We are going to look at the well known argument for the existence of God - the Cosmological Argument. The word ‘cosmological’ comes from the Greek word ‘kosmos’ which refers to something of the world. In these arguments, we move from observable facts to the existence of ‘God’. We look at the world around us, look at creation and how things function within that world, and then conclude from this that there must be something which brought that world about. The key feature of the world is CONTINGENCY, that is to say, that everything relies on something else for either its movement or its own existence. The arguments move from contingency to the existence of a Necessary God. It is important to note from the outset where the arguments want to arrive at, and where you think they actually arrive at. For instance, the purpose of the argument, you may think, is to arrive at a God. But as you know, there is more than one notion of God. There is the Judeo-Christian God, there is a philosophical god of Deism, there is a vague ‘Higher Power’ or there is also simply an ‘X’, a mysterious entity [see right].
These arguments are also known as ‘a posteriori’ arguments. This means that we argue from the effects to a cause. The truth of each statement is dependent upon experience, i.e. the actual world. So, the statement: ‘That is a dog’ depends upon whether what you see before you is a dog or a pen. It doesn’t actually matter which it is, but only that the truth depends upon the fact that you can look at the world in order to find out what it is like. This is in contrast to an argument which is based on the idea of God, which is known as an ‘a priori’ argument. Something which is ‘a priori’ will not depend upon the world of experience, but whether it is logically true or possible. So the statement 2+2=4, is often argued to be dependent upon how we use the numbers, not on whether it is true or not in the world. Think of it this way, you don't check the truth of 2+2=4 by running around counting things. The truth is in the idea itself.
Aristotle (BCE 384-322) formulated his argument in his books The Physics and The Metaphysics:
The argument itself moves towards a ‘Mover’ who is something outside of time. Aristotle’s conclusion is a ‘Mover’ who not only is the source of all motion, but towards whom all motion tends.
The argument depends largely on the idea of Contingency. Something that is contingent, is something that is dependent upon something else. In premise 2, the argument states that all things which are in motion are moved by something else, and therefore nothing is the cause of its own motion and therefore everything is dependent or contingent upon something else.
Aristotle makes some assumptions that modern science would deny. The "heavenly bodies" (planets, moons, stars) do not in fact move in perfectly circular orbits. Also, as far as we can tell, they have not been there "eternally". This shows up the nature of a posteriori arguments - they are based on experience of the world and increasing experience (such as provided by science) can make an argument redundant by showing one of the premises to be flat-out wrong. Nonetheless, the main thrust of Aristotle's argument survives, since the universe is in motion (in fact, scientists tell us it's expanding all the time), just not the particular type of motion Aristotle had in mind.
Plato in The Timaeus uses the Cosmological argument to arrive at his Demiurge (Creator of the universe), but it was Aristotle’s argument that has had the most influence since it was used by Aquinas. Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover was in no way a personal God, like the Christian God: it was simply the ultimate cause of the Universe. They did not conclude with a Christian Creator-God; they were centuries years before Christianity arrived on the scene.
Islamic and Jewish philosophers used this argument in the early Middle Ages. Al-Farabi and Avicenna (Ibn-Sina, right) proposed the famous Kalam Argument,:
This is an a posteriori argument that moves from an observation about the world (that it began to exist) to the conclusion that it must have a cause. It is ‘a posteriori’ in that its truth depends upon this observation. If the ‘fact’ of the universe having a beginning is true (we might use the Big Bang as an example) and if the logic of the argument is valid and true, then the conclusion must be true.
Evaluation of the argument depends upon our scientific knowledge, e.g. #2 might be true or false depending on whether the universe did indeed begin in time. The Big Bang Theory may one day be proved false but at the moment science agrees with the Kalam Argument that the past is finite and the universe did indeed begin to exist at some point (about 14 billion years ago). This is a recent view (from the 1920s) and science might overturn it if evidence turns up that that there have been other universes before this one, perhaps an infinite number of universes, with each ending in a Big Crunch followed by a Big Bang that kickstarts a new universe...
On the other hand, modern science might object to point #1. Quantum physics seems to show that, on a sub-atomic level, particles come into existence in a completely uncaused way. Of course, science is always progressing and might one day discover underlying causes for the quantum behaviour of sub-atomic particles which currently seem to be uncaused. Also, this strange quantum behaviour has only been observed in artficial lab conditions and there's no way of knowing whether sub-atomic particles have a general tendency to pop into existence of their own accord. However, as things stand at the moment, there is some scientific evidence that things can begin to exist without a cause. This is a serious problem for the Kalam Argument, but the jury's still out.
The Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has championed the Kalam Argument, adding more levels to the argument to show that the ultimate cause of the universe must be a Being (as opposed to a force or mechanism), that it makes sense to regard this Being as uncaused and to link this Being with the God of traditional religion. Craig's views are quite controversial and many people are unconvinced that an uncaused God can be introduced into an argument to explain how the universe came to be caused - this sounds like "special pleading", which means adding something into an argument to make it come up with the conclusion that you want it to.
Thomas Aquinas (who takes his arguments from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle) has 5 arguments for the existence of God. The first 3 are cosmological arguments. The Arguments are:
Note also that the conclusion, since it is based on Aristotle, who of course did not believe in a Christian God, is far removed from the personal and Trinitarian God of Christianity. This led Blaise Pascal to distinguish between ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - not the God of the philosophers’.
It's worth looking in more detail at Aquinas' third argument, or "Third Way" as it is called. The version above is very simplistic. Aquinas' actual argument breaks down like this:
First, a common misunderstanding. Aquinas is not trying to work backwards through time to a creator-god who set the whole show in motion - that's what the Kalam Argument does. Instead he's teasing out the idea of DEPENDENCY. Everything we know about in the universe is either non-existent, coming into existence, existing or being destroyed. Nothing seems to exist "for itself" or "in its own right". But Aquinas realises that if everything was utterly dependent for its existence on something outside itself, pretty soon we'd reach a state of affairs where nothing existed at all. Clearly that hasn't happened, because here we are! So Aquinas suggests that there must be something that exists NECESSARILY, that cannot not-exist, and which everything else depends on.
Because this is an a posteriori argument, it is easily attacked by pointing to features in the real world and, like Aristotle before him, Aquinas was of course ignorant of modern science, particularly the Principle of Conservation of Energy, which states that matter and energy may change states but never actually cease to exist. This denies Aquinas' point #2. When Aquinas thinks of everything not existing, he is thinking of there being no material objects or life. However, modern science suggests there will still be energy which might become matter again one day. This is a weakness for Aquinas' argument, but the argument is not entirely ruined. Modern science theorises that one day the universe will experience "heat death". This is a state where there is no free thermodynamic energy and no change, motion or life is possible. The existence of a necessary Being might explain why this hasn't happened yet. Nevertheless, we should remember that Aquinas' thought belongs to a pre-scientific age and, for a posteriori arguments, that can be a real problem.
In points #5 and #6 Aquinas goes onto to discuss created or uncreated necessary beings. This will be confusing for many modern people, but reflects Aquinas' own culture. He is talking here about angels, demons and the stars and planets (things that were believed to be immortal in his time). Couldn't they be the necessary beings on whom the universe depends? Many modern philosophers who discuss the Cosmological Argument, such as F.C. Copleston, simply skip these steps in the argument. Aquinas considers whether the necessary beings might be powerful supernatural agents like this, but of course this raises the question of where they came from. If they were created, then where did their creators come from? And so on, into infinity. If this seems an odd thought, remember that medieval Christians believed in a whole hierarchy of angels, going up through Archangels to Powers and Dominions with Cherubim and Seraphim at the top. Earlier pagans like Aristotle believed that the gods were all children of Zeus, but Zeus was the child of the titan Kronos, and Kronos was the son of Ouronos, and so on.
Aquinas argues that you either have an uncaused necessary Being, a Being who caused all the other immortals to exist, or else you have an infinite regression of immortals going on forever. Aquinas points out that the infinite series is an unsatisfactory answer, because you can always ask "Where did the infinite series come from? What caused that?" Aquinas is left with the only alternative: an uncaused Being that is de re necessary, upon which everything else depends for its existence, but which owes its own existence to nothing else outside itself. This, Aquinas concludes, is God.
This last part of all cosmological arguments is often the most difficult to defend. The conclusion of the argument can more easily be understood as a Something which starts a chain of reactions off, or a Something upon which everything is continually dependent. To move to that Something as a ‘personal’ thing (a Being who can be related to on a personal level), or the Christian God, is often a step too far. For this reason, many criticise the Cosmological Arguments.
