The Cosmological Argument
© 2011 By Paul Herrick
In this section of the Web site you will find synopses of historically significant philosophical arguments, from a variety of viewpoints, on topics of enduring interest. Whether you are a logic teacher, a logic student, or an individual interested in complex logical arguments, there are a number of different purposes these argument summaries may serve. Students of logic and philosophy might explore these arguments in order to apply their understanding of logical theory. Logic teachers may assign some of these arguments as homework. The following are some suggestions for various types of homework assignments.
- Pick an argument that interests you. Summarize the argument’s main line of reasoning in your own words, in prose, or in a step-by-step, numbered format.
- Is the argument deductive or inductive? If it is deductive, is it valid? Is it sound? If it is inductive, is it strong? Is it sound? Argue for your position. Explain your reasoning.
- Translate the argument into the symbolic notation of categorical, truth-functional, or quantificational logic, and prove it valid or demonstrate its validity.
- State a counterargument to the argument. The most effective counterargument is one directed at a crucial premise. Is there an important premise that you reject? What is your argument against it?
- If you stated a counterargument to a crucial premise of the argument, how might a defender of the argument respond? What would be a good response to your argument? What is the best argument against your counterargument?
- If you think the argument commits a logical fallacy, identify the fallacy and support your case. Is the fallacy formal or informal?
- Can the argument be strengthened? Can new premises be added that make it a better argument? Explain how you would strengthen the argument in the face of criticism.
- Does the argument contain a premise or conclusion in need of conceptual clarification? How would you clarify it?
But you may have ideas of your own in response to the arguments below. Be as creative as you wish.
Issues in Philosophy of Religion
1a. The Cosmological Argument for the
Existence of God
All persons desire to understand. — Aristotle
To the inquiring mind, the universe presents itself as a question in need of an answer, as a puzzle to be solved, as a phenomenon that “cries out for explanation.” To respond and seek an answer on the basis of unassisted reasoning, independently of unsubstantiated myth and unquestioned authority, is to begin the journey of the intellect which the ancient Greeks named “philosophy” (from the Greek words philos for “love” and sophia for “wisdom,” literally, “the love of wisdom”).
Cosmology (from cosmos, the ancient Greek term for the universe) is “the study of the universe considered as a whole.” Cosmological questions have intrigued human beings across all cultures since the beginning of recorded history and continue to interest us today. Is the universe eternal, or did it begin to exist? Does it exist on its own, all by itself? Or does it owe its existence to something beyond itself, in other words, to a transcendent higher being? In other words, does the universe have a supernatural creator? But this is perhaps the biggest question of all: Why does anything exist at all? Why isn’t there just nothing at all?
The cosmological argument for the existence of God, one of the most famous of all philosophical arguments, addresses questions such as these and reasons, step by step, to the existence of a supernatural being who created the material universe. Since “a supernatural being who created the material universe” is at least the logical core of what is commonly meant by the word God within the classic theistic religious traditions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, such reasoning constitutes a philosophical argument for the existence of God.
Terminology: Theism (from the Greek word for God, theos) means “belief in a God or gods,” and a theist is “one who believes in a God or gods.” Atheism is “the view that no God or gods exist,” and an atheist is “one who says there is no God.” Agnostcism (Greek: “no knowledge”) is “the view that nobody can know, one way or the other, whether or not a God or gods exist.” Agnostics are neutral on the question, neither saying there is nor saying there is not a supreme being.
A number of different versions of the cosmological argument have been presented and defended by philosophers, starting with the argument presented by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) in one of his last books, The Laws. Here we analyze the version known as the “Argument from Contingency,” also called the “Modal Cosmological Argument.”
THE ARGUMENT FROM CONTINGENCY
The argument begins with one of the most fundamental of all cosmological questions: “Why does the material universe exist?” Philosophers approach this question the way a reasonable person approaches any question about the origin of something: they look for clues. Consider the way forensic scientists look for evidence in a crime scene investigation. Suppose an unusual item is found, something that does not look like it belongs in the area. The obvious question is: Where did it come from? Suppose it is known that the item was not the property of the victim. The CSI people suspect that the item may have been left by the person who committed the crime. Suppose fingerprints left on the item are traced back to someone named “Joe Doakes.” Forensic scientists will naturally begin investigating Joe Doakes. Clues sometimes lead us to the origin of a thing. Is there something about the universe, some aspect that might steer us toward its origin?
The modal cosmological argument builds on a clue so subtle, so abstract, so logically refined, that its significance is easily missed: the material universe appears to be logically contingent. But what does this mean?
Common sense distinguishes between things that are contingent and things that are necessary. We ordinarily call something “necessary” within a context if it cannot possibly be otherwise (within that context). On the other hand, we ordinarily call something “contingent” within a context if it is dependent on something else, as when a teacher says, “Your final grade is contingent upon your test score average.”
Now consider the existence of any ordinary material object around you, for instance, a rock, a tree, a lake, a mountain, a bird, or even something as small as an atom or a molecule. Think about the many conditions that are required if that thing is to remain in existence. For example, suppose you are thinking of a bird. Oxygen, food, water, and temperatures within a certain range are required if a bird is to remain in existence. Suppose you picked a lake: any body of water depends for its existence on various geological preconditions, including a certain type of underlying soil, availability of rainwater or underground spring water, temperatures within a certain range, and so on.
Next think about the many conditions that would snuff out the existence of the item you picked. For example, birds would no longer exist if oxygen ceased to exist; lakes would all dry up if the temperature exceeded certain limits, and so on. Even an ordinary atom or molecule will go out of existence under certain circumstances. All matter seems to be inherently contingent with respect to existence.
