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Transcript of Cosmological argument
Where did the universe come from?
(The word cosmos is simply an alternative name for the universe)
dependent upon the fact that there is a universe in existence:
how can we account for this?
First premise: a posteriori
The conclusion that the cosmological arguments aim to establish is that any
satisfactory answer to the question of the existence of the universe must make
reference to a being that exists outside the universe (in other words a
transcendent being). In this respect, the arguments are being used to prove the
existence of the God of classical theism.
St Thomas Aquinas
In his work 'Summa Theologica' Aquinas expresses the Cosmological Argument in 3 ways
an unending chain of events which fails to adequately
account for the way things are now
Aquinas' First Way:
We can see that things are in motion.
Nothing can set itself in to motion.
If something is in motion it must have been put into motion by something else (the mover), and that mover must have been put into motion by another mover and so on ...
There cannot be an infinite regress of movers.
Therefore there must be a first mover, and this we call God.
Premise 1 is the observation upon which the empirical argument is based. In fact it is not movement that Aquinas is really interested in, but rather change. Aquinas defines change as ‘the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality’. Key idea: Aquinas understands motion as that which is undergone when
something changes from being a potential x to being an actual x.
Premise 2 is also an a posteriori claim. Aquinas thinks that something can only become an x if something that is already an x changes it. So, for example, he thinks that wood has the potential to become hot (to change from cold to hot), but it can only do this if it is changed by something already hot (e.g., fire).
In premise 3, Aquinas is claiming that since nothing can put itself into motion (nothing can change itself) - as established in premise 2 - things need a push, and a push must come from something else.
Aquinas rejects the possibility of there being an infinite (unending) chain of movers in premise 4. In other words, he denies that the chain of movers indicated in the previous premise could be unending. There are different ways of thinking about this point. Consider a series of railway carriages, each linked to the one in front. The carriages cannot move unless there is a first carriage attached to an engine which does the pulling. Or think about a series of coat-hangers, each being
supported by the one above. Unless there is a first hanger that is attached to a ceiling, then the series cannot hang suspended.
Key idea: Aquinas rejects the possibility of there being an infinite regress of movers.
In the conclusion, Aquinas concludes that the fact that there cannot be an infinite number of movers forces us to accept that there must be a first mover. He reaches this conclusion by a philosophical strategy called reductio ad absurdum.
The idea is that it would be absurd to believe that there was no first mover because without one, there would be no motion in the universe now - and, as the first premise asserts, there is.
If we think of ‘change’ as the transition from potentiality to actuality, then since the God of classical theism is immutable (unchanging), he is ‘pure actuality’, and the source of all subsequent change in the universe. Saying that there must be a first mover is the same as saying that God’s
existence is necessary (assuming God and the first mover to be identical).
Aquinas' Second Way:
We can see cause and effect.
Nothing can cause itself.
If there is an effect, it must have been caused by
something else (the cause), and that must have been
caused by a prior cause and so on ...
There cannot be an infinite regress of causes.
Therefore there must be a first cause, and this we call God.
Premise 1 is the observation upon which the empirical argument is based - simply the idea that we see that within the universe there are patterns of cause and effect: we see that things cause other things to exist.
Aquinas then asserts in premise 2 that nothing can cause itself to come into existence. We might think that this is also an a posteriori claim, as it certainly
seems to be a fact that we can experience.
Premise 3 follows from premises 1 and 2, since we know that there is causation in the universe, and if things cannot cause themselves, they must be caused by something else that already exists: things need to have a cause, and that cause
must be something distinct from the effect.
Premise 4 expresses Aquinas’ rejection of the possibility of there being an infinite (unending) chain of causes.
Key idea: Aquinas rejects the possibility of there being an infinite regress of causes.
In the conclusion, Aquinas again employs the strategy of reductio ad absurdum. If there was no first cause, then there would be universe because, as he has already established, nothing can cause itself to come into existence. So there must be a first cause. Aquinas then makes the non-deductive move: God is this first cause.
Aquinas' Third Way:
The argument relies on the idea that things within the universe
are contingent - that they rely on other things for their existence.
We see that things in the universe are contingent.
Contingent things are brought into existence by something
else already in existence.
If everything is contingent, then there was a time when
nothing was in existence.
Therefore there must be a necessary (non-contingent)
being, and this we call God.
Premise 1 is the observation upon which the empirical argument is based. The idea is that things within the universe are contingent in so far as they might not have been - they have beginnings (e.g., births) and endings (e.g., deaths).
In premise 2 Aquinas reinforces the idea that if something is contingent, it relies
upon something else to cause it to come in to existence (see how this idea is
developed in his Second Way). We are to think of contingent things as being
dependent upon other things.
Premise 3 expresses Aquinas’ view that because contingent beings have a
beginning and an end, there will have been a time (way back) when there were no
contingent beings in existence.
In the conclusion, Aquinas concludes that since there are beings in existence,
there must be a necessary being to bring contingent beings into existence
(because no contingent being could account for the transition from the nonexistence
of any contingent beings to the existence of the first contingent thing).
Aquinas’ Third Way is not a good argument as it involves a non sequitur.
