The Cosmological argument


Introduction & status as a proof

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.

Aquinas’ 3rd way (contingency)

P1. We observe that there are contingent beings.
P2. A series of contingent beings cannot regress infinitely into the past.
C1. So, a series of contingent beings must be finite.
P3. If this finite series was all that existed, then before it would be nothing.
P4. If there was once nothing, there would be nothing now, which is absurd.
C1. So, there must be more than this finite series of contingent beings, i.e., a necessary being.
P5. There cannot be an infinite regress of necessary beings.
C3. There must be a necessary being “having of itself its own necessity … That thing we call God.”

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.

Strengths, Weaknesses (from Hume) and Evaluation

The fallacy of composition

The strength of cosmological arguments from contingency is their seeking an ultimate explanation rather than only a first cause. They focus more fundamentally on the nature of things. Beings have causal relations, but also an ontological status, i.e., contingency or necessity. Contingent beings & series must have an external explanation since it is their nature to depend on something else for their existence.

Weakness: Hume & the fallacy of composition. This criticism explicitly attacks cosmological arguments from contingency, but if successful would also undermine arguments from causation. It is a fallacy to assume that what is true of a thing’s part(s) must also be true of the whole. Bertrand Russell illustrated this by pointing out that just because every human (parts) has a mother, that doesn’t mean the human race (whole) has a mother.

Hume uses two examples: an infinite series of contingent beings and a finite set of contingent beings (20 particles). Just because the parts of a set/series of contingent beings have an explanation, that doesn’t mean the whole set/series has an explanation.

Experience shows that parts of the universe are contingent & have an explanation. This doesn’t mean the universe itself as a whole must also be contingent (have an explanation).

Copleston rightly points out that contingency arguments don’t actually appear to make an inference from parts to whole. However, Hume’s empiricism drives his point further. Contingency arguments still assume the whole universe/series has an explanation. The only empirical way to believe the whole has an explanation is to commit the fallacy of composition by assuming the whole is like the parts. That’s the problem with Aquinas’ 3rd way. Leibniz is a rationalist and believes the whole has an explanation because of his a priori principle of sufficient reason. Hume’s response there is his empiricist stance. Experience only shows that contingent beings exist. So, we aren’t in a position to know whether the whole universe is contingent.

Hume and Russell then take the argument further. If experience only shows that contingent beings exist, we can even question whether there actually is a ‘whole’.

“uniting of these parts into a whole, like the uniting of several distinct counties into one kingdom … is performed merely by an arbitrary act of the mind and has no influence on the nature of things.” – Hume

“I think the word “universe” is a handy word in some connections, but I don’t think it stands for anything that has a meaning … The whole concept of cause is one we derive from our observation of particular things; I see no reason whatsoever to suppose that the total has any cause whatsoever … it doesn’t need to be its own cause, what I’m saying is that the concept of cause is not applicable to the total.” – Russell.

We cannot say the ‘whole universe/series’ is even a valid concept, let alone that it is contingent. So, we can’t conclude there is a need for an explanation like a necessary being. Cosmological arguments from contingency fail. Note that this isn’t quite saying the universe could be necessary. A necessary being contains its own reason for existence, but Hume and Russell are proposing that the universe could simply have no explanation at all.

All we can justifiably say is that the universe/series is “just there, and that’s all” (Russell). It is a brute fact, one which has no explanation, whether causal or otherwise. Russell points to evidence from Quantum mechanics:

“The physicists assure us that individual quantum transitions in atoms have no cause.” – Russell.

So, arguments from contingency baselessly assume that a series (as a whole) must have an explanation at all.

Evaluation defending the cosmological argument:

Copleston firstly responds that only some interpretations of quantum mechanics propose uncaused events. Copleston further argues:

“I cannot see how science could be conducted on any other assumption than that of order an intelligibility in nature” – Copleston.

Copleston’s argument is successful because the ‘brute fact’ argument is self-defeating. Science and philosophy are about finding out why things are the way they are; their causes and explanations. If we say that there is no reason, then we undermine the purpose of science and philosophy itself.

Evaluation criticizing the cosmological argument:

Furthermore, Russell argues that while a scientist may look for causes, they do not assume that there is one to find. Even if quantum transitions are only uncaused on some interpretations of quantum mechanics, the mere idea of it still shows that physicists are able to conceive of events that have no cause. It is therefore at least logically possible for events in nature to have no cause or explanation. So, a contingent series doesn’t need an external cause. The principle of sufficient reason cannot be a necessary truth. The universe could be one of those natural events that has no cause or explanation. Science should accept that possibility, since science should be open to whatever could be true.

Copleston attempts to show that Russell is assuming that there isn’t a cause and Russell attempts to show that Copleston is assuming that there is. Ultimately, defenders of the cosmological argument are the ones making the positive claim about reality, so they have the burden of proof. It looks like for cosmological arguments from contingency, the conclusion that God exists as the explanation/cause of the universe cannot be reached without assuming that the universe has an explanation/cause. In that case, the mere possibility of the universe being a brute fact is enough to undermine the cosmological argument. It’s not irrational to look for a cause, even a cause like a God, but since there might not be a cause it is irrational to think that there must be one.

