The cosmological argument for God.
The cosmological argument is a formidable argument for the existence of God. It’s not a single argument but a family of arguments with a similar theme. While there are several different versions of the argument, it’s unfortunately one of the most misunderstood.
This is a vast topic, but in this article, I’d like to give an outline of the general form of cosmological arguments. I’ll also outline some of the most common objections that are based on misunderstandings of the argument.
The cosmological argument isn’t competing with scientific cosmology theories
The most egregious misunderstanding is that we’re dealing with a scientific cosmology theory. The cosmological argument isn’t explaining the mechanics of how the universe came into existence from some prior state. It isn’t in competition with the Big Bang or any scientific theory. It’s metaphysics, not physics. Philosophy, not science.
It’s understandable to assume it’s a cosmology theory because of its name and the topic is the origin of the universe. But the name comes from the style of argumentation. The argument takes as it’s starting point the existence of the cosmos, and infers from the fact the cosmos exists, that God must also exist.
Each version does this in a slightly different way, but all the versions argue on the same basis of cause and effect.
If everything has a cause, then what caused God?
This is the second egregious misunderstanding. The theist starts from the common sense notion: For every effect, there must be a cause. This is an overly simplified way of stating the principle of sufficient reason (PSR).
There are many variations on the exact formulation the PSR takes, there are entire books on the subject. But none of the variations have the form: Everything must have a cause.
This misunderstanding of the PSR is surprisingly widespread and persistent. It’s even perpetuated in some well-educated sources.
In the article “A Curious Blindspot in the Anglo-American Tradition of Antitheistic Argument”, the author Norris-Clarke traces the misconception to David Hume and gives a few examples of it appearing in otherwise high quality philosophical sources. It’s found stated explicitly in Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian”:
“If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so there cannot be any validity in that argument.”
Bertrand Russell is a well-respected and influential philosopher, so this is a remarkable oversight. But regardless of the source of his confusion, if this was an accurate presentation of the causal principle the cosmological argument relied on, the skeptics would be right to mock it. But this version of the casual principle is the creation of skeptics, not theists.
There are versions of the PSR which on a superficial reading could be misunderstood as saying everything has a cause. One commonly quoted version of the PSR attributed to Leibniz is “Everything which exists has an explanation of its existence”. But explanation in this context is a much broader conception of cause. Since the cosmological argument does provide us with an explanation of God’s existence, the criticism is still misguided.
If no cosmological argument says that everything has a cause, what do they say?
This is where the topic becomes more complex, and we find variations in the conceptual framework each argument uses. We can give a rough idea of the form each argument takes.
The three most prominent versions are Leibniz’s contingency argument which says: Everything contingent must have a cause.
Aquinas’s argument from motion says: Whatever is moved, is moved by something else. Potentiality is only moved by actuality.
William Lane Craig’s Kalam argument says: Everything that begins to exist must have a cause.
While the details become technical and are beyond the scope of this article, a familiar analogy can help to explain the general type of inference used by all of them.
A familiar analogy of the inference
In modern physics scientists theorize that dark matter must exist. No one has observed dark matter directly, but scientists think it must exist because of the characteristics of other things they do observe. They calculate the observable mass in various cosmological contexts, and compare that result with how much mass there should be according to the strength of the gravitational force.
It turns out there isn’t enough matter to explain the movement of the observable mass. For the observations to be correct given what we know about the strength of the gravitational force, there should be a lot more mass than we observe.
This is the reason they give a non-specific placeholder name, dark matter, to this somewhat mysterious phenomena. It is dark (no one has observed it) and it is matter (has mass). Scientists can calculate how much dark matter there should be and give some information about it. Its name is a placeholder for the properties we know it must have, but lacks specifics because of lack of information.
The inference scientists use is like the inference in the cosmological argument. From observations of the nature of things which exist in the cosmos, it’s inferred another phenomena must exist, even though it hasn’t been directly observed.
The cosmological argument does much the same thing. Those observations are that the cosmos “exists contingently” or “moves from potential to actual” or “begins to exist”. We can understand the word God to describe the first cause as like the placeholder dark matter. It tells us the relevant properties for the context, but leaves out many details.
The cosmological argument doesn’t prove the God of any religion exists
It’s often said the argument doesn’t show the existence of any religion’s conception of God, or even God with any characteristic other than the causal feature of existing of necessity.
This is completely true. But it’s also completely irrelevant.
The cosmological argument doesn’t try to tell us anything else. This is like objecting the inference to dark matter doesn’t tell us what that dark matter is or anything more about it. True, but that isn’t a reason to doubt the validity of the inference dark matter exists. It means more work is needed to provide further details about dark matter or God.
