The Cosmological argument


A posteriori. The design argument and cosmological arguments are a posteriori arguments, which means they are based on experience. The design argument is based on the observation of particular aspects of the universe which, it claims, have the appearance of design. The cosmological argument is based on observation of everything in the universe being contingent and therefore requiring a creator which is necessary. These observations form the premises of the design and cosmological arguments. On the basis of those observations, an inference is then made to the nature of the origin of the universe.

Inductive. These arguments are called inductive arguments, which means they have premises which give evidence for, and support to, 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 it could be wrong because we don’t know everything.

Aquinas’ 3 ways

Aquinas 1st Way – Unmoved Mover

P1 – Everything is in a process of motion.
P2 – Something does not move unless moved by something else.
P3 – There cannot be an infinite regress of things moving other things going back forever.
C1 – There must be a first mover which was not moved by anything. “That thing we call God.”

Aquinas 2nd Way – Uncaused Causer

P1 – Everything that exists has a cause of its existence.
P2 – There cannot be an infinite regress of causation going back forever.
C1 – There must be a first cause which is itself uncaused. “That thing we call God.”

Aquinas 3rd Way – argument from contingency

P1 – Everything is contingent
P2 – There cannot be an infinite regress of contingent things
C1 – The chain of contingent things must stop at some point and since everything is contingent, there cannot have been anything before then. So, at one point there was nothing.
P3 – If at one point there was nothing, there would be nothing now, since nothing comes from nothing.
C2 – There is something now, therefore there couldn’t have been nothing in the past, therefore it cannot be the case that everything is contingent, so there is a necessary being which began this chain of contingent things. That thing we call God.

 The premise that everything is contingent leads to the absurd conclusion that something must have come from nothing. 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.

Hume’s critique of the causal principle

Hume argues that cause and effect might not exist. He points out that humans think every event has a cause, but this may just be a misunderstanding. If we are being honest, whenever we think we see cause and effect we really only observe one event following another event. No matter how many times we observe a certain event following another event, such as a ball smashing a window when thrown at it, it is not giving us a valid reason to assume that there is any necessary connection between the events. Just because event B follows event A every time we observe it, it doesn’t mean that event A caused event B. Without the notion of causation, the cosmological argument fails.

Defence: Arguably modern science can provide us with evidence for cause and effect because we can now have a detailed understanding of how objects operate and interact and can therefore understand the causal mechanism sufficiently to conclude that the ball smashes the window because of our understanding of the chemistry of the brittleness of glass.

Hume on the possibility of an infinite regress

The infinite regress is an important factor in the cosmological argument. If there is an infinite regress of objects going back in time forever, then the cosmological argument fails because there would have been no first cause or mover.

If there is an infinite regress of objects going back in time forever, then the cosmological argument fails because there would have been no first cause or mover. 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.

William Lane Craig while defending the Kalam Cosmological argument argued that an infinite regress is impossible because Infinities cannot exist in reality. Craig points out that if a library had an infinite number of books, half red half green, and you were to take the red books out of the library then you would have taken an infinite number of books out but there would still be an infinite number left. This is because infinity divided by two is still infinity. His claim is that this is just not how physical objects in reality could possibly function so it’s absurd to think infinities could exist. Therefore the infinite regress cannot exist.

The infinite library is an example of an infinite number of physical objects, but the infinite regress could be a finite number of physical objects existing over an infinite amount of time. Craig has shown the absurdity of physical infinities but not temporal ones, which is what the infinite regress involves.

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. Every second you add is finite and can never total an infinite number of seconds. 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.

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 oscilating universe theory theory suggests that universes could have been eternally expanding in a big bang and contracting again in a ‘big crunch’. 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 for an infinite amount of time. Or, perhaps time is not even the sort of thing that actually passes and the passing of time is some kind of illusion that 4th dimensional beings experience. Perhaps time cannot be measured in numbers. The point is we know very little about how time works and Aquinas’ philosophical argument makes assumptions that science may one day contradict.

Hume and Russell on the fallacy of composition

The fallacy of composition is that it’s a fallacy to assume that properties of the parts of something must be properties of the whole. In the case of the universe, Aquinas rightly points out that all the parts of the universe must have a cause or be contingent. However it is the fallacy of composition to assume that therefore the universe itself as a whole must have had a cause or be contingent. 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. Note that Hume is not claiming to know that the universe had no cause. He is merely pointing out that it is invalid to argue from the parts of the universe having a cause to the universe itself having one. While the properties of the parts of something may indeed be the properties of the whole, that isn’t necessarily the case and it is the fallacy of composition to assume so.