Issues around the possibility of a ‘necessary being’

A strength of cosmological arguments from contingency is that their conclusions achieve more than arguments from causation. They can establish God’s necessity, meaning inability to cease existing, which is a key element of Christian theology. Aquinas understands necessity to mean the inability to cease existing, which fits with the concept of omnipotence.

Weakness: Hume’s rejection of the possibility of a necessary being.

Hume’s fork:

A priori reasoning can only tell us about the relations between ideas, i.e. analytic knowledge (true by definition). E.g. “a bachelor is an unmarried man”.

A posteriori reasoning can only tell us about matters of fact, i.e. synthetic knowledge (true by the way the world is). E.g. “The sun will rise tomorrow”.

“there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori” – Hume.

A being whose existence is logically necessary is an absurdity to Hume. A thing’s existence is a matter of fact. All matters of fact can be conceived false and denied without contradiction. So, anything which could exist could also not exist. The concept of a being which ‘must’ exist, whose existence cannot be denied without contradiction, is therefore absurd and meaningless.

Hume’s justification for the fork is that truths of logic/definition are necessary, because they will be true no matter what happens regarding the factual state of the universe. E.g., 1+1 will always = 2, because there is no possible change to the universe which could make it false.

This shows there is a disconnect between logical (analytic) truths which are necessary (cannot be otherwise) and factual (synthetic) truths which can. The term “necessary existence” violates this disconnect. It is about what factually exists, so must be synthetic. Yet, it somehow also has the “cannot be otherwise” property that only belongs to logical analytic truths. We cannot know that a being’s existence is logically necessary, since a being’s existence cannot be established through logic.

“The words, therefore, necessary existence, have no meaning.” – Hume.

Any argument which attempts to conclude that God exists necessarily therefore fails, including the ontological argument and some cosmological arguments.

Evaluation defending the cosmological argument:

The 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.

Evaluation criticizing the cosmological argument:

Hume’s argument is successful because it is epistemological, i.e., focused on what we can know. Hume isn’t really saying a necessary being is ‘impossible’, just that it is impossible for us to know that such a being exists. Aquinas, Leibniz and Craig say that it is a being with the property of the impossibility of non-existence, but Hume simply throws up his hands and says he cannot see how anyone can ascribe meaning to that statement. We might technically be able to understand the words, but we cannot conceive or understand how they could map onto reality. If we are to accept the term on that basis, Hume rightly goes on to say that we might as well say that, even though we can’t understand how, reality itself has this mysterious property of the impossibility of non-existence, so positing a God is unnecessary anyway.

Issues around the possibility of an infinite series

A crucial strength of all cosmological arguments are the justifications its proponents provide for the premise that an infinite series is impossible. This is essential, for if there is an infinite regress going back in time forever then all forms of the cosmological argument fail. God could not be concluded to exist as the origin of what exists if there was no origin. These arguments attempt to show that the idea of an infinite regress leads to paradox or absurdity and therefore must be false.

Aquinas argues an infinite regress is impossible. If there was an infinite regress, there would be an infinite amount of time before the present moment. That means 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, the amount of time passed can never reach infinity. So, there cannot be an infinite amount of time before the present moment and therefore there cannot be an infinite regress. You cannot traverse an infinite through successive addition.

Leibniz’ a priori version of the cosmological argument attempts to show that an infinite regress is impossible because it violates the principle of sufficient reason. An infinite series of contingent beings would be without reason for existing.

Weakness: The possibility of an infinite series.

An infinite series is metaphysically possible. Hume attacks Leibniz. He argues that in an infinite chain of contingent beings is possible and doesn’t need an ultimate sufficient reason. Each one is explained by the being(s) on which it depends. Of course, Leibniz wants to object that this leaves the whole chain itself without explanation, without reason for existence. Hume, however, denies the validity of claiming that there is ‘whole’ chain. That is a mental construction, an “arbitrary act of the mind” which is irrelevant to reality. Hume gives an example of 20 particles each of which have an individual causal explanation and claim it would be “unreasonable” to ask for the causal explanation of the whole 20. So, metaphysically, an infinite series of contingent beings could possibly exist without explanation.

An infinite series is physically possible. Physicists do not really know what time is. Some physicists argue for the block universe, that the passing of time is an illusion. It could be that the universe eternally cycles between expansion and collapse and that a new timeline begins each cycle. In that case, an infinite amount of time never passes (so Aquinas fails) and in fact a time line containing an actual infinite never existed (so Craig fails). Yet, an infinite series of cycles happened (just not on any particular time-line).

The meta point of these three examples is that we know very little about what time and infinity are and how they work, so claims about the impossibility of an infinite series are unjustified. It seems Hume would say we should admit that we are not in a position to conclude that their either is or is not an infinite regress.