Consider beginnings of existence. Conditions must be just right if any one of these ordinary material objects is to come into existence: a lake won't form unless the temperature is above a certain minimum and unless certain geological pre-conditions are not present; a baby bird won't be born if food and water and oxygen are not first available for the mother; and so on.
Thus, in the case of an ordinary material object, if certain conditions had not first existed, then it would never have come into existence; if certain conditions fail to obtain, it is snuffed out like a candle in the rain. This is the miserable contingency, the "might-not-have been-ness," that is the lot of all the mundane or material things around us, from quarks to atoms to molecules to chemicals to rocks, lakes, mountains, planets, stars, galaxies, and so on. But isn’t this our lot too? You could say that, for ourselves and for the ordinary material things around us, such as atoms, molecules, lakes, and trees, existence hangs by a thread. Existence is for all of us a precarious, insecure affair, constantly under the threat of nonbeing. This is truly “living on the edge.”
But to stop with contingency is to stop in the middle of a logical process, like stopping at right without admitting left, like stopping at top without admitting bottom. Could there, at least in principle, at least in theory, be something that is noncontingent? If so, what would it be like? A completely noncontingent being or thing, if such a thing were to exist, would logically have to be something that is not dependent on external circumstances as far as its existence goes (and it could not even possibly have been dependent on anything external to itself for its existence, since if it is noncontingent, then there is not even a possibility of its nonexistence). It would seem to follow that its existence is not threatened and could not possibly be threatened and could not possibly have been threatened, by any possible circumstance or entity. In addition, nothing could possibly have caused its existence, nor could anything have prevented its existence. Only so would it exist in a manner completely independent of all possible circumstances, that is, only so would it exist independently of all contingencies.
Such a being would, theoretically at least, possess the following feature: it would have existed no matter what the circumstances, it exists no matter what the circumstances, and it will exist no matter what the circumstances, which is just to say that it would exist in all possible circumstances. Its nonexistence is thus an impossibility (for if there are no possible circumstances in which it does not exist, then its nonexistence is not possible). All of which implies, of course, that it has always existed and always will, that there never was a time when it did not exist and never will be a time when it does not exist (or else its existence would be dependent on circumstances beyond itself, namely, temporal circumstances).
We have reached the refined concept of necessary being. Modal logic sharpens the idea: Something exists necessarily if and only if there are no possible circumstances in which it would not exist; in other words, it exists in all possible circumstances; it is nonexistent in none.
Armed now with the commonsense distinction between necessity and contingency, reflection on the existence of the material things around us leads to the realization that it is not the mere existence of the many things around us (atoms, molecules, dirt, trees, rocks, lakes, stars, galaxies, etc.,) that cries out for explanation; rather, it is the contingent existence of it all, the sheer might not have been-ness of it all. Why does a universe of contingent things exist? This is the philosophically refined question of existence.
For it seems about as certain as anything can be that any material object is contingent, be it a subatomic particle, an atom, a molecule, or anything made of matter, for example, a rock, a tree, a planet, or a star. Think of any material object. No matter what object you picked, surely there are possible circumstances, that is, circumstances whose description does not involve or entail a contradiction, in which it would not exist. But if its nonexistence is consistently describable, then it is logically contingent.
AN INITIAL HYPOTHESIS
So what accounts for all of this contingent existence? Why does a universe full of contingent things go to the trouble of existing? An initial hypothesis suggests itself: Suppose we explain one contingent thing in terms of a prior contingent thing, and then we explain this contingent thing in terms of a prior contingent thing, and so on, back and back in time in an unbroken chain until finally we reach a first contingent thing (or collection of contingent things) that is the initial cause of everything else. Suppose we also assume that nothing else exists but this finite chain of contingent things.
In this case, all our explanations would refer only to contingent things, with no reference at all to something that transcends contingency, to something outside the chain of contingent things. If this series of explanations is acceptable, then there is no reason to suppose anything exists beyond the material universe of contingent material objects, and hence no reason to suppose the material universe owes its existence to, or depends for its existence on, a noncontingent “Creator” of some sort, a God if you will.
THE PROBLEM WITH THIS
Unfortunately, this initial hypothesis has a fatal flaw. By hypothesis the first entity in the chain of contingent objects, call it C, is contingent. But since C is (by hypothesis) contingent, it might never have existed. It did not have to be. That is, among the complete set of all logically possible circumstances or states of affairs, there is the possibility that C does not exist. (If there is no possibility of its nonexistence, then it is necessary, not contingent.) This entity would never have existed in the first place if circumstances had been sufficiently different. But this raises the question, “What accounts for its existence?” The very possibility of its nonexistence makes it reasonable to ask, “Why does it exist?” And if C is contingent, as hypothesized, then it would seem that any adequate explanation of its existence would have to refer to circumstances external to it, to preexisting entities that caused it to exist. How else could an explanation for C go? For (a) if the explanation for C’s existence were entirely internal to C, if C were self-explained, then C would exist independently of all circumstances; it would exist regardless of circumstances, in which case its existence would depend on nothing outside itself, which would make it a necessary being, not a contingent one, contrary to our hypothesis.
But C is, by hypothesis, the first entity. Therefore, it cannot have an explanation, since it cannot be explained in terms of something prior to itself, nor by something outside itself, nor by something internal to itself. But if C lacks an explanation, then it would seem to follow that the series of contingent objects as a whole lacks an explanation, just as the existence of a beam of light at a particular spot is not explained if there is no explanation for the lamp that sends out the beam of light.
It seems to follow that no purely contingent entity could serve as an adequate or rationally acceptable ultimate (or rock-bottom) explanation for the existence of all contingent things.
A SECOND HYPOTHESIS
However, if a noncontingent being exists, i.e., a necessary being, and if this being is the cause of the contingent material universe as a whole, then that would explain why the material universe exists. Since one way to explain the existence of a thing is to point to what caused it to be, as when we point to the potter to explain the existence of a pottery jar, this “necessary being hypothesis” at least explains the existence of the material universe. The hypothesis makes sense of the existence of the material universe as a whole.
But every being, every “thing,” is either contingent or necessary. The dichotomy is impregnable. There is no middle ground between the two great “modes of being.” It seems, therefore, that if we are to make sense of the existence of the material universe considered as a whole, if we are to account for its existence, we have no choice but to conclude that the material universe owes its existence to the action of a noncontingent being, a logically necessary being existing outside the universal series of contingent material beings. This would be a transcendent, immaterial being (since matter is inherently contingent and so it must transcend matter), a being that always has existed and that always will exist, a being whose existence is so profound its nonexistence is impossible.
In this way we reach the necessary existence of something possessing the core properties of divinity, an entity it would thus be natural to call “God.” There seems to be no other way to account for the existence of contingent things as a whole. This is one version of the modal cosmological argument.
Classic Objections to the Argument
OBJECTION 1: DAVID HUME'S ARGUMENT
In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) stated one of the most important objections to the cosmological argument. Hume proposed the hypothesis that the material universe has always existed, in which case the sequence of causes and effects goes back in time forever, never reaching an end, never reaching a “first cause.” In one of the most quoted paragraphs in the history of philosophy, he argued:
In tracing an eternal succession of objects, it seems absurd to inquire for a general cause or first author [i.e., God]. How can anything, that exists from eternity, have a cause, since that relation implies a priority in time, and a beginning of existence? In such a chain too, or succession of objects, each part is caused by that which preceded it, and causes that which succeeds it. Where then is the difficulty? But the WHOLE, you say, wants a cause. I answer, that the uniting of these parts into a whole, like the uniting of…several distinct members into one body, is performed merely by an arbitrary act of the mind, and has no influence on the nature of things. Did I show you the particular causes of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable, should you afterwards ask me, what was the cause of the whole twenty. This is sufficiently explained in explaining the cause of the parts2
Let us name the central premise here “Hume’s Principle,” and let us put it this way: “If each and every part of a whole has an explanation, then the whole is thereby explained; nothing else needs explaining.” Now, if we hypothesize that the material universe is infinitely old, then the universe today is the end result of an eternal succession of causes and effects stretching back in time, with each object in the series caused by a previous object, which is caused by a previous object, and so on, in such a way that the series has no beginning. The fascinating thing about such a series is that no individual object in it lacks an explanation (since each thing is caused by a prior thing). In other words, each thing in the series in principle has an explanation (in terms of a prior thing in the series). Now, given this, according to Hume’s Principle it follows that the universe as a whole is thereby explained. The whole is explained because no individual thing within it lacks an explanation. In this way, Hume believed that the question of the existence of the whole is put to rest: If we suppose the universe is infinitely old, then there is no need to hypothesize that God or a necessary being created it.
Wainwright’s Counterargument to Hume
But is Hume’s Principle true? The contemporary American philosopher William Wainwright (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) has proposed the following counterexample3. Suppose someone wants an explanation for the contingent fact that human beings exist. Imagine they are offered the following explanation: The history of human beings is a series in which one human being is caused by two prior human beings, each caused by two prior human beings, each caused by two prior human beings, and so on back in time forever. The history of humanity, in other words, is an infinite regression—a series of things in which each member is explained in terms of a previous member, which in turn is explained in terms of a previous member, and so on back forever, with no beginning at all.
Now, an infinite regression of human beings is certainly logically possible, for there is no logical contradiction in the idea. So the hypothesis is possible. Furthermore, if we hypothesize an infinite regression of human beings, then the existence of each and every individual human being in the series in principle has an explanation, known or unknown (since each is explained in terms of two previously existing human beings in the series). It is also the case that on the infinite regression hypothesis, there is no first human being in the series, so there is no first step in need of explanation.
Nevertheless, Wainwright argues, there are two good reasons to maintain that the existence of such an infinite series as a whole would lack an explanation even if each individual member of the series in principle has one: First, although each human being (by hypothesis) has an explanation of his or her existence in terms of previous human beings in the series, it does not validly follow, by any recognized rule of deductive or inductive logic, that the existence of the series as a whole is thereby explained. To reason that (a) since each part of the series has an explanation, then (b) the series as a whole is thereby explained commits what is called in logic a “composition fallacy.” That is the first reason.
Second, Wainwright argues, it seems clear, upon sustained reflection, that even if each individual member in the infinite series has an explanation, the following very general question about the series as a whole remains unanswered: “Why do human beings exist?” In other words, “Why does a past-eternal-series of humans exist?” Or, to put it still another way: “Why does the inventory of all that actually exists include a (past-eternal) series of human beings?” (Note: The question asks for the cause rather than the purpose of the series as a whole.) If this is right, that is, if the question is not answered by the assumption of an infinite regression, then Hume’s Principle is false. It certainly does seem to be the case that an infinite regression of human beings would not explain why human beings in general exist. But if so, then Hume’s Principle is not rationally acceptable.