Copleston: one cannot be sure that the analogy applies. Copleston’s point can be illustrated with the example of the brick wall. The bricks of a brick wall are made of brick, but so is the whole wall. In other words, in the case of a brick wall and its bricks, the parts are like the whole. Copleston is pointing out that 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.

Russel responds that Copleston is the one making the argument, he is the one who needs to be sure.

Russell’s brute fact argument 

Why must there be a reason for something’s existence? The universe could just be a brute fact, meaning there might be no reason for its existence. there could be an infinite regress of objects or even universes.

Copleston’s response: is that the brute fact argument is like sitting down at a chess board and claiming it’s a draw because you refuse to make a move. How can one do Philosophy if some things have no explanation?

Criticism of Copleston: Reality is not here to make sense to us. By saying the brute fact argument is an invalid move, Copleston is not actually showing it to be false. Science and philosophy are about finding out what is true. If it could be true that something has no reason/cause/explanation, then philosophy should be open to that possibility.

Hume on the impossibility of a necessary being

“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. 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”

Matters of fact, such as whether a being exists, cannot be established a priori, according to this argument. 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. It’s invalid to claim that a being’s existence is logically necessary, since a being’s existence cannot be established through logic. Since Hume’s fork has shown that logical truth is disconnected from factual truth, the idea that something could necessarily exist is incoherent.

The ontological argument therefore fails because it attempts to establish a matter of fact (God’s existence) through a priori reasoning. Also attacked is any argument which involves the incoherent idea of a necessary being (some cosmological arguments e.g. Aquinas’ 3rd way).

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. Hume is therefore wrong to think that our being able to concieve of God not existing means that it is possible for God to not exist.

Hume conflates logical necessity and metaphysical necessity. Hume rejects the idea that ’God exists’ could be a necessarily true proposition, since we can conceive of God not existing, which shows that “God exists” cannot be necessarily true. However, what if the actual claim is that “If God exists, God exists necessarily”. This claim is not attributing logical necessity to the truth of a proposition; it is attributing metaphysical necessity to a being. This being, if it exists, exists necessarily because it does not depend on anything else for its existence. 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, it’s existence still cannot be established by a priori reasoning. Matters of fact can only be inferred by a posteriori reasoning.

It could be inferred by a posteriori reasoning, however, such as is found in the cosmological argument.

Modern science’s rejection of the cosmological argument

A reasonably popular view in physics had been the steady state theory, which was that the universe had always existed and that there is a continuous creation of matter which expands. However in the mid 20th century, the discovery of the microwave background radiation provided very strong evidence against steady state and for the big bang theory. Steady state theory leaves no room for a creator God because it claims the universe was not created but has always existed, whereas the big bang arguably does leave room for God because the big bang could simply be how God created the universe. So, the big bang theory was actually welcomed by many Christians for this reason.

Pope Pius XII declared in 1951 that the big bang theory does not conflict with the Catholic conception of creation.

The question then becomes whether science can explain why the big bang happened without God. One possibility is the oscilating universe theory, that what we call our universe is just one of the cycles of big bangs and big crunches that has been oscilating forever.

However, another theory with more evidence for it is Alan Guth’s inflation theory. Laurence Krauss, a physicist, explains Guth’s theory that the universe came from nothing because it actually is nothing. Gravity has negative energy, the total amount of which in the universe happens to exactly cancel out the positive energy of the matter in the universe, so the total energy of the universe is zero; it is nothing. Krauss claims this answers Leibniz’ question of why there is something rather than nothing. Quantum mechanics has existed eternally and causes quantum fluctuations which can create a zero-energy universe from nothing because such a universe requires zero energy to create.

W. L. Craig’s response to Krauss is that Krauss’ definition of nothing is faulty since it’s actually something. Nothing really means total absence of anything.

Defence of Krauss: Arguably the definition of nothing philosophers have traditionally used is in fact not what nothing actually is though. Science has proven the philosophical conception of nothing to be inaccurate.

Possible exam questions for the Cosmological Argument.

You could be asked to assess/evaluate:

  • Whether a posteriori or a priori is the more persuasive style of argument.
  • Whether cosmological argument simply jump to the conclusion of a transcendent creator, without sufficient explanation.
  • Whether or not there are logical fallacies in these arguments that cannot be overcome.
  • Whether the cosmological argument is successful, convincing, persuasive.
  • Aquinas’ first three ways.
  • Hume’s criticisms of the cosmological argument