Evaluation defending the cosmological argument:

There is certainly much we don’t know about time and infinity. However, what we currently understand suggests Aquinas’ reasoning is right. The eternal bang/crunch model may be logically possible, but we have no reason to believe it. The evidence suggests the universe started with a big bang and there is no evidence it will collapse again.  We are justified in believing what we currently have most reason to believe.

Evaluation criticizing the cosmological argument:

Hume’s stance is the right one. We simply lack the required evidence to have a reasonable belief one way or the other regarding whether time regresses infinitely or not. Ultimately it is a matter for scientists and mathematicians and since they are far from decided, we are not justified in claiming an infinite regress is possible or impossible. Cosmological arguments therefore fail as they have the burden of proof. They are making a positive claim about what exists on the assumption of an infinite regress’ impossibility.

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. 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. This view is called natural theology. The arguments for God created by Paley, Aquinas and Anselm are examples of natural theology. They argue that reason can have the role of supporting faith.

Theologians who reject natural theology and subscribe only to revealed theology are called Fideists. This would include Karl Barth, Kierkegaard, Pascal and perhaps Wittgenstein. They all in their own way argue for a separation between philosophical reasoning and religious faith. As Pascal put it, the “God of the philosophers” that philosophers argue about is not “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”.

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.

Aquinas’ Natural Theology vs Augustine & Karl Barth

A strength of natural theology is their basis in what seems like a realistic and balanced view of human nature as containing both good (reason & telos) but also bad (original sin). Aquinas argues that God presumably gave humans reason so that they may use it.

Natural theology is the view that human reason is capable of gaining knowledge about God. Aquinas defends this by first accepting that original sin destroyed original righteousness, meaning perfect rational self-control. However, it did not destroy our reason itself and its accompanying telos inclining us towards the good.

Only rational beings can sin. It makes no sense to say that animals could sin. Original sin made us sinners, but human nature was not reduced to the level of animals. We still have the ability to reason.

Weakness: Natural theology places a dangerous overreliance on human reason. 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 therefore dangerous to rely on human reason to know anything of God, including God’s morality.

“the finite has no capacity for the infinite” – Karl Barth. 

Our finite minds cannot grasp God’s infinite being. Whatever humans discover through reason is not divine, so to think it is divine is idolatry – believing earthly things are God. Idolatry can lead to worship of nations and even to movements like the Nazis. After the corruption of the fall, human reason cannot reach God or God’s morality. That is not our telos. Only faith in God’s revelation in the bible is valid.

Final judgement defending Aquinas:

Barth’s argument fails because it does not address Aquinas’ point that our reason is not always corrupted and original sin has not destroyed our natural orientation towards the good. Original sin can at most diminish our inclination towards goodness by creating a habit of acting against it. Sometimes, with God’s grace, our reason can discover knowledge of God’s existence. So, 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.

Final judgement critiquing Aquinas:

Barth still seems correct that being corrupted by original sin makes our reasoning about God’s existence and morality also corrupted. The bad in our nature unfortunately means we cannot rely on the good. Whatever a weak and misled conscience discovers is too unreliable.

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. Humanity believing that it has the power to figure out right and wrong is what led to the arrogant certainty of the Nazis in their own superiority. This arrogance of natural theology is evidence of a human inability to be humble enough to solely rely on faith.

Natural theology & the distinction between ‘belief-that’ and ‘belief-in’

A strength of natural theology is that it shows that faith is not irrational and is not contrary to reason. Atheists criticise faith as ‘blind’, but natural theology provides arguments which show that belief in God is reasonable. Anselm, inspired by Augustine, said he has ‘faith seeking understanding’. Natural theology provides rational satisfaction about belief in God.

Weakness: Christian faith typically involves ‘belief-in’ God. H. H. 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 … 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 towards a person of trust, respect, faith and loyalty. That aspect of belief-in God cannot be reduced to merely belief-that God exists. Price calls this type of belief-in ‘evaluative’

[evaluative belief-in] is not a merely cognitive attitude … 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 defending natural theology

Price’s insights may 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 part of belief-in God.

Philosophical argument therefore can be relevant to an important part of Christian faith – the part dependent on 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.

Evaluation criticising natural theology

Price is still arguing that there is some minor role for reason in at least one element of religious belief.

Kierkegaard would disagree. He argued that it is circular to use reason to justify living by reason, but the same is true for using faith to justify living by faith. You simply have to make a choice between Jerusalem and Athens and there is nothing that can help or guide this choice. To be a human is simply to be faced with this existential choice. His argument is often described as calling for a leap of faith.

Kierkegaard’s argument is successful because it explains the reason the debate about God has been so persistent. It cannot actually be solved through reason. We simply have to either choose to have faith or not. Arguments for God’s existence have no value for religious faith because they assume that reason is valid.

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

The value for faith of the Cosmological argument 15 mark questions