We now turn to Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), who was a very important German philosopher and mathematician, who had his own version of the cosmological argument. He supports the argument, and rejects the idea that there can be an infinite regress, on the grounds that it would not give us a Sufficient Reason. Leibniz thought that there should be a complete or total explanation for everything. The world demands an ultimate explanation. This is Leibniz's "Principle of Sufficient Reason" (PSR). In actual fact, people are often content with "proximate reasons". Leibniz uses the example of an imaginary book:
‘Suppose the book of the elements of geometry to have been eternal, one copy always having been written down from an earlier one. It is evident that even though a reason can be given for the present book out of a past one, we should never come to a full reason. What is true of the books is also true of the states of the world. If you suppose the world eternal you will suppose nothing but a succession of states and will not find any of them a sufficient reason.’
Leibniz is asking us to imagine a book with accurate mathematics in it. If we ask "Where did it come from?" we can be given a proximate reason for the book's existence: it's a reprint of an earlier edition. We can keep on seeking proximate reasons: the first print of the book was copied from a medieval manuscript; the manuscript was copied from a Roman scroll; the scroll was copied from a clay tablet in ancient Egypt; the tablet was copied from cave paintings; and so on and so on. Leibniz points out that the proximate reasons never really answer our question, now matter how far back we go, because the question "Where did it come from?" is looking for a SUFFICIENT REASON - we want to know why this body of knowledge exists, how all of these books came to be, why the sequence of copying-and-recopying as a whole exists.
Using the PSR, Leibniz suggests the following cosmological argument for the existence of God:
For Leibniz, scientific explanations are proximate reasons for the way the world is; they explain the universe by referring to its earlier states. The religious question is why the-Whole-Show exists, which is looking for a Sufficient Reason. And of course, the only sufficient reason is God.
Of course, many critics have objected to the PSR, arguing that not everything has to have a sufficient reason. In effect, maybe the universe just exists as a brute fact and there is no further explanation to be found. If this sounds a bit simplistic, consider that "God" is supposed to just exist - there is no proximate or sufficient reason for God's existence other than God himself. So if the PSR doesn't apply to God, maybe it shouldn't apply to the universe either...
In the 20th century, F.C. Copleston reformulated the argument, based in Aquinas’ Third Way.
Note that, just like Aquinas' Third Way, the argument emphasises DEPENDENCY. The strength of Copleston’s argument is that it doesn’t get bogged down in whether there is an infinite series or not and certainly doesn't ponder choirs of angels or the gods of Mount Olympus. His key question is: whether, since things clearly depend on other things, you have to look outside the universe to find something that everything depends on.
Copleston is also incorporating Leibniz's idea of a Sufficient Reason, since he's looking for a reason for the existence of the universe as a whole that goes beyond just the proximate reasons that explain all the individual things in the universe - people and plants and planets and plankton. Copleston is asking, why does the Whole Show exist? Why is there something, rather than nothing?
Copleston produced his cosmological argument in a now-legendary 1948 radio debate with the great atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell. You can read the debate here. Interestingly, Russell refused to be led to Copleston's conclusions by taking issue with the whole idea of contingency and dependency - he refused to use those words! Russell argued there was no reason for the universe’s existence and it was therefore pointless trying to find a reason for it. He was basically denying that there has to be a reason for everything and, you might feel, this is a rather un-philosophical argument to make. Copleston criticised Russell’s approach by saying 'If one refuses to even sit down at the chess board and make a move, one cannot, of course, be checkmated'.
Russell did produce a very clever criticism of Copleston's argument, by suggesting the cosmological argument only seems to work because of a confusion of language. Coplestone's argument moves from the reason behind things within the universe to the reason behind the universe as a whole. Russell declared this was an illogical step to make. Think about it: just because every human being has a mother, it does not follow logically that humanity as a species has a mother. It's a bit like saying that, since individual chickens come from eggs, all the chickens in the world must come from one giant egg! This is similar to a criticism made originally by David Hume, who pointed out that we have no experiences of universes being made, so it's not logically correct to move from noticing that things within the universe having causes to the conclusion that the whole universe must have a cause.
The cosmological arguments are very persuasive and, though they have been heavily criticised, they continue to be debated by philosophers. All the different arguments, in one way or another, insist that the universe and everything in it requires some sort of explanation and that the explanation must go beyond just pointing out the scientific cause behind this thing or that. In a sense, it boils down to the view that it's a very odd thing that the universe should be here at all! Some people are very struck by the contingency of everything in the universe and the idea of some non-contingent, necessary power behind it all seems very plausible to them. Other people are unmoved by the idea of contingency and feel happy to assert that the universe "just is" and that's all there is to say about it.
There are some main criticisms that can be levelled against every version of the cosmological argument: