The Cosmological argument

AQA
Philosophy

Cosmological argument 10 mark question content

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.

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.

The strengths of the Cosmological argument

The value for faith of the Cosmological argument

Aquinas 

Barth

Price

Hume & Russell’s criticisms & weaknesses of the design argument

The possibility of an infinite series

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.

The 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 (Aquinas’ 3rd way) because it assumes that the universe as a whole is contingent. If the universe is not contingent then we don’t need God to explain its existence.

The impossibility of a necessary being

Cosmological arguments which conclude that a necessary being exists are vulnerable to this objection, e.g. Aquinas’ 3rd way.

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

A necessary being must exist – it cannot be the case that it does not exist. This means we shouldn’t even be able to conceive (imagine) it not existing, without contradiction. However, Hume claims that whatever we conceive of as existing, we can conceive of as not existing. There is no being whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Hume concludes:

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

This argument references “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”.

Whether a being exists is a matter of fact, so it cannot be established though a priori reasoning. Hume’s basis for the fork is that if a particular truth is a matter of logic/definition, then it will be true or false no matter the factual state of the universe. E.g., one plus one will always equal two, regardless of what happens to be factually true of the universe. This suggests there is a disconnect between logical truth and factual truth. The term “necessary existence” seems to ignore this disconnect. We cannot know that a being’s existence is logically necessary, since a being’s existence cannot be established through logic.

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

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.

Cosmological argument 15 mark question content

Standard Cosmological argument 15 mark question content

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Strength: Consistent with science – 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 explains that the big bang must have been caused by a necessary being.

Criticism/weakness: The possibility of an infinite series. 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.

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.

Response: Criticism/weakness: the 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 (Aquinas’ 3rd way) because it assumes that the universe as a whole is contingent. If the universe is not contingent then we don’t need God to explain its existence.

One response is to try and argue that sometimes what is true of the parts is true of the whole, e.g., a brick wall. The bricks of a brick wall are made of brick, but so is the whole wall. In that case the parts are like the whole. The relation of the universe to its parts may be more like that brick wall to its bricks than the human race to its members.

However, while the universe and its parts might be like that of a brick wall to its bricks, it also might not! If not, then the cosmological argument fails.

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, 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.

Only a posteriori cosmological arguments commit the fallacy of composition by assuming that the universe has a cause when all we experience is that parts of the universe have a cause.

Those which are a priori may avoid this problem by claiming to be derived from necessary truths rather than experience.

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.”

Copleston responds that only some interpretations of quantum mechanics propose uncaused events. Copleston insists that science and philosophy is about looking for causes and explanations.

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

However, Russell responds 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.

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. It can’t have caused itself – it cannot contain its own reason for existence so must depend on something which has its own reason for existence – a necessary being (God).

Response: the impossibility of a necessary being. Cosmological arguments which conclude that a necessary being exists are vulnerable to this objection, e.g. Aquinas’ 3rd way.

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

A necessary being must exist – it cannot be the case that it does not exist. This means we shouldn’t even be able to conceive (imagine) it not existing, without contradiction. However, Hume claims that whatever we conceive of as existing, we can conceive of as not existing. There is no being whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Hume concludes:

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

This argument references “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”.

Whether a being exists is a matter of fact, so it cannot be established though a priori reasoning. Hume’s basis for the fork is that if a particular truth is a matter of logic/definition, then it will be true or false no matter the factual state of the universe. E.g., one plus one will always equal two, regardless of what happens to be factually true of the universe. This suggests there is a disconnect between logical truth and factual truth. The term “necessary existence” seems to ignore this disconnect. We cannot know that a being’s existence is logically necessary, since a being’s existence cannot be established through logic.

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

Masked man fallacy. Hume’s argument depends on conceivability entailing possibility. It is therefore succeptible to the masked man fallacy, which shows that we can concieve of the impossible. Imagine someone heard of a masked man robbing a bank. They can concieve 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 concieved of. So, we can concieve of the impossible. When Hume argues that our ability to concieve 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. Concieving of God’s non-existence could be concieving of something impossible because God is necessary.

Alternate response to Hume: Hume conflates logical necessity and metaphysical necessity. Hume characterises arguments for God’s necessity as claiming that ‘God exists’ is a necessarily true proposition. However, we could instead regard arguments for God’s necessary existence as claiming that “If God exists, God exists necessarily”. That is not attributing logical necessity to the truth of a proposition; it is attributing metaphysical necessity to a being. What makes God necessary is the metaphysical condition of a lack of dependence on anything else. It’s not necessarily true that such a being exists, but if it does, its existence is necessarily.

Hume’s fork: even if we take arguments for God involving necessity to be attributing necessity to a being, not to a proposition, the existence of that being still cannot be established by a priori reasoning. Matters of fact can only be inferred by a posteriori reasoning.

A posteriori cosmological arguments could survive this objection then. They give us reason to think that this being does exist on the basis of a posteriori reasoning.

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

Value for faith of the Cosmological argument evaluation content

The value for faith of the Cosmological argument 15 mark questions