This is also a courageous line of argument for the non-theist to pursue. It’s not rejecting the conclusion that God exists, it’s only objecting the theist hasn’t told us everything about what the word God means.
To accept the conclusion of the cosmological argument lands the non-theist in dangerous territory because they’ve admitted a non-natural cause exists. They’ve not only admitted the cosmological argument succeeds, they’ve also admitted naturalism is false. And while many non-theists like to point out non-theism doesn’t entail a commitment to naturalism, in practical terms it most often does.
Is the argument guilty of special pleading?
Another common complaint is the argument commits the logical fallacy of special pleading. Special pleading occurs when a rule is made, and then an unjustified exception is made to the rule. If a cosmological argument did say everything needs a cause — except God, that would be a textbook example of special pleading. But we’ve already noted the cosmological argument doesn’t say everything needs a cause, and so none of them also go on to make an exception to that rule.
Why can’t the first cause be the universe?
This objection is common, and we find it in Russell’s quote:
If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God.
Despite this objection being primarily motivated by a misunderstanding of the PSR, we can explore if it can succeed once we correct the PSR. The response will depend on the version of the argument.
Leibniz’s argument says everything contingent requires a cause. Contingent is a term used in modal logic and refers to something which can possibly not exist. This is in contrast with non-contingent or necessary, which refers to something which it’s impossible for it not to exist. The conclusion of Leibniz’s argument is the first cause has the property of necessary existence.
But from observations of the properties of the universe, we find it’s contingent. There is no logical contradiction in assuming the universe never existed at all. There is also no physical contradiction if the universe never existed. There is no law of physics that necessitates physical things must exist. The laws of physics only apply to something that already exists.
All this just means, the universe is contingent. And if the universe is contingent, then according to Leibniz, it has a cause. Which means it doesn’t have the requisite properties the first cause requires.
For Aquinas this idea the first mover could be the universe is irrelevant. Whether the universe is created or eternal, Aquinas argument is unaffected. Aquinas is arguing for a constantly sustaining cause. A fully actual being, without potentiality at all. The universe doesn’t have those properties. Each change of physical state is a change from potential to actual.
The Kalam says everything that begins to exist has a cause. Which means if the universe began to exist it also needs a cause, so we haven’t reached our foundation. This would leave us in the situation of turtles all the way down, or an infinite regress of causes.
Whatever else we can say about the causal foundation, the Kalam framework requires it be something that “didn’t begin to exist”. Kalam argues this on the basis that an infinite temporal regress is impossible because an actual infinite is impossible.
Even if we assume Kalam is wrong and the argument fails, this doesn’t establish the universe is the first cause. It only means Kalam is unsuccessful.
It also has no impact on either Leibniz or Aquinas’s versions of the argument, both of which are compatible with an eternal universe. To say the universe is eternal gives us no further information about why it exists, it only tells us how long it has existed.
Virtual particles are uncaused which means the PSR is false
This is a misunderstanding of the argument. The cause referred to in these arguments is something on which their existence depends, not a change from one material state to another.
Virtual particles may pop into existence randomly, but they aren’t uncaused. Their existence depends on the existence of the background quantum fields. If the fields didn’t exist, neither would the particles. The fields are the cause, or reason the virtual particles exist. Whether science can explain when and how they pop into existence has no relevance to the cosmological argument.
Science may not know the answer now, but in the future it will explain why the universe exists
This is a category error. Science can’t answer this question. The problem isn’t a lack of knowledge, the question is outside the scope of the scientific method so even a complete theory of physics wouldn’t give an answer.
For science to explain something, it needs to already exist. Science explains why one physical state causes another, but it cannot explain where those physical states came from, or why there is some physical states rather than no physical states.
Scientific explanations consist of descriptions of physical properties. But for something to have physical properties, it must already exist. All physical events and causes are within the history of nature. But the question is about the possibility of such a history in the first place. Science can say nothing about it.
The details of particular versions of the cosmological argument are beyond the scope of this article. This is an overview of the general line of argument and why the most common objections are misunderstandings. I haven’t mentioned any of the objections which can be taken seriously. To do that requires focusing on the specifics of the version of the argument.
My goal is to clear up the most common misunderstandings that dominate the popular discussion. Many skeptics are overly confident of their criticisms of the arguments for God. This in turn causes them to resort to mockery as if there is nothing of substance that deserves a serious response.
This overconfidence happens because they misunderstand the arguments and are only mocking superficial caricatures of their own creation. This is not only an embarrassment to skeptics, it devalues their contribution. Criticism from skeptics is a valuable contribution, but only if that criticism is well informed.