Non sequitur: a statement that does not follow.
The particular problem is his third premise. Aquinas thinks that since things within the universe are all contingent (non-necessary), then there must have been a time when there were no contingent things in existence. But in fact there is no connection between these two ideas, hence it is a non sequitur. So since Premise 3 is false, we are not committed to accepting the conclusion. Aquinas’ Third Way contains a false premise (and is hence unsound).
(1) Avoiding an infinite regress
Aquinas draws on Plato in support of his rejection the possibility of an infinite regress:
‘Plato held that before the many you must place the one.’
This statement really captures the thinking behind the first two ways. But what is wrong with an infinite regress? Philosophers think that an infinite regress is vicious if we just get the same problem cropping up over and over again because in that case, we never really get to answer to the first question. Aquinas believes that if we cannot get to a first cause or unmoved mover, then the regress is vicious in this way - we just keep getting the question ‘but what caused that?’ without ever reaching a final solution. It is, therefore, a strength of these arguments that they provide us with a philosophically satisfying response to the question, ‘Where did the universe come from?’
(2) Reductio ad absurdum
These arguments have a reductio ad absurdum logical structure, which is a valid deductive form. So, if the premises are true, the conclusion follows. That is to say the conclusion that there must be a First Mover or First Cause follows logically (not the conclusion that the God of classical theism exists).
As Aquinas’ Second Way is the most important one (and similar to the First Way
in terms of structure), we should focus on the criticisms that have been made
specifically with this argument in mind.
(1) Hume on Causation
David Hume (1711-1776) denies that causation is an objective
part of the universe, but, rather, is merely a human projection. So rather than see
causation in the world, Hume thinks that we see events happening one after
another and project the idea of causation on to them. So for Hume, these two
related arguments do not even get off the ground.
We might agree with Elizabeth Anscombe who argues that Hume’s position is too sceptical. She argues that even if we would want to deny that the black ball moved because the white
ball struck it, we would not want to deny that the movement of the
black ball was uncaused altogether.
(2) The Fallacy of Composition
Even if we were to allow Aquinas the right to talk about
causes being part of the fabric of the universe, Hume thinks that we are not
entitled to make the following move (which underwrites these arguments):
Events within the universe have cause therefore the universe itself has a cause
According to Hume, the problem with this is that it is a mistake to think that the
group itself must possess a property on the grounds that the property is
possessed by all the members of the group. This is called the Fallacy of
The Fallacy of Composition charge is effective only if we
think of the universe as simply being a collection of contingent
beings. If however we think of the universe as being an object in its own right, then it is legitimate to enquire into its cause.
(3) What caused God?
Stephen Hawkings famously asked, ‘Who created God? (A Brief History of Time).
And this seems to question the end-point of the argument. Why shouldn’t we go
on to ask what changed or caused God?
Aquinas conceives of God as the Uncaused Cause. God is not an effect, so there is no need to look for a cause. Given the eternal nature of God, he has always existed, and so has no cause.
The Kalam version of the cosmological argument was developed by Islamic philosophers, in particular,
al-Kindi (9th century) and al-Ghazali (11th century)
al Ghazali explained the key basis of the
"Every being which begins has a cause for its beginning; now the world is a being
which begins; therefore, it possesses a cause for its beginning."
Premise 1: Everything that begins to exist must have a cause.
Premise 2: The universe began to exist.
Conclusion: Therefore the universe must have been caused to exist.
Premise 1 can be expressed in a different way: nothing can come into existence without being caused. And this is supported by Science (the law of conservation of matter): we cannot get something from nothing.
Premise 2 reflects the commonly held belief that the universe had a beginning.
Modern Science tells us that this happened around 13.8 billion years ago.
If the premises are both true, then the conclusion is logically guaranteed because this argument is a deductive argument. Nonetheless, note that the conclusion of the Kalam argument does not involve the word ‘God’.
We would need to make a non-deductive leap to get to the existence of God as the cause of the universe.
As it stands (without the inductive-leap), the cosmological argument is compatible with the view from Science according to which the Big Bang was the cause of the
William Lane Craig (1949 - )
develops the Kalam argument
(1) Craig has developed an independent argument to support premise 2.
the universe cannot have been in existence for an infinite period of time, and such an infinity mathematicians call actual infinities, and, so he argues, there cannot be an actual infinity in reality.
To get your head around this idea, imagine a library that contains an actual infinite number of books - in other words an infinite and yet a determinate number of books. There are an actual infinite number of red books, and an actual infinite number of black books, and these can be paired off. Now a consequence of this is that in this strange library there must be the same number of red books as there are red and black books combined (because, after all, there are an infinite number of red books), and yet, as we have seen, there are an equal number of red books
and black books, so there cannot be as many red books as there are red books and black books (the subset of red books cannot be equal to the whole set of books in the library). Because of this absurd consequence, Craig concludes that actual infinities cannot exist in reality.
(2) Craig also uses the cosmological argument to reach the conclusion that the god of classical theism exists.
‘If the universe began to exist, and if the universe is caused, then the cause of the universe must be a personal being who freely chooses to create the world.’
He argues that the cause of the universe must
be a non-physical intelligent personal being (God).
'The Kalam Cosmological Argument'
He rejects the idea that the universe could have a physical cause because that would require the universe to already exist; the cause of the universe must therefore be non-physical.
Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason
Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)
Leibniz held that there must be a sufficient explanation (or reason or cause) for the existence of anything that exists.
Premise 1: The universe exists.
Premise 2: If the universe exists, then there is a sufficient reason for its existence.
Conclusion: The sufficient reason for the universe must lie outside the universe, and this is God.
Premise 1 is true, and a good firm basis for a cosmological argument.
The Principle of Sufficient Reason forms the basis for premise 2:
The Principle of Sufficient Reason: For anything that exists, there is a sufficient
reason (or ultimate explanation) for why it exists.
The conclusion is drawn on the assumption that the universe itself is not self-explanatory (cannot explain itself).
Leibniz illustrates his cosmological argument in the following way: imagine a book (a geometry book) that has been copied from an earlier copy, which itself had been copied from a yet earlier one, and so on. We could answer the question of any of these books existence in terms of the prior copy, but, Leibniz writes (in his ‘On the Ultimate Origination of Things’), this would be less than a full explanation because ...
And in the same way, we wonder about the the universe—especially why there is
a universe at all—and this is exactly the question that motivates the cosmological
‘... we might always wonder why there should have been such books from all time —why there were books at all, and why they were written in this manner.’
Leibniz goes on to argue that even if the universe had been here for ever (i.e., that the universe was eternal), we would still want to find the full explanation of—the sufficient reason for—the universe. Note that Leibniz is not particularly interested
in finding the cause of the universe, but rather its full explanation. He thinks that we must look outside the universe for this reason, and that we are forced to acknowledge that the sufficient reason for the universe is God.
Swinburne’s argument from best explanation
This is the argument from best explanation that Swinburne develops in his book
The Existence of God.
Premise 1: The universe is not self-explanatory.
Premise 2: If God existed then this would explain causation and motion.
Premise 3: There are no other plausible explanations of causation and
Conclusion: Therefore the best explanation of causation and motion is
The main basis of Swinburne’s argument is the idea that atheist accounts (i.e., scientific theories) struggle to explain the fact that there is motion/change and causation in the universe:
‘Theism does not make [causation or motion] very probable; but nothing else makes their occurrence in the least probable, and they cry out for explanation.’
He does however acknowledge that the theist’s position is less than certain:
‘... theism is perhaps very unlikely, but it is far more likely than any rival supposition. Hence [the evidence of motion/change and causation is] substantial evidence for the truth of theism.’
Nonetheless, he holds theism explains the existence of the universe as:
‘It is very unlikely that a universe would exist uncaused, but rather more likely that
God would exist uncaused. The existence of the universe … can be made
comprehensible if we suppose that it is brought about by God.’
A modern debate: Russell vs Copleston
In 1948, a debate between Bertrand Russell and F.C. Copleston was aired on radio. Russell described the existence of the universe as a brute fact; a fact that does not require explanation. He proposed that the universe is "just there, and that's all". Copleston thought that Russell was just trying to duck out of the debate, and accused him of trying to avoid engaging with the argument:
‘If one refuses to even sit down at the chess board and make a move, one cannot,
of course, be checkmated.’
But Russell refused to be drawn in as he denied that the existence of the universe is something that requires explanation. He accused Copleston’s board as being ‘skewed’ - if you follow the reasoning of the cosmological argument, yes, you will end up with God, but - and this is Russell’s point - we shouldn’t set off on the journey in the first place.
‘a physicist looks for causes; that does not necessarily imply that there are causes
everywhere. A man may look for gold without assuming that there is gold
everywhere; if he finds gold, well and good, if he doesn't he's had bad luck.’ Russell
(1) It is certainly true that we, as inquisitive rational beings, want an answer to the
questions of ‘why is the universe in existence?’ and ‘where did the universe come from?’. The cosmological argument provides an answer to this perennial problem.
(2) Philosophers generally believe that their explanations should be as simple as possible (in this way, philosophy and science are on the same side). This principle is called the Principle of Parsimony.
Principle of Parsimony: the simplest explanation is the best
Swinburne thinks that according to this principle, the Cosmological Argument is a success. He writes:
‘God is simpler than anything we can imagine and gives a simple explanation for the system.’
(1) Most philosophers think that they should commit themselves to as few kinds of thing as possible. This principle is called Ockhams’ Razor.
Ockham’s Razor: Do not multiply entities unnecessarily.
So if we can explain the universe without having to resort to another kind of thing that exists outside the universe (i.e., God), then that explanation is the preferred one. Despite the fact that some writers confuse the two, the Principle of Parsimony is different from Ockham’s Razor: the former may be used in support for the argument’s conclusion, whereas the latter should be used against the conclusion. Of course, theists may believe that the appeal to God in order to
explain the universe is essential, and definitely not unnecessary.
(2) All of the cosmological arguments, whether that are essentially deductive or non-deductive, end with a non-deductive leap of faith to the conclusion that God exists (at least when used by theists). There is no logical guarantee for this move, and we would need evidence to support that the First Cause is indeed the God of classical theism.