Does Wainwright’s argument defeat Hume’s objection to the cosmological argument? Or does it fail in the end? You decide. Make your case.
Objection 2: Richard Carrier’s Critique
In “Ten Things Wrong with Cosmological Creationism (2000),” http://www.infidels.org/ library/modern/richard_carrier/ten.html, the contemporary philosopher and historian Richard Carrier argues that any explanatory argument that concludes to God, understood as a transcendent, necessary being, in order to explain the existence of the contingent universe, must in the end be an explanatory failure. Carrier’s Website is here:http://www.richardcarrier.info/.
In the essay cited above, Carrier writes:
If we posit a god, we would still be in the same position of trying to explain his existence. Anything sufficient to explain a god's existence will also apply to the universe, or at least the physical principles of the universe which give it form and motion, and thus there is no reason for the added element of a god.
The astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1996), author of Cosmos, has put the point this way:
If we say ‘God made the universe,’ then surely the next question is ‘Who made God?’ If we say, ‘God was always here,’ why not say the universe was always here’? If we say that the question, ‘Where did God come from’ is too tough for us poor mortals to understand, then why not say that the question of ‘Where did the universe come from?’ is too tough for us mortals? In what way, exactly, does the God hypothesis advance our knowledge of cosmology?4
Carrier’s first claim is: “If we posit a god, we would still be in the same position of trying to explain his existence.” Here is another way to put this. If we hypothesize God, or a necessary being, as the cause of the material universe and the explanation for why a contingent material universe exists, the question of existence bounces back to haunt us, for someone can respond with: “Okay, you have explained the existence of the contingent universe by supposing it was created by a necessary being, but what explains the existence of the necessary being? What accounts for its existence? What explains the fact that it exists? What is its cause?
Suppose the defender of the cosmological argument responds to this objection as follows: “Why, unlike the universe, God just has no cause! There is no explanation for God’s existence; no account of why God exists is even possible. God just is and there is nothing more to be said.”
However, this won’t do. For if the theist can say this about God, why can’t the atheist say the same thing about the material universe? Why can’t the atheist just say: “Why, the universe just has no cause! There is no explanation for its existence, no account of why it exists; it just is there and nothing more can be said.”
Suppose the defender of the cosmological argument replies to the objection by saying: “God was caused to exist by a higher God, a “Godfather” so to speak.
The response would, of course, be: “What caused the Godfather to be? What is the explanation of its existence?”
Suppose the cosmological defender replies: “The Godfather was caused to exist by an even higher God, a ‘Great Godfather,’ so to speak.”
The response would be: “And what caused that being to be?” Now it is the theist who is trapped in an infinite regression of explanations!
The advocate of the necessary being explanation appears to be in a terrible bind. If he replies at this point, “God, or the necessary being, has no explanation,” then the atheist can reply, ”Why can’t I say that about the material universe? It just has no explanation.” On the other hand, if the theist offers an explanation E for the existence of the necessary being, then the question of existence arises all over again for E: Why does that exist? No improvement. Carrier’s point is that the necessary being idea traps us in an infinite explanatory regression. Says Carrier: Better to stick with the existence of the contingent universe and not add on a hypothesis that just raises more questions than it answers.
Van Inwagen’s Reply:
How to Stop the Infinite “Re-Asker”
The contemporary philosopher Peter van Inwagen (University of Notre Dame) suggests an intriguing reply to this line of argument in his textbook Metaphysics:
But [to ask, of a necessary being, “Why does it exist?” or “What explains its existence?”] is to neglect the fact that a necessary being is one whose nonexistence is impossible. Thus, for any necessary being, there is by definition a sufficient reason [i.e., explanation] for its existence: there could hardly be a more satisfying explanation for the existence of a thing than that its non-existence was impossible.
Professor van Inwagen is giving an intriguing argument here. The existence of a necessary being, he argues, would be a self-explanatory mode of existence, unlike the existence of a contingent thing, which can only be explained in terms of something external to it or prior to it if it is explained at all. A self-explanatory being, if one were to exist, would carry within itself the complete explanation of its own existence, the ground of its own existence. Only in this way would its existence not be due to any external circumstances or factors at all. In other words, a necessary being would contain within its own nature the logically necessary and sufficient condition of its own existence. In the words of medieval philosophers, such a being would exist “of itself” or a se. If anything could bring any explanatory regress to an end, this would be the sort of being to do it. Indeed, the existence of a completely self-explained being—one whose existence is explained internally—would seem to be the only possible type of explanatory endpoint needing no further explanation. If this makes logical sense, then the modal cosmological argument solves the problem of existence and makes it reasonable to suppose the contingent universe owes its existence to a higher being, to a being many would naturally call “God.”
In the essay cited above Richard Carrier argues for a way around this response:
Anything sufficient to explain a god's existence will also apply to the universe, or at least the physical principles of the universe which give it form and motion, and thus there is no reason for the added element of a god.
In other words, let E be the explanation or explanatory ground offered by the theist as an answer to the question: “What accounts for the existence of God or the necessary being?” Carrier’s point is that once the theist formulates E and applies it to God, the atheist can extract E from the divine context and use it as the reply to the earlier question: “What accounts for the existence of the contingent, material universe?” Now the atheist will have an explanation for the existence of the material universe, and there is no longer an explanatory need to posit a god or necessary being beyond the universe as the cause or explanatory ground of the (material) universe!
The “Not so Fast” Reply
The following is one way to counter this latest move in the debate. Van Inwagen’s answer (quoted above) to the question “What accounts for the existence of the necessary being?” cannot be adopted by the atheist and used as an answer to the question “Why does the universe exist? The reason is that (a) the material universe is contingent, not necessary, and (b) van Inwagen’s answer, the explanation of existence in the case of a necessary being, can only be given for something that necessarily exists. It cannot be offered as an explanation of existence for something contingent, for the reason that anything contingent has the possibility of nonexistence. Therefore, the theistic solution to van Inwagen’s question “What accounts for the existence of God or the necessary being?” cannot be borrowed by the atheist and applied directly to the material universe so as to bypass God and explain the material universe without reference to a transcendent Creator.
The theist concludes: “We can only explain the existence of the material universe as a whole, and thus make sense of its existence, if we suppose it was created by a transcendent, necessary being—an eternal being many would naturally, and with good reason, call ‘God.’ But it is reasonable to make as much sense of things as we can; it is unreasonable to leave things unexplained when a good explanation is available. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe in God as defined.”
As mentioned at the start of our discussion, one of the great questions of cosmology is, “Why does something, rather than nothing, exist?” Van Inwagen, in his textbook Metaphysics, argues that the necessary being hypothesis, in addition to explaining why a material universe exists, also answers the following question:
Why should there be anything at all?…If we could show that there was a necessary being…we should have an answer to our question. For if there were a necessary being, then it would be impossible for there to be nothing. And if we could show that it was impossible for there to be nothing, that, surely, would count as an answer to our question.
Is van Inwagen right? Argue your case!
Wrap It Up
In the end, those philosophers who reject the Argument from Contingency, the Modal Cosmological Argument, argue that we can adequately make rational sense of the existence of the material universe as a whole “without the added element” of God’s existence, in other words without hypothesizing that the universe owes its existence to a transcendent necessary being. Supposing God created the material universe doesn’t add anything to our explanations. The “God hypothesis,” they claim, is simply a spinning explanatory wheel doing no real or needed explanatory work; in other words, it is an unneeded explanatory epicycle.
On the other hand, those philosophers who defend the Modal Cosmological Argument argue that the material universe just does not make sense on its own—its existence is not self-explanatory or self-contained. We cannot make sense of its existence, they argue, unless we suppose it owes its existence to something beyond itself, to a transcendent, necessary being who created it. The defenders of the cosmological argument claim that the argument’s conclusion is attractive for the same reasons that any successful philosophical theory is attractive: It answers questions that would not otherwise be answered and it explains things that would otherwise be unexplained; in other words, it accounts for the phenomena. They ask: Why else do we adopt theories in philosophy and elsewhere? Why else do we find theories reasonable, other than that they make sense of things that otherwise would not make sense?
This discussion illustrates the dialectical nature of philosophy. Philosophers seek to answer the most fundamental questions of all on the basis of unassisted reasoning. A question is asked. An argument is proposed in support of a solution. But objections are raised, counterarguments are launched, and replies are given. In the face of criticisms, philosophical arguments and the theories they support are sometimes revised, sometimes discarded, sometimes successfully defended. The ancient Greeks named the ongoing give and take of philosophical debate “dialectic.” It has been called “the great conversation” because philosophy is in many ways an ongoing conversation between individuals from many different cultures, lands, and times.
Many people believe that philosophy is a waste of time. However, those who have seriously engaged in the “great conversation” know that the discussion is almost always advanced and intellectual progress is almost always made when we reason seriously with each other. Our modern ideas of democracy, human rights, freedom, and scientific method were hammered out laboriously, over the course of many centuries, through philosophical conversation…and the dialectic continues today.
When you read opposing philosophical arguments, it is best to approach each argument sympathetically at first, aiming simply to understand the reasoning. After an argument is understood, examine the objections to the argument just as sympathetically, aiming to understand where they are coming from. Only after you understand all the opposing considerations is it time to weigh the arguments on the basis of reality-based considerations, in other words, on the basis of careful reasoning. Which viewpoint makes the most sense overall? Ultimately the decision is always yours.
Another Version of the Argument
The “First Cause” Cosmological Argument
Sometimes we explain the existence of something by appeal to the cause that brought it into existence. Thus, we might explain the existence of a watch by citing the factory where it was made; we might explain your existence by appeal to the existence of your parents, and so on. The “First Cause” version of the cosmological argument does not explicitly invoke the modal notions of necessity and contingency; rather, it relies on our ordinary, everyday notions of cause and effect.
- Each and every thing that exists has a cause.
- The material universe is a thing that exists.
- Therefore, the material universe has a cause.
- This would be God—for being the cause of the material universe is the core meaning, or part of the core meaning, of the word God as it is understood within the classic theistic religious traditions.
This elementary version is also sometimes called the “naïve version” of the first cause cosmological argument. Does it contradict itself? Can it be defended against the charge of contradiction?
Improved Version of the Argument
- Each and every material thing that exists has a cause.
- The material universe is a material thing that exists.
- Therefore, the material universe has a cause.
- This would be God, the immaterial, uncaused cause of the material universe.
Second Improved Version of the Argument
- What accounts for the fact that a rather large material universe exists? We typically explain the existence of one thing in terms of something prior to it that caused it to be. For instance, we explain an oak tree by saying its existence was caused by an acorn. But then we explain the existence of the acorn in terms of a previously existing oak that caused it to be, and we explain that in terms of a previously existing acorn, and so on in a backward trending series of causes and effects.
Similarly with the universe: astronomers divide the history of the cosmos into stages, and then they explain one stage, or “epoch,” in the history of the universe by appeal to conditions in a prior stage, which are explained in terms of conditions in a prior stage, and so on back and back. For instance, the electroweak epoch is explained by saying it was caused by events occurring in the creation of matter epoch, which came before it. This epoch is explained as the causal consequence of events occurring in the creation of light epoch, which came before it, which was caused by events in the cosmic inflation epoch before it, which was caused by events in the Planck epoch before it, and so on back and back in time.
The existence of the material universe will be explained once we finish tracing causes and effects back far enough.
- However, the chain of causes and effects cannot go backwards forever, for in that case there would ultimately be no explanation for the existence of the material universe.
- Therefore, it is reasonable to suppose the chain of causes and effects goes back to a beginning, to a “First Cause.”
- This would be an uncaused cause that is the cause of everything else down the line.
- Which would be God, for being an uncaused cause of all other things is the core meaning, or part of the core meaning, of the word God within the mainstream theistic tradition.
In Support of Premise 2
The second premise is the most controversial. The case for premise 2 begins with definitions. An explanatory regression is “a sequence of explanations in which one thing is explained in terms of something prior, which is explained in terms of something prior, and so on.” An infinite explanatory regression is “an explanatory regression that regresses back forever, never reaching an endpoint or beginning.” If the chain of causes and effects that led to our present existence goes back forever, with one thing caused by a previous thing caused by a previous thing, etc., then it is an “infinite regression” and we live in an “infinite regression universe.” The hypothesis that the causal chain regresses back forever is the Infinite Regression hypothesis, or the IR hypothesis for short.
Now for a thought-experiment. Suppose someone walks up to you and says, “Do you like abab?" You don’t know what the word abab means, so you ask, “What does abab mean?” The person tells you it means “babsob." But you don’t know what this word means, so you ask for a definition. You are told it means "splog." However, this word means nothing to you, so you ask what splog means. “It means ‘“glog,’” says the other person. Each time you ask what the word means, you get another word whose meaning you do not know.
Suppose that this sequence of definitions goes back forever, never reaching an end. Each word is explained in terms of a previous word whose meaning is unknown, which is explained by a previous word whose meaning is unknown, and so on, and the process never reaches a word whose meaning is understood on its own without explanation from a prior word. One thing seems clear: the word abab never gets a meaning. Although each word in the series in theory has a definition, no word is ever going to be understood. Nothing in the series makes any sense at all.
It seems that if abab is going to get a meaning, there will have to be an ultimate word, a “first word” in the series and this first word has a meaning not derived from a prior word’s meaning.
The “word regress” was a “linear” infinite regress, one going back in a straight line. Notice that the situation seems no better if the definitions go around in a circle, for example, like this: “A means B, B means C, C means D, and D means A. Even though the circle closes, no meaning is ultimately provided for A… no matter how big the circle.
Let us now apply this reasoning to the infinite regression hypothesis (IR). According to IR, the existence of each thing in the universe is explained in terms of a previously existing thing that caused it. Each thing derives its existence from a previous thing that caused it, just as each word in the above series derives its meaning from a previous word in the series that gives it meaning. But if this process goes back in an infinite regression, like the infinite series of words, then it seems there will be no explanation for why things exist now (just as there is no explanation for the meaning of abab if the definitions go back to infinity. An infinite regression of causes, it seems, cannot even in principle account for the existence of the cosmos.
An "inference to the best explanation" or “explanatory argument” has the following logical form:
- One or more facts in need of explanation are cited.
- Possible explanations of the facts are considered.
- One explanation, it is argued, is the best or most reasonable overall explanation of the facts.
- It is concluded that this explanation is probably the correct explanation.
Is the “First Cause” argument an explanatory argument?
Other examples of infinite regressions may help make the point. Imagine a long line of moving railroad boxcars, stretching back as far as your eyes can see. What accounts for their motion? The question arises because a boxcar does not have the power to move itself. The reason a boxcar does not move itself is that a boxcar does not contain within itself a source of motion: a boxcar only moves if something else pushes or pulls it, in other words, if an external force is applied. So, what explains the motion of the boxcars?
Suppose someone proposes the following answer: The first boxcar, the one in front, is being moved by the boxcar behind it. So the first boxcar gets its motion from the previous one. The previous boxcar is being pushed by the car behind it, so it gets its motion from the one before it, and so on down the line. Does this explain why the series of boxcars as a whole is in motion?
Now suppose that in response someone proposes the following hypothesis:
The series of boxcars is infinitely long. No matter how far back you go, it’s one boxcar getting its motion from the previous one. Thus, there is no first boxcar.
Of course, if we adopt this hypothesis we must posit an infinitely long railroad track and an infinitely long string of boxcars. We must also suppose that the boxcars are eternal and indestructible; that is, they never wear out. Setting those issues aside, it seems that no matter how far back we go, no matter how many times we reiterate the question "Why is this boxcar moving?" we never reach a final answer to the question that drives us down the regress. If nothing exists above and beyond the boxcars, then it seems the motion of the infinite string of cars simply has no explanation at all. In other words, the existence of the motion simply has no explanation if we adopt an IR hypothesis.
In Support of Premise 3
If we suppose that the string of boxcars is finite, and if we suppose that it is all set in motion by a first boxcar that moves all the rest, then the motion of the whole series will remain unexplained. For a boxcar does not move itself—it does not have within itself the power of motion—and so if we suppose the whole series is moved by a first boxcar, we will be left asking, “Why is it moving?”
