. One God being responsible for the design of the universe is a simpler explanation than multiple. Swinburne also points to the uniformity of the laws of physics as suggestive of a single designer.
Ultimately, however, Hume’s critique doesn’t work against inductive a posteriori arguments based in Aquinas’ style of natural theology (that Paley and Swinburne also adopt). These argument seek only to show that it is reasonable to believe in a creator/designer. Hume’s insistence that they cannot prove a particular type of creator/designer is irrelevant since proponents of these arguments accept that. Christian belief is better supported with these arguments than without them, even though they do nothing to prove the Christian God in particular. That is the only aim of the style of natural theology employed by Aquinas, Paley and Swinburne.
Karl Barth’s original sin critique of natural theology
Karl Barth was influenced by Augustine, who claimed that after the Fall our ability to reason become corrupted by original sin. Barth’s argument is that is dangerous to rely on corrupted human reason to know anything of God. He said, “the finite has no capacity for the infinite”, meaning our finite minds cannot grasp God’s infinite being. Barth even thought that natural theology led to idolatry, since whatever our reason grasps, thinking it is God, actually cannot be God. This is a problem for natural theology which wants to make use of reason to know God’s existence. Reason is corrupted by original sin and therefore natural theology is dangerous for relying on it.
Aquinas defends natural theology. Aquinas claimed that original sin only destroyed ‘original justice’ which was our perfect rational control over our desires. However, it did not destroy our ability to reason itself.
This is because only rational beings can sin; it makes no sense to say that animals sin. The doctrine of original sin claims that post-lapsarian humans are sinners, so, we can sin. It follows that we must still be rational beings.
Aquinas thinks that reason gives us the ability to know Gods existence and orientates us towards God’s goodness. Sometimes, with God’s grace, our reason can discover knowledge of Gods existence and God’s natural moral law. So, natural theology is valid.
Arguably Aquinas has a balanced and realistic view, that our nature contains both good and bad and it is up to us to choose rightly.
Evaluation: However, Barth still seems correct that being corrupted by original sin makes our reasoning about God’s existence dangerously unreliable. The bad in our nature unfortunately means we cannot rely on the good.
Humanity’s belief that it has the ability to know anything of God is the same arrogance that led Adam and Eve to disobey God. This arrogance of natural theology is evidence of the original sin itself; a human inability to be humble enough to solely rely on faith.
Karl Barth’s critique of natural theology that it undermines faith by making revelation pointless
If natural theology was valid then humans would be able to know God’s existence or God’s morality through their own efforts. Barth argues that would make revelation unnecessary. Yet, God clearly thought revelation was necessary as he sent Jesus. It follows that natural theology cannot be valid.
However, Aquinas insists that his natural theology does not undermine faith but instead supports it. Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence are only intended to show the reasonableness of belief in God. They at most show that there is evidence for some kind of God. This is nowhere near strong enough to actually replace faith. This is partly of why Aquinas rejected the Ontological argument, since as an a priori deductive argument it sought to prove God’s existence which Aquinas worried would cause it to replace faith.
Regarding arguments for God, a posteriori reasoning only provides evidence that a designer or necessary being exists. Aquinas still accepts that we need faith to know the Christian God in particular exists.
Evaluation: the knowledge we can gain from natural theology is not the same as revealed theology and therefore cannot not replace or undermine it. If reason only has this goal of supporting faith, then it cannot make revealed theology unnecessary.
H.H. Price: ‘belief-that’ vs ‘belief-in’
Christian faith typically involves ‘belief-in’ God. Price argues this involves much more than merely ‘belief-that’ God exists.
“’Belief in’ is an attitude to a person, whether human or divine, while belief ‘that’ is just an attitude to a proposition” – Price.
‘belief-in’ God is like believing in a person. It involves a psychological attitude of trust, respect, faith and loyalty. That aspect of belief-in God cannot be reduced to merely belief-that God exists.
“Belief in God … cannot be reduced to the mere acceptance of an existential proposition” – Price.
Sometimes belief-in reduces to belief-that, such as belief-in the loch ness monster, because that does not involve a personal relationship. Christian faith is not like that, it involves much more than merely knowing that God exists. It involves an attitude, a relationship, to a person. Price calls this type of belief-in ‘evaluative’
“[evaluative belief-in] is not a merely cognitive attitude … the proposed reduction leaves out the ‘warmth’ which is a characteristic feature of evaluative belief-in … There is something more here than assenting or being disposed to assent to a proposition … ‘the heart’ enters into evaluative belief-in. Trusting is an affective attitude.” – Price.
Religious belief involves a personal relationship with God such that faith in God is not only a matter of “belief-that” God exists. It also involves evaluative “belief-in”. So, belief-in God involves trust and faith in a person (God) which cannot be reduced to a mere intellectual view of what exists in reality.
Philosophical argument, like that found in natural theology, cannot completely account for Christian faith. It can at most account for the aspect of faith that involves belief-that God exists.
Evaluation: this might make Price appear to be on the side of Barth, or perhaps a middle-ground between Barth and the natural theologians.
However, although belief-in God involves much more than belief-that god exists, nonetheless belief-in God still requires belief-that God exists. Belief-that God exists is therefore an important aspect of belief-in God.
Philosophical argument therefore can be relevant to part of Christian faith – the part reducible to belief-that God exists.
Therefore, Price’s arguments actually support the project of natural theology. Aquinas, Paley and Anselm only claim that their natural theology supports faith in God. They each acknowledge that belief in God is ultimately founded on faith, not reason or philosophical argument. So, they would each agree that religious faith cannot be reduced to reason. Nonetheless, regarding the aspect of belief-in God that requires belief-that God exists, philosophical argument can be relevant in providing reasoned arguments which support the conclusion that God exists. Barth could not accept that, so natural theology seems justified by Price’s arguments. Arguments for God therefore do have value for faith.
10 mark questions on the Cosmological argument
Examine Aquinas’ Cosmological argument.
Examine Hume and Russell’s criticisms of the Cosmological argument.
Examine Aquinas’ Cosmological argument and Hume and Russell’s criticisms.
Examine how the Cosmological argument is based in observation.
Examine the status of the Cosmological argument as a ‘proof’.
Examine the value of the Cosmological argument for religious faith.
Examine the relationship between faith and reason suggested by the Cosmological argument.
Examine the strengths of the Cosmological argument.
Examine the weaknesses of the Cosmological argument.
Examine the meaning of the Cosmological argument.
Examine the significance of the Cosmological argument.
Examine the influence of the Cosmological argument on Christians.
Examine the cause and significance of similarities and differences between the Cosmological argument and other arguments for God.
Examine the approach of philosophy to the Cosmological argument.
Standard Cosmological argument 15 mark questions
“Aquinas’ cosmological argument argument is unconvincing” – Evaluate this claim
“Hume’s criticisms of the Aquinas’ cosmological argument cannot be defended against” – Evaluate this claim
“Aquinas’ cosmological argument’s basis in observation is a weakness” – Evaluate this claim
“The cosmological argument fails to prove God’s existence” – Evaluate this claim
“The strengths of the cosmological argument outweigh its weaknesses” – Evaluate this claim
“The cosmological argument has no serious weaknesses” – Evaluate this claim
“The cosmological argument proves that God exists” – Evaluate this claim