However, if we hypothesize that the boxcars were set in motion by, or are being moved by, something outside the series of boxcars, specifically, by something that is a self-moving entity, in other words, by a locomotive, then the motion of the whole series would finally have an explanation. Notice that the motion of a locomotive comes from within itself. Unlike a boxcar, a locomotive is a self-mover—it contains within itself the source of its motion.
This version of the cosmological argument maintains that just as a self-moving vehicle is the only logical explanation for the motion of a series of boxcars, a self-existent first cause that is the first cause of all else, is the only logical explanation for the existence of the material universe.
Objections to the Argument
Objection 1: The “Nothing for a Creator to Do” Argument
Many have argued that IR (the infinite regression hypothesis) can be successfully defended. Here is one such argument. Suppose we assume the universe is infinitely old. The following is a perfectly satisfactory reply to the question “What explains its overall existence?”
If the universe is infinitely old, then it was never created (since it never began). If it was never created, then there is nothing for a creator to have done. If so, there's no need to suppose it has a creator. The existence of an infinitely old cosmos thus needs no explanation at all. The question of God’s existence simply does not arise if we suppose the universe is eternal.
Richard Taylor, a contemporary philosopher, argues that this reply is unsatisfactory. To make his point, Taylor employs the following thought- experiment. Suppose that while hiking in the forest you find a large, translucent ball. Questions would naturally arise. Who or what made it? How did it come to be sitting in the forest? What explains its existence? Suppose your hiking partner offers the following answer: "The ball has simply always existed." Taylor comments:
…it is no answer to the question, why a thing exists, to state how long it has existed. A geologist does not suppose that he has explained why there should be rivers and mountains merely by pointing out that they are old.
Taylor’s point is that citing how long something has existed does not account for the existence of the thing. The mere fact—if it is a fact—that the translucent ball is infinitely old would not explain the ball's existence, nor would it remove the need to explain why the ball exists. Applied to the universe, the argument would be: The mere fact that the universe is infinitely old (if it is a fact) would not explain why the universe exists, nor would it remove the need to account for the fact that the universe exists. The question of existence would remain: Why does this infinitely old universe exist?
Objection 2: Hume’s Counterargument
When we examined the Modal Cosmological Argument, we considered a famous counterargument made by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume’s argument can also be launched against the First Cause Cosmological Argument. Hume wrote:
In tracing an eternal [i.e., infinite] succession of objects, it seems absurd to inquire for a general cause or first author [of the whole]. How can anything, that exists from eternity, have a cause, since that relation implies a priority in time, and a beginning of existence? In such a chain too, or succession of objects, each part is caused by that which preceded it, and causes that which succeeds it. Where then is the difficulty? But the WHOLE, you say, wants a cause. I answer, that the uniting of these parts into a whole, like the uniting of…several distinct members into one body, is performed merely by an arbitrary act of the mind, and has no influence on the nature of things. Did I show you the particular causes of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable, should you afterwards ask me, what was the cause of the whole twenty. This is sufficiently explained in explaining the cause of the parts.5
Hume’s main idea seems to be this: If each and every individual part of a whole has an explanation, then the whole is thereby explained, nothing else needs explaining. It follows that if we hypothesize that the present state of the material universe is the result of an infinite succession of causes and effects stretching back in time forever, then no individual step in the series of causes and effects lacks an explanation, and so the universe as a whole is thereby explained. The question of the existence of the whole is put to rest. In other words, everything is explained and there is no need to suppose there is a God who started it.
Of course the reply to Hume’s counterargument, explained previously, could be applied here in defense of the First Cause argument. That action is left to the interested reader.
Objection 3: Bertrand Russell Asks
"Why Must There Be a Cause for the Whole?"
In 1948 one of the most famous debates in the history of philosophy was broadcast on the BBC to a very large audience. Arguing for the existence of God was Father Frederick Copleston, a philosopher as well as a Catholic Priest of the Jesuit order. Arguing against the claim that God exists was Bertrand Russell, one of the most famous philosophers of the twentieth century and one of the founders of modern logic. Father Copleston led off with a Modal Cosmological Argument, and Russell raised a number of objections to it. The present objection appears in the following passage of the transcript of the debate:
Copleston: Well, my point is that what we call the world is intrinsically unintelligible, apart from the existence of God. You see, I don't believe that [an] infinity of …events…would be in the slightest degree relevant [i.e., would explain why the material universe exists]…If you add up chocolates you get chocolates after all and not a sheep. If you add up chocolates to infinity, you presumably get an infinite number of chocolates. So if you add up contingent beings to infinity, you still get contingent beings, not a Necessary Being. An infinite series of contingent beings will be, to my way of thinking, as unable to cause itself as one contingent being. However, you say, I think, that it is illegitimate to raise the question of what will explain the existence of any particular object.
Russell: It's quite all right if you mean by explaining it, simply finding a cause for it.
Copleston: Well, why stop at one particular object? Why shouldn't one raise the question of the cause of the existence of all particular objects?
Russell: Because I see no reason to think there is any. 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.
Copleston: Well, to say that there isn't any cause is not the same thing as saying that we shouldn't look for a cause. The statement that there isn't any cause should come, if it comes at all, at the end of the inquiry, not the beginning. In any case, if the total has no cause, then to my way of thinking it must be its own cause, which seems to me impossible. Moreover, the statement that the world is simply there if in answer to a question, presupposes that the question has meaning.
Russell: No, 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.
Copleston: Then you would agree with Sartre that the universe is what he calls "gratuitous"?
Russell: Well, the word "gratuitous" suggests that it might be something else; I should say that the universe is just there, and that's all.
In other words, asks Russell, why must we suppose there is an explanation for the fact that the universe exists? Maybe the existence of the universe is simply a “brute fact” (a fact with no explanation at all).
Read the debate and listen to it at:
One Reply to Russell
In response to this line of argument, some philosophers appeal to a principle they call the Principle of Sufficient Reason ( "PSR" for short). Here is one way to express the principle: “For every truth, there is a sufficient reason or explanation for its being true.” We presuppose this principle, or something very much like it, in common sense and in our everyday reasoning. For instance, suppose you leave your textbook on your desk and go to another room for a moment. When you return, your book is gone. Would you shrug your shoulders and suppose there is just no explanation? Or would you suppose there's an explanation for the fact that your book has disappeared? Suppose the person in the next seat suggests that the book simply vanished into thin air for no reason at all. Would you accept this “explanation”?
Some philosophers have argued that the PSR is a necessary truth—a principle that could not possibly be false. Others have argued that PSR is a presupposition of all rational thought. However, neither claim has been established to the satisfaction of all philosophers. Nevertheless, many philosophers have argued for PSR. The philosopher Alexander Prus (Baylor University) has recently written a book length defense of the principle. It is also difficult to make sense of the denial of PSR.
The Aardvark Argument
James Trefil, a physicist and the author of a number of excellent science books for the general reader, has written:
Since the discovery of the expansion of the universe in the 1920's, one goal of cosmology has been to trace the history of the universe—in effect, to run the film backward until we can see and understand how the universe came into being.
Some have wondered: If we trace the history of the universe back far enough, perhaps we will arrive at a point where the whole thing just popped into existence out of absolutely nothing, for absolutely no reason. At one moment, nothing existed and at the next moment, the universe simply "popped" into existence out of nothing. In Reason to Believe, the philosopher Richard Purtill (Western Washington University) calls this hypothesis the "pop theory.” Some have advocated this hypothesis as a nontheistic explanation for the existence of the universe. For instance, the contemporary philosopher Quentin Smith (Western Michigan University), who stated in a debate on the existence of God: "The most reasonable belief is that we have come from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing.”
Does the “pop” hypothesis actually explain why an enormous universe exists? Does it offer an explanation for the existence of the universe? Suppose you walk into class one day and find a baby aardvark sitting on top of your desk. What would be your first thought? You would probably ask: Why is a cute baby aardvark sitting on my desk? Suppose the person in the next seat were to reply:
The aardvark just popped into existence out of absolutely nothing, for no reason. It wasn't born. Nothing caused it to come into existence. It has no cause whatsoever. One instant there was nothing on your desk, and the next instant a baby aardvark was sitting there. Call this the “Baby aardvark hypothesis.”
Would this explain why the aardvark exists? Would this make sense of the aardvark's existence? Or would it leave the existence of the aardvark completely unexplained? Likewise, does Smith’s “pop” theory make sense of the existence of the cosmos? Does it explain why the universe exists?
“Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit”
Many philosophers have held that it is impossible that something come to be out of absolutely nothing. The principle that “Nothing comes from nothing” has been asserted and defended by philosophers since ancient times. It has also had its critics, of course. In the Middle Ages the principle was translated into the Latin expression by which it is known today: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit. If it is true that “nothing comes from nothing,” then it is impossible that something pops into being out of absolutely nothing, and the pop theory is an impossible hypothesis. But is the principle true? How can we know? These are among the great questions of philosophy. Here is one argument for the principle that nothing comes from nothing.
- For any x, x cannot come into existence unless it is at least logically possible that x exists.
- If absolutely nothing were to exist, then there would be absolutely no possibility of anything existing, and hence no possibility of anything coming into existence, since a possibility is a something, not a nothing.
- Therefore, Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit.
It is rational, when seeking to explain something, to seek the best explanation of the phenomenon in question. This is the driving force behind scientific discovery. This is the driving force in the courtroom when juries try to figure out the best explanation of the evidence gathered at a crime scene. It is part of everyday common-sense reasoning. And it is also the driving force behind all versions of the cosmological argument. Suppose we have canvassed all the possible explanations, and only one hypothesis succeeds in making sense of the phenomenon in question. This hypothesis is then the best explanation we have. But this is a good reason to accept the hypothesis as probably true. Does the hypothesis of God, or a necessary being, offer the only logical explanation of the existence of the physical universe? If so, then it is reasonable to conclude that God, or a necessary being, exists and is the cause of the existence of the cosmos. If not, then the hypothesis of God’s existence is not reasonable. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates argued that a serious commitment to the philosophical life means following reasoning to its logical conclusion whether or not one likes the conclusion. Your job, as a philosopher, is to decide which view has the best arguments, which position makes the most reasonable case. In short, follow the reasoning to its logical conclusion.
1 By the material universe I shall mean “the sum total of all matter in existence,” and by matter I simply mean “that which physics studies and can, in principle study, thus energy, fields, particles in space-time such as quarks, protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and so on, and things composed of such.”
2 David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (New York: Library of Liberal Arts, 1947).
3 William J. Wainwright, Philosophy of Religion 2nd ed. (Belmont California: Wadsworth Publishing, 1998).
4 Quoted in Margenau, H. and Varghese, R. A. Cosmos, Bios, and Theos. (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1992.), 14.
5 David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (New York: Library of Liberal Arts, 1947).